So a long time ago, back when a different journal was being published at USC, someone accepted a poem for the literary journal from a prisoner. Just some incarcerated guy that mailed in a typewritten poem. While it seems a kind of noble and liberating idea (giving some locked-up men a voice!), it actually was a bad, bad idea. Why? Because in the last five years, it appears word has spread that some journal at USC accepts prisoner’s creative writing, and the Southern California Review has been inundated. You’d hope — and as an editor, I’d hope — that there would be some glimmer of talent in the prisoner slush pile, as we’ve come to call it, but alas, almost all of the cover letters are subliterate, not to mention the prose itself.
The saddest part is that the Senior Editor tells us we can never again accept a prisoner submission. Not as a matter of aesthetic judgment, but of safety. Apparently once a slush-pile-digger wrote back a kind rejection to a prisoner and signed his name, and the prisoner somehow found his email and began harassing him over email, as well as sending letters on a weekly basis. Apparently some of the letters not only questioned the editor’s sense of judgment, but threatened him. If this was an urban legend, I’d now tell you that after the prisoner was released, he used the phone book to look up the editor’s home address and began stalking him with subliterate notes posted to his front door and placed in his bed, but thankfully this is not the space for urban legends. This is a place for cold hard facts. So I give to you an excerpt of our latest prisoner cover letter:
“Publisher. [We're not a publisher]
I am informing you of a book that I have written called ‘Pagan’s Wrath’ and another book called ‘Iron City’ that I’ve also written but I have to edit and type up. My book Pagan’s Wrath’ is complete. I have edited it to the best of my ability and have it fully typed, it is a Viking era novel of 326 pages that deal with the Vikings journeying to america and how they lived and died among the indigenous peoples.” [Really? Viking-era, tell me more!]
“I am currently putting together four other books. The ‘Convict Chronicles’. ‘Fugitive One, living outside the law.’ ‘Tales of Time. And a book of ‘Songs and Poetry.’ [Publisher Question: Are the songs and poetry about convicts and fugitives? Because that would be sweet.] I’ve typed up 71 pages of Iron City, forty pages of Fugitive One, living outside the law. Twenty five pages of Tales of Time, and 66 songs for songbook. [My co-editor predicted one will become a bestseller and he'll school all us MFAers.]
“Typing is a slow process because ribbons are not always readily available, like right now I only have one ribbon left and its more than half spent so I’m mostly just writing now.” [Have to admire the perseverance]
“On a personal note, I am currently incarcerated, but this is only a temporary dilemma that will be rectified by 2010.” [You think this is a stock line?]