In 2020, I was struggling to negotiate my academic work (teaching remotely online and finishing the production process for a new book) while homeschooling three children and mourning the loss of a dear friend. Lockdown was challenging but I recognised my position as one of real privilege – I still had a job, my kids had all the tech they needed, we could pay the bills and had access to outside space. Those privileges were even more apparent in the letters I exchanged with a friend, an artist who has generously allowed me to use his painting for the cover of my forthcoming book. He was in actual lockdown, as Covid-19 ran like wildfire through the prison in which he has been held for decades. I couldn’t complain that the police were harassing people for sitting on park benches when he was double-celled in a situation of what the abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls ‘organised abandonment’ and outright violence.
There have been thousands of think-pieces about lockdown. But none I’ve seen were written by imprisoned people. (If you’ve seen some, let us know in the comments.) Abolitionist activists have published dispatches from inside about the conditions in prisons during the pandemic. But no one thought to draw on the knowledge imprisoned people can share, about what it means to be locked down, about how to survive the existential crisis and the passing of dead time. No one asked imprisoned people to share their expertise. Why not?
Maybe the reasons are obvious. Reading those perspectives would embarrass those of us who continued to enjoy the freedom to move, consume, socialise, go outside. It would hold up for unpleasant scrutiny the privileges we mask behind the language of privation. Few mainstream media outlets would stop to think of prisons as sites of generalisable knowledge – what Dennis Childs calls the ‘subterranean poetics, politics, and epistemics’ produced and circulated by networks on both sides of the walls. And tapping into that knowledge for the profit of readers locked down at home might also reveal how dependent those readers are on the violence of the prison industrial complex. As Dylan Rodríguez has argued, ‘the charade of “collaboration” reproduces the violent condition of its genesis, for there would have been no (alleged) collaboration absent the existence of the imprisonment regime.’ Rather than just consulting with incarcerated people about how to endure lockdown, we should be dismantling the carceral state.
These ambivalent relationships between scholarship and carcerality are central to the book I’ve just written, entitled Poetry and Bondage: A History and Theory of Lyric Constraint. The book explores the history of lyric constraint, both metaphorical and actual. It starts from the observation that poets have for centuries compared the experience of writing verse to being in bondage: fetters, chains, slavery, imprisonment. But as I began researching the book, I realised how often the metaphor of bondage effaces material and political relationships between poetry and actual bondage. As with ‘lockdown’, these metaphors privilege the solitude or constraints experienced by privileged individuals in their creative lives, while obscuring the contributions of bound, enslaved and imprisoned people to the history and theorisation of the lyric.
By tracing the metaphor and reality of bondage across a history of lyric from Ovid through the present day, I offered a different perspective on the synonymity of lyric and humanness which recurs throughout literary history – in which the capacity to write poetry in conditions of extreme suffering is repeatedly taken as proof of the endurance of human freedom. For example, in a recent edition of Poetry magazine featuring work by incarcerated writers, Tara Betts makes the point in her editorial that ‘The contributors, who are often no longer perceived as people in the non-incarcerated world, are indeed human.’ That we need the evidence of a poem to persuade us that an imprisoned person is human tells us much more about the violence and limitations of our reality than any metaphor could.