Students, formerly incarcerated people publish book of creative works

A performing and media arts class composed of Cornell students and formerly incarcerated people has produced a book of their writings, exploring their own stories and their discoveries about each other.

“Moments Before the Silence” contains poems, artwork, devised theater pieces and essays from the class, Performing RE-Entry, which met in the fall semester, with students and Professor Bruce Levitt working to finish the book this semester.

“This process is about learning how to tell your story and to be confident in that story,” Levitt said. “When you teach a class like this, you have to be prepared to live in the mess. It’s not a neat process or a highly structured process and the outcomes aren’t evident in the beginning.”

The class was created and held for the first time in the fall of 2020 as a way for students and formerly incarcerated people to interact with and learn from each other as they  participate in the creative process. That first class produced a film, “Confinements” which was shown in April 2021.

This academic year, class members began the semester by interviewing each other and asking questions about their life journeys. Levitt gave prompts to initiate discussions on issues ranging from childhood memories to family lives, from economic insecurity to moral challenges. Those discussions prompted people to create written pieces, either by themselves or in pairs, Levitt said.

“It’s all centered on who you are and the larger issue of what it means to be a human being,” Levitt said. “It’s not essential where you come from, but what does matter is that the other people in the class gain a perspective that they don’t have.”

Class member Norm Harris was released from prison in 2021 after earning two collegiate credentials through Cornell’s Prison Education Program (CPEP).

“Writing is cathartic,” he said. “It feels great to release hidden tension via pen and pad."

In addiiton, Harris said class members discovered commonalities. “Cornell students suffered from some of the same afflictions that I had, such as insecurity and unstable upbringings,” he said. “I needed a sense of belonging. And CPEP and Professor Bruce Levitt gave me an opportunity.”

Mar Buquez ’23, a government major with a concentration in carceral studies, plans to pursue a career in carceral justice.

“Since day one, we found opportunities to relate with one another, grow with one another, and to connect in a way that felt intrinsically ‘human,’ perhaps aided by the desire to create that we all shared,” he said.  “There is no one who deserves more thanks than the adult members of our class, who were never afraid to share both the good and the bad in their art, allowing us all to let go of our initial inhibitions and form connections on a deeper level than I could’ve imagined.”

man's image being erased from a mirror
Christel Robinson Artwork from Christel Robinson and Wanda Field appears throughout the book.

To begin each section of the book, class members Christel Robinson ’24 and Wanda Field ‘23 contributed artwork focused on the topics, from food to family relationships.

“Originally, I was nervous about not being able to contribute. I didn’t have any direct connection to the issue of incarceration; I didn’t know any family members who are imprisoned and I’ve never been in trouble with the police,” Robinson said. “I didn’t feel like I had the right to speak or contribute in a lot of cases because my experiences have looked so different from others in the room, even other students. But I slowly realized that that very notion limited my view of those who have formerly been incarcerated.”

Levitt said he hopes the book offers insights into the lives of the class participants.

“It’s illuminating to know what these students have experienced in their lives already, and its transformative for them to understand the life journeys of their formerly incarcerated collaborators who, themselves, gain additional confidence in their return home because of  the partnership with the undergraduates,” he said. “You can see how nourishing this process is to both cohorts. They have a lot to offer each other.”

A limited number of copies of the book are available from Levitt – contact him at bal5@cornell.edu.

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