We Read Prison Mail

October 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

The New New Yorker
by Courtney Hilden

The first thing they had me do at my internship was read about my internship. My cubicle was decorated with a welcome note, promo stuff from the press, an introductory guide and a catalog. I read the guide first, which answered several questions. I looked through the catalog. I already had a good sense of what this press published because I had combed through their online catalog in preparation for the letter I initially wrote them and twice more in preparation for the interview I gave.
They had me open and answer their prison mail. Because this press publishes books on prison abolition and other related topics, letters occasionally came in from prisoners looking for information about books we publish and about other groups who give free or cheap books to prisons.
Three letters in, it occurred to me that I was doing something that I already had some experience with. When I interviewed for The Red Cedar Review, I had noted that there was a sign on their bulletin board that said “We Read Prison Mail.” What a strange in-joke, I thought. Turns out it wasn’t so much a joke as the truth: prison mail was one of the things that the review commonly received, mostly in the form of poetry submissions. You could tell they were from prisons because they were often stamped, asserting they had been searched, and were always hand-written. (Almost all our other submissions came typed, though this was never a requirement.)
In my entire time at the review, we never once published anyone currently incarcerated. I read some of those submissions, and none of the ones I read were the sort of poetry we publish. My friend and future editor Emily commented at one point that, really, it was too bad that none of these submitters were writing creative nonfiction, because she could think of few more interesting things than a piece about what it is like to be in prison. Answering this mail now for my internship entailed sending catalogs, a guide to forthcoming books, information about other people who give books to prisoners, and, in a rare case where someone requests it, a specific book, if that book is available in our office. (We ship our books from an off-site warehouse, like the vast majority of publishers these days.) Once, one of the submissions at the press offered their entire life story in a letter to us, but none of them did here. I was curious to hear each of their stories too, but mostly I just wanted them to be alright.

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