I have always been struck by how smart, dedicated and caring our workshop leader Jaclyn Perlmutter is. She is constantly thinking of new ways to engage the women in her workshop and provide them with a great workshop. She is sensitive and thoughtful, and we are quite lucky to have her work with us, as are the incarcerated women in her workshop at Bayview Correctional Facility. (Did you even know there was a women’s prison in Chelsea?)
Aside from her work with NYWC, Jaclyn is a multi-talented person with really diverse interests. So when she told me of her idea to get people to send her evocative postcards to bring into Bayview as prompts, I thought it would be fun to ask her a few questions.
1) Tell us a little about your NYWC workshop at Bayview Correctional facility: how long have you been doing it? What has been surprising or inspiring to you about writing with women who are incarcerated?
I’ve been leading a workshop at Bayview since July of 2009. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long – hard to believe that it’ll soon be three years! – but I guess when you’re doing something you love, the time really does fly by.
It may sound sappy, but I’m continually inspired by the women in my workshop at Bayview. So many of the women I’ve worked with have been through so much – abusive relationships, drug addictions, extreme poverty – not to mention the day to day intensity of prison life, and yet, so many of them are so resilient, they’re able to remain positive and strong in such negative circumstances.
So one thing that’s been surprising for me is that there’s a lot of laughter in the workshop. We definitely write about sad or scary or upsetting things too, but the atmosphere is more convivial and low-key than one might expect.
The women are also really supportive of one another – I can’t say that’s true for prison in general (I’ve gathered it’s the opposite) – but in the workshop, I’ve really had very few issues with writers respecting each others’ feelings. It’s very, very rare that someone will give negative feedback – I actually can’t remember the last time that’s happened.
The other major thing that’s been surprising is that over the last two or so years, I’ve encountered a lot of good writing. And again, it’s sometimes good in surprising ways. I’ve worked with women who were especially gifted in children’s fiction or comedy or science fiction. And I’ve also been so fortunate to see writers’ work develop over time – I mean, sometimes leaps and bounds in a matter of weeks.
If you’d like to read some of the writing that’s been produced at Bayiew, I’m delighted to announce that a chapbook is now in the works! Look for it sometime in the spring. This will be our first chapbook.
2) You are currently studying both Food Studies and writing at the same time? That is a really interesting combination. How is what you’ve learned about food influenced your writing, and/or vice/versa?
Well, I should start by saying that I enrolled in the Food Studies program with a pretty specific purpose. My partner Phil Chernyak and I are developing a TV show/webseries that aims to teach young people about making educated food choices. So I’m also now enrolled in a television writing class at Tisch, which is my first time studying that medium (my training’s in playwriting).
After being in the Food Studies program for just one semester, I’ve already been inspired to make some pretty big changes to our project. Initially, we wanted to focus on teaching young kids about food and nutrition. But now I’m considerably more interested in teaching older kids more about where their food comes from – the larger systems at work – not just “eat this, don’t eat that.” Plus, Sesame Street is already tackling nutrition beautifully – seriously, they’re doing some great stuff. So we scrapped what we had written and we’re starting fresh. All part of the process!
But wait, I’m not sure if that answers your question. I will also say that before I even knew that Food Studies was a thing, I had noticed that a lot of my writing had, well, a lot of food. I wrote a play in which I think every single scene involved food in some way – at first it was accidental, and then I figured, well, let’s commit to this. Plus, I’ve found that when leading workshops, food-related prompts just about always spark some really great writing. Food and memory, they’re just so intertwined.
3) What is more satisfying, writing a great line that you love, or eating your favorite dumpling?
Come on, you know that’s an impossible question! Also… what if I do both at the same time? (though soup dumplings at the keyboard sounds like a pretty bad idea…)
4) You’ve put out a call for postcards to be sent to you so you can bring them to the women at Bayview for writing prompts. What made you think of doing that? And how can people send you postcards to become a part of inspiring the women at Bayview?
Well, a couple different reasons. For one, postcard prompts are great because they provide the writers in the workshop with the flexibility of choice – I usually lay a whole bunch of postcards out on a table, and they can choose one or a few to use as inspiration. Prison’s a place where you have very few choices, so it’s important to me to present prompts with choices whenever I can, without having those choices be too overwhelming or distracting.
I’m also limited in what I can bring into Bayview – I have to admit, I’m jealous of other workshop leaders who can bring music or show YouTube clips or whatnot. I can’t do those things, but I can bring in postcards.
So, if you have a postcard or two lying around that you don’t want or would like to donate – it really doesn’t matter what they’re of since we’re all inspired by different things (as long as they aren’t offensive since they have to get through prison security) – you can send them to the following address:
NY Writers Coalition
c/o Jaclyn Perlmutter
80 Hanson Place #603
Brooklyn NY 11217
Thanks so much!