Week four of this year’s Poetry Month series is curated by Caits Meissner, who writes: “all of the writers featured in our final week are either in, or have served time in, jail and/or prison. But I didn’t choose them with the intention to illuminate the experience of incarceration — though many of the essays do, of course — or to advocate for anything other than the poets who spark up their blood. Quite simply, I invited this roster of writers because what I do with my days is think about, commune with and work with writers who share the condition of incarceration. It is part of my commitment to create space for these voices in the wider literary community.” Read the rest of her curatorial statement here. –EM

I met her in a class she was teaching for Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, one of those sampler tutorials on poetry, prose, and memoir.

open/your fist/like a nesting/flower

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Assimilation Bouquet”

A year or so later, Su taught a rather large and serious poetry class, and soon after, a class on elegy and odes that was full of segregation-regulars and me. She was big on checking in with how everyone was doing, interested in all the crappy happenings of our day. Su had a big following after that. All the “bad girls” finally felt heard. Whenever there was a new class posted they would ask me, ‘Is Su teaching? I really liked her.”

Odyssey of what can be carried on bowed shoulders. Prayer is compass & sail. There’s no turning back.

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Duende Essays”

Su often told us we had a lot to offer the world. That we were brave.

Alchemy at the indecent hour; nothing is what it seems… Each flint is a key to a would be flame.

Matter of fact: nothing here is solid… we are the stuff of magma-starseeds.

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Graveyard Shift”

On the last day of class, she gave me a letter. Su wrote all of us letters to encourage us in our writing practice and to thank us for being in her class.

Bulletproof glass is not skin: not porous

nor forgiving. It keeps everything in.

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Fresh off the Boat-Five Sonnets”

Su told me “I don’t think prison made you into a talented writer… I think you always were; prison just gave you a framework/context to tap into your rich potential.” She told me I was an alarming talent. She told me I was generous and kind. My manifesto, my book of my prison experience, is titled from a direct quote by Su. It will be called, The Fuckery of Prison. And no, it’s not done yet, but I know how it will look — its scaffolding and layout and what I will eventually include.

No one ever suspects the young blonde girl who cleans up real nice. Suckers.

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Bodega”

Squids bleed ink — so write it.

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Han”

Perhaps Su was projecting, but how can I not become a better writer with words like that swirling in my head?

The prison librarian sent me a copy of Su’s Bodega early last spring. Surprise. Out of the blue nice. I spent three straight days of my pandemic lockdown reading and rereading her poems — enabling me to admit not everything pandemic was bad.

On special occasions, we’d head to Red Lobster or Sizzler, sit in a vinyl booth,

feel luxurious pretend we were royalty.

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Fresh off the Boat-Five Sonnets”

Two weeks later, MPWW sent me 3 books. Surprise. Out of the blue nice. Bodega was one of the books.

In the throat of the hidden cave, I inhabited

whiteness without retribution.

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Face/Off”

It’s always nice to have your own copy. I plan on getting my Bodega signed. Eventually.

After a few nomadic years, we settled

into a split-level house nestled in a cul-de-sac.

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Face/Off”

And then I wrote a poem about her poems. It looks like this:

Bodega
(after Su Hwang)

Sidewalk chalk lineage
spoken in
urban Asian earworm
24/7
record.

Dry-dipped in paraffin
flammable
smoking waitress of Seoul.
tea leaves
fragments of glass, sumac smelling
ancestors
tiptoe through

Waiting
in tennis shoes. Still
Asian
Street wearing
words stand glisten yell

riots in your
America
beyond counter writing
beyond
girl behind counter
giving back change
Hey you, Kool-Aid moustache
Do you want your change?
shopkeeper’s rice
in my blood
frontier spirit emerges like honed bones

Tell me. I know you
because
Only a couple B&W photographs survive
Flash Forward.
Carry: I’ve never saved anything in my life
travel with backpack
huh. Still heavy.
“diurnal.” Looked it up.
Bell rings.
Sweaty-good Hwang Bodega.

I haven’t seen Su in a while but I know she is out there fighting for me and other writers like me.

Suddenly he opened his eyes, looked straight

into me, land said, I know you. You have a frontier spirit

— Su Hwang, Bodega, “Cancer”

Sometimes love is tying a knot in your throat then taking
it to the grave. Sometimes it’s hoping against hope that
a seed will flower into fable-long after we are gone.

-Su Hwang, Bodega, “Saranghaeyo”

Elizabeth Hawes is the recipient of six national PEN America Prison Writing Awards prizes in poetry, memoir and drama, as well as two Minnesota Broadsides. In 2017, she was chosen by Minnesota Public Radio and the Penumbra Theatre as one of twelve Minnesota writers to contribute to the discussion of My America and MPR’s “Let’s Talk,” and was also nominated through the PEN America program to submit a poem to be part of the Smithsonian’s “Object: My America.” Her pieces have been read at Hamling University readings (2015–2018), and published in the Stillwater Journal (2015–2019). She has been a finalist for PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship, and featured in their PEN Ten interview series. Her writing was co-published in the Asian American Writer’s Workshop’s A World Without Cages and American Theatre Magazine. You can write to Elizabeth at: Elizabeth Hawes, #231–469 1010 West 6th Ave Shakopee, MN 5537

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The Operating System & Liminal Lab is an open access social practice experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and infrastructures founded and facilitated by Elæ Moss with an ever evolving global network of creative collaborators of all disciplines (and species).

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Ren W.

Ren W.

Humours, passion, madman, lover. But mostly tired. Based in Chicago.

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