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 LaVon Johnson’s work. For more poets and essayists, check out the SEEN page.

The film series, Love Letters to Von, is a collaboration between poet Von Johnson and filmmaker D.A. Bullock and part of the SEEN project through We Are All Criminals.

Von was a seventeen-year-old Black teen in Frogtown, Saint Paul when, swept up in the “super-predator” toxicity that flooded the nation, he was sentenced to life in prison. This short film features renowned Saint Paul poet MKD reading a letter to Von, and Von’s letter in return; the short film says to Von and to millions of other disappeared people: you are seen, you are heard, you are remembered, you are missed, you are loved.

Made possible with generous support from the Science Museum of Minnesota
Film by D.A. Bullock
Photos by Emily Baxter
With special thanks to Michael Kleber-Diggs
and always to Von

The correspondence continues, thanks to the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. More letters to come.


“You keep that up and I’ll have all of your quarters Tony!”

I turned my quarter for the third time; feeling for the nick I know is along its edge. As soon as I find it the wind picks up again and now I’ve got to wait! Why does he have to talk so much? I should have never let him use that Canadian quarter, everybody knows they’re lighter. The wind died down and I pulled my shirt sleeve up to my shoulder as I side armed my 1987 American quarter.

It sails a full square and a half worth of sidewalk before the wind slows down its trek. The impact leaves a sharp ringing in my ear. Even after it slides to a halt; one full inch away from the crack in the sidewalk.


Too bad Mickey’s quarter rested right on the crack. “Damn it!”

I am so caught up in losing another quarter that I almost missed the dark blue Buick le Sabre pull up and park. My cousin Dee Dee’s dad got out, still wearing his dark blue striped postman pants with a white tee. As he walks into the house he says, “Mickey, Tony, come inside and clean up, super should be ready.”

I race up the stairs into the house, happy to still have 75 cents left. I go through the door on my right into my house, my cousin and uncle up stairs to theirs. I keep moving through the house until I reach my grandmothers room. I knock on the crooked door frame then call in.

“Grandma, grandma, I’m gone eat with Mickey and dem upstairs tonight!”

My grandmother calls out from her room, “Are you telling me or are you asking me, Mighty?”

My grandmother calls me Mighty Mouse and my cousin Mickey mouse. “May I go upstairs and eat with Mickey, grandma?”

“That’s better Pudding, yes you can go.”

After sharing the hand soap with the roaches in the bathroom I headed back to the hall and up the stairs. I almost ran into my little cousin Ramone and his father, their arms full of pizza and two 2 liters of R.C. Cola. “Slow down Tone.” He said as he opened the door to their house downstairs.

The shadow engulfed me as I took the stairs two at a time. They must have forgotten to turn the light on. I hit the switch before I open the door. My aunt Ruby never locks the door when she’s home.

She believes family should be able to come and go as we please.

“Aunt Ruby, it’s me!”

“We’re in the living room, grab yourself a plate out of the kitchen and come get something to eat.”

I hurried to get my plate and make it back to the living room. Why am I in such a rush, my aunt Ruby and I are the only ones who really like chicken wings. Everybody else likes chicken legs and chicken breast. As I enter I see Dee Dee sitting on her father’s lap being fed a chicken leg. The seasoned aroma of Harold’s spicy chicken and sauce drew my attention to the bag on the living room table. Suddenly, I wasn’t so hungry.

After taking a couple of bites of a wing or two I head back downstairs. The main door is unlocked so I walk over to lock it when I hear some laughing coming from outside. I look through the door and see my cousin Ramone being chased by his father, giggling as he is taken to the ground. Do I dare intrude on their personal time? My face becomes flush from the heat rising within as I fill with anger. I slam the door shut and rush into my house.

That night as I laid down for bed I thought; “Where is my father? What might he be doing right at this moment? And does he ever think of me as I him right now?” As sleep over took me I found myself as an older man, all grown up. I’m throwing a football to my son and swelling with pride as he catches it with both hands and brings it into his chest. I shout his name in praise as I run towards him and gather him in my arms. The warm tears hung on my lip as I squeeze my son; and silently vow to always be there for him no matter what. To be the father I always wanted but never had.

Suddenly my dream becomes a nightmare. For I am reading these words instead of hearing them reverberate throughout my mind finding roots, keeping me to my promise. I am reading these words and clarity is setting in. I am reading these words but there is hatred in them. For the writer is saying that he will be a good father, he will not be like his father and abandon his son.

I will be there for every birthday, his graduation. I will be there to show him how to ride his bike, do his math homework. I will be there to show him right from wrong, to help him make choices about being a man. Developing his core values and beliefs based around his family. I will teach him everything a father is supposed to teach a son. Be there for him like a father is supposed to be there for his son. I will do all the things a father is supposed to do with and for his son.

I will do everything my father didn’t do, be everything my father isn’t. Be everything I needed you to be, Dad!

It was as I read this last line that the tear finally fell.


I Apologize: Redeeming Dream

Too Young

The tingling sensation I felt caused me to react in a natural way, I guess. I hunched my shoulders, turned up my face, tightened every muscle in my body as I stopped all motion and waited for the moment to pass. Brain freeze they call it. However, the chocolate and vanilla swirl ice cream was so good I just kept on eating it anyway. McDonald’s ice cream was the best.

My lil brother and mother were ahead of me by two squares of concrete. I rushed to catch up, hoping and praying I did not spill one drop. I was determined to eat the whole cone of ice cream before we reached the end of the block. As I caught up to my mother and brother, they were exclaiming how good their ice cream was. My mother had a solid strawberry cone while my lil brother emulated both of us by mixing strawberry and chocolate. Half of which was on his chin and half down the front of his shirt.

Nevertheless, none of that mattered. All that mattered that night was sharing this moment together. Enjoying the night sky full of stars. The sounds of the bugs in the woods to our left and ignoring the passing cars to our right. We cherished these moments because my mother worked full time and went to school three nights a week. Most nights my brother and I spent alone, me cooking, cleaning, taking care of him and the household.

We pointed out the sounds in the wood, asking each other to guess that bug or animal. I played along more for my brother’s sake, for I knew all of the sounds; I was thirteen for crying out loud! My lil brother guessed right about the sound a cicada made when my mother stepped on his heel. He stumbled forward a few steps but caught himself maybe a square and a half ahead of my mother and me.

At this exact moment, we all heard a loud sound, like the pop of a vehicle back-firing. I turned and saw a green van drive by. At that very instant someone yelled, “N–gers, go home!” I could not help but stop. This was the first time I had ever experienced being called a n–ger. At my age I had a true understanding of what the word meant but my lil brother did not so he didn’t respond at all.

My mother just pushed us along and told us we needed to hurry home.

She tried to revive the good mood but for me it was gone. I did not finish my ice cream by the time we reached the end of the block. In fact, I didn’t even want it any more. I wanted to go home, I wanted to kick their ass, I wanted to be somewhere I wouldn’t have to deal with the ignorance of racism. Most of all I just wanted to run, because I was scared. What if they came back? What if they tried to hurt my lil brother, my mother and me? I’m not big enough to protect my lil brother and mom. I am too little, I am too skinny, and I’m only thirteen.

When we made it home, my mother asked me to take my brother to our room. I helped him out of his ice cream covered shirt. I had to pull it up over his head, forcing ice cream into his hair. While trying to get the ice cream out of his hair before Mom found out, I overheard her on the phone talking to my aunt Von.

“Von, I need you to come over quick, I need your help. V, I’ve been shot!”

Shot! Shot! What does she mean she has been shot, when did this happen? We just walked in the door, how could this be? I crept out of the room along the corner wall of the living room and kitchen. As I peeked around the corner, I heard her say, “Von, I’m sitting in here at the kitchen table with a bullet hole in my stomach! If I hadn’t have stepped on Jay’s heel and caused him to stumble forward, my baby would be lying there dead right now.” I saw my mother, shaken, crying as the phone trembled in her left hand and blood seeped through the fingers of her right hand.

I ran to her, wrapped my right arm around her left side and with my left hand tried to keep the blood from seeping through by plugging those gaps with my fingers. As I cried, I whispered to her, “Don’t die momma, don’t die,  I’m only thirteen, I’m not big enough, I’m only thirteen!”

A Cause for Celebration 

Published in Poetry Magazine, February 2021

The True Story of False Territories

There are hate crimes
plus engraved signs
encased with cement lines,
that cement lines
which are bought
with black lives.

The blood spilled
only fills the groove
upon the tossed quarters.

Pitched by the kids
courted by the kids
responsible for the kid,

whose back toss
is now lost
for about
the same amount of money.

What’s funny,
is now that kid’s night eyes
only catches the bright light
after coppers’ flight
has landed.

In the same sand pit
where a cousin passed
and a sister gasped,
knowing both young men fell
between one or two years after twelve
but could gauge more than twelve.

There are hate crimes
plus engraved signs
encased within cement lines,
that cement lines
which are bought
with black lives.

Wall grime is all that’s left
of a false vest
whose true test
is access to a bared chest,
whose true treasure
is the perceived measure
of what it takes to become a man.

I stand before thee
with a cold plea.
Look in a mirror,
define what you see.
And I’ll shatter that reflection
with your first deception.

My weapon
is the misconception
of the so called negro man,
defined by the lies
etched in time
divided by the lines
that are truly a crime
yet when dotted
I also signed.

There are hate crimes
plus engraved signs
encased within cement lines,
that cement lines,
which are bought with black lives.

These lines
Cost us everything!

A border wall America got for free.

You have dad’s hands, my sister told me.

I want people who have experienced what I’ve experienced to see and hear me. Langston Hughes said, Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are already dead. When you allow someone else to paint your narrative, you are what they made you to be. When you have the opportunity to tell your story in your own words, authentic and sincere, you give someone the opportunity to truly hear you, to truly see you.

Most of us returning to society were last seen in the worst of lights. For anyone to care enough to want to even see us in a different light is a change that we are not used to, yet need desperately upon release. For that negative light often causes people to pull away from because of or not support the wrong. Yet it is during these times that people need support the most.

Human beings are not built to be isolated, we are pack beings. We need to be among other people. However, we need to be among positive, supportive people. Those who want to see us beyond the one mistake we made to get here and see the steps we’ve taken to make sure we won’t come back. I came through these doors as a child, literally. It’s been twenty four years since that child came through those doors and I promise you, who I’ve grown to become is the man my mother dreamed I would be.