Encapsulating the literary talent of the incarcerated community

With poetry-filled gumball machines, Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop gives a voice to Minnesota inmates

President of the board of Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Michael Kleber-Diggs, welcomes guests to the second annual Gumball Extravaganza at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis on Wednesday, June 27.

Courtney Deutz

President of the board of Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Michael Kleber-Diggs, welcomes guests to the second annual Gumball Extravaganza at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis on Wednesday, June 27.

Becca Most

Inside a traditional glass gumball machine at Moon Palace Books is something much more valuable than a piece of gum.

For fifty cents this machine sells poetry, each plastic capsule filled with a hand-rolled scroll tied with a colorful ribbon. It is one of four machines housed in local bookstores around the Twin Cities.

Through the medium of a poem-dispensing gumball machine, which reached its one year anniversary at Moon Palace Books last Wednesday, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop works to bridge the physical and literary gap between the incarcerated community and the general public.

The non-profit has offered creative writing classes in all of the state’s prisons, and the purchasable poems feature work written or selected by the students from the Stillwater Correctional Facility. There are also pieces included from teachers and mentors involved with the program.

“We found that it’s really very meaningful to be able to curate this connection to the community,” said Mike Alberti, Managing Director of MPWW and University of Minnesota alumnus.

“When people in the community get a poem, it’s impossible to not at least for one moment remember that there are people in our community who are incarcerated. They come from our community [and] they’re still part of our community even though they’re largely isolated and invisible.”

Alberti said writing is one of the few ways inmates can express themselves behind bars.

For Paul Van Dyke — a student who took the first class offered by MPWW founder Jennifer Bowen Hicks in 2011, and is now on the Board of Directors — learning to express himself through writing was life-changing. 

Van Dyke entered prison a heavy drinker, suffering from PTSD after serving in Iraq. Through writing and reading, he said he was able to connect with authors who shared similar feelings and experiences, which helped him open up.

“People who go into prisons go in with so much pain,” Van Dyke said. “It’s like this is a safe avenue for that to be expressed. There’s a lot of unused potential [and] this program wouldn’t be successful if it wasn’t changing people’s lives.”

MPWW has expanded from a single creative writing class to an organization with over 25 instructors who teach courses like creative nonfiction, playwriting and memoir.

The organization also pairs incarcerated writers with prominent members of the literary community, which mentor them via mail, sending in-process writing back and forth with edits, advice and reading assignments. 

“For me as a teacher, to have students who just do it because they want to … I’m always blown away by how our students engage with the assignments,” said president of the Board of Directors Michael Kleber-Diggs. “To see people who love writing take it seriously and be passionate about it is kind of amazing.”

Students in the classes have gone on to become prominent writers in Minnesota, like Zeke Caligiuri, whose memoir, “This Is Where I Am,” was published by the University of Minnesota Press and was a finalist for the 2017 Minnesota Book Award.

“Some of the best literature in Minnesota is being written in prisons, and I think art has this kind of unique power to express that humanity, to get across that these are people with lives and voices,” Alberti said. “All the stereotypes that we may have about incarcerated men and women — they don’t match up to this deeply nuanced, practiced, crafted poem that is being presented to me.”