A love of language and the process of transforming incarcerated people's words into books

Phil Cristman, Editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, shared with us his thoughts on writing, selecting pieces from hundreds of submissions, teaching and his pursuit to understand the Midwest which became a book.
by Fernanda Pires

ANN ARBOR—Since 2013, Phil Christman has served as editor of PCAP’s Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, which showcases the talent and diversity of Michigan's incarcerated writers. He is a writer himself and just finished a book about the Midwest, that will be launched in March. 

PCAP— How has this journey as an editor of the lit review been?

Christman—The lit review has been good to me. It has introduced me to a number of people I'm proud to call friends, a group that includes former and current writers for the Review and former and current volunteers with the journal. I'm proud of the product we put out. Until we hired Cozine Welch as our Managing Editor last year--before that he was one of the most-published writers in the journal's history; he was paroled in 2017--we had no paid employees; he's still the only one. The lit is awfully good for a journal produced by people who work for free. What I'm trying to do now is make the process clear and simple enough that I can be dispensable--setting things up so that a structure is in place and anyone can step in. 

There have been very hard things about it as well. People constantly tell you things that break your heart. There was one guy, a former addict, who wrote for the journal and then, when he'd gotten paroled, he came to our annual reading, and we got along well, so we exchanged some emails and hung out a few times. Then he had one bad day, and he relapsed, overdosed, and died--as suddenly as that. I wrote a tribute to him for the PCAP newsletter, in which I used the word "friend" to describe him. Another guy read this and wrote to me and basically said, "I can't believe you, a university person, would be friends with people like us." 

I ended up writing to him for a while, and then the Michigan Department of Corrections changed their mail policies and made it so that I couldn't really maintain a personal correspondence with anyone anymore--it all has to be work-related. The thing about working with prisoners is that every kind thing you do makes a huge difference, so you have a huge scope for doing good and helping people, but at the same time that can become almost paralyzing--because there is no end to the little kindnesses you could do that could make a person's day totally turn around. So there are tough things about it, as there are, of course, with any activity worth doing.

PCAP—Please, share with us a lit bit about the process of putting together the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing

Christman—Through the school year, the staff meets to read the submissions. Every submission is read five times. A submission that gets a majority of "yes" votes is transcribed; if it gets a majority of "no" votes, it goes to one of the students in my English class called The Writing Process, or to a volunteer, who writes a page of thoughtful feedback aimed at helping the writer improve in general (so not just a critique of that one particular piece). In December, I put all the transcriptions together in a single document, send it to a group of writers for copyediting; I also, of course, give it a look-through myself. I collate everyone's edits and send it to Shon Norman of Dakota West Publishing in Detroit, along with a cover image (a piece of PCAP art). She makes it look awesome. The finished journals ship to us in late February or early March and then we sell it at the art show, at other PCAP events, and at Literati. 

PCAP—What is special about this journal?

Christman—In a way, I want people to think of it as just another literary journal--albeit one that is totally written by prisoners. That is, I want people to know that we're publishing work because a majority of our volunteers think that it's good writing, and not to "give" prisoners "a voice" (a phrase people often use to talk about the journal, in a well-meaning way, but it has always felt wrong to me). (Everybody has a voice; it's just that we don't choose to listen). Some of the writers for the journal care a lot about being good writers, not "good writers for someone in prison." A number of them have said this to me, very specifically, and so I think it's important that I be clear with them and with the staff that that is a goal that we support too.

PCAP—You also teach a class at PCAP that explores editing and revision. What students can learn during this course?
Christman—I love teaching this class. It's a study of the writing process, or the idea of the writing process--the way that thinkers from various periods and traditions have theorized the way writing works, how we come up with stuff to say and a way to shape it. We look at how editors and other second parties have intervened in that process, and ways that that can go awry. The idea is that after examining the act of writing from various angles, students develop enough sensitivity that they can intervene in someone else's process in an intelligent and kind and complex and nuanced way; they prove this by writing thoughtful rejection letters to up to five would-be Review contributors. 

PCAP—Outside PCAP you are also a writer and will soon release the book Midwest Futures. Was your wife's question when moving to Ann Arbor, “What is the Midwest like?,” the beginning of this book idea?

Christman—I think in a general way Ashley (Ashley Lucas) made me more conscious of myself as a Midwesterner, and it was my inability to answer her questions about it that got me started thinking about the topic. She would ask me things about being a Midwesterner and I would be like, "I don't know. Being a Midwesterner is not like being anything. It just is." And I realized after saying this a few times that it was stupid. No Southerner talks like that about being Southern; they have super-strong opinions about what that's like, what that means. So do Canadians about being Canadian, etc. So I wondered what it was about us that made us unable to see ourselves as having shared conditions or traits, that made us see ourselves as these kind of default humans. I had already wanted to learn more about the Midwest because of the influence of the writer Marilynne Robinson, who has invested herself in Midwestern history and culture in a very serious way for a long time. She's my favorite living writer. 

PCAP—Isn't this book only for "Midwesterners", right?

Christman—God, I hope not. The essay that it's based on ("On Being Midwestern," which appeared in The Hedgehog Review in November 2017) went viral enough that I think probably people in other places were interested in what I had to say. Midwest history intersects with national history and provides a way to understand the whole picture better, I think. Part of my research was trying to find where the idea of the Midwest as an especially American part of America came from--there are so many quotes where famous authors or politicians say some variation of this--and I think that phrase is telling: we use the Midwest to imagine what we think America in general is supposed to be. All that history is worth knowing. Also the book is short, so there's that. 

PCAP—How fun was writing about your state? And do you have a favorite chapter?

Christman—I loved writing about utopias--all the weird little forward-looking communes and model societies that got set up all over the American interior in the nineteenth century. This was a big Midwestern thing at that time--you'd develop some crank social theory or weird offshoot of Protestantism and get together a bunch of people who agree with you and just make a town somewhere in all the (stolen) land that was for sale in these six-mile-square lots from the local Land Office, a town where you could test out these new theories of yours. I find people who will do things like that utterly endearing. So my favorite part of writing the book was probably the parts where I talk about those communities. The most famous one in the Midwest is probably Harmony, Indiana, which was founded in the very early nineteenth century by a group of German Pietist religious communist cranks, who wanted to try having no private property and holding all things in common. The thing is, they made it actually a pretty successful town in terms of population and living standards, compared to the surrounding towns, even though their practices flew in the face of all our beliefs about how nobody will work under communism because there are no incentives or whatever. And then, having set up this successful town, they just up and left because their founder, who was in the habit of finding secret messages directed at himself, personally, from the Bible, decided that God was telling them all to move. So then another group of weirdo utopians buys the town from the Rappites, renames it New Harmony, and fails after a few years. The Midwestern novelist/poet/occultist Marguerite Young wrote a lovely book about it, The Angel in the Forest (1945). Another famous Midwestern utopia is the Amana community, which eventually became a company that makes kitchen appliances (!). Personally, I would have been perfectly happy writing a whole book about these kinds of weird places. Maybe I will someday.

Release Date: 09/20/2019
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project