SEEN is a prison portrait and poetry project. But more importantly, it’s a Minnesota portrait and poetry project. Through photography, video, and written word, we share the poignant brilliance of poets and prose writers in Minnesota state prisons, and work together to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unseen seen. Mass incarceration is dependent upon the ignoring and erasure of the human beings we cage. In collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) and the thoughtful, intelligent, humble, and deeply gifted writers on the inside, WAAC challenges and disrupts mass incarceration by clearing the pathways for people behind bars to have their voices heard, faces seen, and humanity recognized–and for people on the outside to reckon with the inhumanity of our country’s mass incarceration mass disaster.
This page is dedicated to Starlin’s work. For more poets and essayists, check out the SEEN page.
They lay to sleep in the cold darkness
Under the bridge in the city of light
Stagnant water flowed
Content and together
An emerald bridge in twin cities of light
The vodka fire warming their hearts
Content to be together
Runaway children that nobody wanted
Vodka, not fire, could warm their hearts
Selling moments of pleasure for one little sip
The children no one else wanted
Raged at the limits of their world
Pain turns to pleasure with each little sip
They turned lust into love
And laughed at the limits of the world
Not one heard the trolls under the bridge
Taught that lust equates to love
They grasped each other without attachment
Dancing with the trolls under the bridge
One after another they came in the night
They grasped onto each other, attached
Straddling pillars over dark rivers of glass
A knowing smile came in the night
Chased the dark spirits away
Children on a pillar over a river of glass
Each broken heart wanting to be whole
A temporary family holds the darkness away
A summer sun rises alone
In the dawn the cold emerald bridge stood whole
Underneath, they slept in the darkness
The sun watches over the city alone
Home, where the stagnant water flowed below
Excerpt from SOLVENT FUMES
I remember sitting under Hennepin Ave. Bridge surrounded by the handful of other strangers who I called “family.” In reality they were a bunch of other unwanted kids, I remember that this is what we believed at the time. We were drinking vodka while huffing into our lungs the vapors from White-out bottles. As each litter sized bottle of liquid life was nearly finished we could use our teeth to crush the small containers of White-out, squeezing the paint into the bottom of the vodka bottles to mix.
I remember believing this was a good thing. That this family that I had created was something real and substantial. I remember believing that this small group of kids truly understood what love was and that we would protect each other through all that tried to hurt us.
I remember waking up from the dream. The foggy vapor of solvent fumes fading from my mind. I was in my twenties. My mother was telling me that she loves me. I believe that she believes this, and that’s OK, because it makes her happy.
I try to remember where everything went. Where are all those people I once knew? Were they all part of the fog?
I remember yesterday, another day becoming indistinct and fuzzy like the rest of my yesterdays.
I remember them all…each day, writing down a little more, trying not to forget. The smell of solvent fumes. I remember.
Pigments and Colors
Speaking to you, to a stranger, a crowd, faces not my own, hair, eyes – each different.
Yet all watching.
How do they see me?
Melancholy, coffee skin diluted with too much cream, as pale as the inner dough of a corner shop pastry?
Or do the see me as one of them?
Belonging with just the right height, demeanor, attitude, or with just the right tattoos in just the right places?
Signifying work put in, silences kept, beatings taken,
Each microdot, hand burnt tint, needle punched into flesh, reshaping my identity, punched into the skin – not the man.
Taking control of my destiny.
Ink, that has gone to the hole 53 times, not the man, whose spirit is free.
Ink, that has given orders to grown men, not the juvenile offender, the criminal me.
Ink, that has poured out blood down the tiers of Stillwater along the bank of the St. Croix.
Blood puddled in linoleum cracks, staining blemishes in the park buried under the mountain, red blossoms hidden under tons of rock, skin, tattoos.
Tattoos like yours.
Ink, blood – the same color.
How do they see me? Inmate,
convict, prisoner, brother?
Label after label, like the beakers of a science experiment.
Separating us into clear plastic tubes from which we can see each other,
but never truly interact.
How do you see me? You who have been striped-searched, stripped of your dignity, stripped of freedom, stripped pride, stripped of all but the uniquely tinted flesh that your parents have given you. A gift, holding the ink,
pigments, that can never be stripped away.
Ink, an unequitable badge of belonging more encompassing than any external accoutrement.
Labels in ribbons, writings of love, skulls of death, dates of life, hearts, loss; RIP Two Tone, RIP Darvey,
Ink, hours of B-West cell time, shot, a gun, driving on paper in Coon Rapids.
Alone, with the police in a trash covered alley, darkness taking him, taking his blood, his heart, his soul, tattoos fading with the refuse.
O.D’d after release, but got his G.E.D., blank ink spread out over an empty page.
D.O.C. mailed it to his M.O.M.
No one saw him, red skin turning yellow in death. Black Tar, White China, Panda Heroin, mixing black/white tones in a kaleidoscope of suffering, uncaring of who it steals away from us.
Who do they see now? Whose eyes forever closed from the colors of the world?
Silver needles pouring golden intoxicating toxic tonic down thin channels of despair.
Syrup flowed into his tattooed flesh.
The flesh of your cousin, the flesh of your little sister,
the flesh of your fellow “offender”, the flesh of your “fellow”,
Flesh of your friend.
Flesh of your flesh.
How are we to be seen?
Closing our eyes, only the sounds of our voices heard above the cacophony of cell bars,
Body alarms speaking their truths, “Get back, Get Back, GET BACK!”
Walkies screaming, wounded animals
Yin to the Yang of rage in our hearts, demanding to be SEEN!
To be counted, for more than a crime,
More than a label,
Than a series of clandars counting down lost years that fall down our forearms.
For more than an image
Defined on a plastic two by one-eighths inch,
By three by one-eighths
Displaying our identity, as if to some INMATE defines the limit of our being.
Framing who we are! Capturing essence, like the photography of old.
Two by three plastic portrait, not disparaging enough, they have to include the extra one-eighth, remind us of the limits of acceptability: attempt to put us in our place.
One-eighth of a person
One-eighth of a man
One-eighth of a drop of blood,
Canvas hanging one-eighth to far to the left… crooked.
Still a work of ART!
See us! Black, White, Brown, Yellow, as if we are not all creations of the most beautiful pigments on God’s body, GOD’S body, God’s easel.
See us! Each soul, each voice, deserving to be counted.
Count the beats of the hearts in our chests.
Let them count us!
Every man and woman stripped,
by a system refusing to count us except by perpetual addition of another “1” to the state’s tally of indentured servants:
269932, 269933, 269934
Another check for a system wishing we did not exist,
Whose job security depends on our acceptance of a path that leads us to be counted again and again,
23 years, times 365 days, times 6 counts in 24 hours…
70 times they counted me.
70 times I have been SEEN
as less than a HUMAN BEING
Look at ourselves,
The pallet of life.
Past the Berry colored Black
(Some call, “Too black”)
Past the White
(Some call, “Trash”)
Past Soothing Browns
( Some say, “Doesn’t Belong)
The Subtlest of Reds
(They hope no one will miss)
We must see ourselves!
Ink, on our faces.
Ink, on our hands.
Ink, flowing empty pores of incarcerated hearts,
Tattooed hearts, with Mothers, with sisters, brothers,
Sons – written on bodies in the boldest of tones, hues, line, from, shape, COLOR!
Blazing like the sun, of God
Across banners tattooed on necks,
Bekka, Lil’ Chris, Jess
Our sons, daughter, count them all,
for in their names, carved in our skin we are no longer alone.
See them, see me, together, see us for what we are.
Scratched, etched surfaces,
Burned, torn, scuffed canvases.
Creating master pieces of every color.
Deepest of beautiful BLACKS,
most vivid of REDS,
BROWNS the tone of Mother Nature herself.
Mirrors of the eyes, Look!
Canvases full of hope and potential, waiting to be painted.
To be cherished,
Waiting to speak with the loudest of voices.
How will you be seen?
How will you be seen?
Excerpt from ALONE IN A MEMORY
You never wanted to get hit in the nose during one of these beatings because, for some reason, that made things worse. At the sight of blood, either the man would get more excited and hit you more, or he would get worried, or scared, and take that fear out on you. But of course, as a child, I didn’t understand it this way. All I knew was that I had to cover my face and make myself into the tiniest little boy/ball that I possibly could.
I do not know what I expect to be different when I think back on that day. In my memory, the sun is still bright with not a single cloud in the sky. The rest of the day’s events remain obscure. Yet I can see—clear as I can see myself now—SEE that little child, who was me, being kicked in the side of his ribs. And the [bedroom] door is always shut. Why can I not open it? I must have passed through that standard-issue doorway a thousand times before child protective services took me from that household. But in that memory, I cannot make that door open.
It is as if the door is blocking out everything that existed in my childhood before that day. Can doors do that, even in a memory? How long did that door contain the child’s cries? How long does it take for a kid to realize no one is going to come and help him?
When speaking to people about my life, I am often left confused by their responses. Many seem to think that I should be angry at the system, or they sometimes respond how surprised they are that I can still have, “Such a positive attitude.” I really do not know what they expect of me. Like how is it surprising to people that I can still smile, be happy, and have hope? When people comment on how I SHOULD feel I am always reminded of the day I was sentenced by a judge to 38 years in prison.
He spoke from his bench, telling the court, and me, how disgusted he was that I did not show any emotion. While all I could think of, in my hyper-medicated state, was that I was told by the officers that I wasn’t allowed to speak. The truth is that he never asked me how I felt. Not once–no one did. Inside I was breaking down–for myself as well as for the life I stole. But he–a judge and a grown man–and me–another juvenile cog in the system–never spoke. Yes–this pissed me off, then. But I have seen first-hand that I was not special nor unique in that thousands of others have been handed the short end of the stick by a system that is broken. So how is it that I am no longer angry at the disparities inherent in this justice system? At myself for making such a huge and terrible choice in life? It was not easy.
From that day, 23 years ago, I spent almost a decade raging against anyone and anything that stood in front of me. You can only bang your skull against a brick wall for so long, though. Eventually, you are either dead or you become so dazed and confused that you have to question what it is that you are doing to yourself, or to the people and the world around you. Those who truly know me–who “speak” with me–know this is where my character comes from. From such a depth of loss and despair that I could do nothing but sit and stare into space, waiting for the guard to do her round so that I could cut my wrists without being interrupted. That was my brick wall. But instead of the sadness of my circumstances, I learned then that I have a choice. I could either go on attacking the wall or I could walk around it. If that wouldn’t work, then maybe I could climb over it and when getting around the wall proved impossible then maybe I could simply paint a picture on it, or write something in the corner of a single brick.
Worse comes to worst–I can choose to use a brick wall as a backrest to meditate against. This is where I find the ability to smile, to help others, and to care about the world around me so deeply that it hurts–from the bricks that hold me in this cage. I get my hope from seeing all of the darkness around me and knowing–KNOWING–that it doesn’t hold an ounce of weight compared to all the beauty in the world. So, this is why I am who I am. Long ago I heard a saying that I have used to guide my life: It is better to light a candle than rage against the darkness. For those who wonder, that is why I can smile.