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A Q&A with Hanna Al-Jibouri 

On Poetic Justice.

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Hanna Al-Jibouri, 28, found poetic justice in an unlikely place after moving back to her hometown of Tulsa as a recent Hendrix College English grad. It wasn't through her job as an elementary school teacher, fulfilling as that was. It wasn't through attending open mic nights or getting a chapbook published. In fact, "I'd lost the sense of myself as a writer," Al-Jibouri said.

Then Al-Jibouri answered a Facebook post from her high school English teacher, inquiring about volunteers for a new program that would teach writing to incarcerated women in Oklahoma, home to the highest incarceration rate per capita in the United States. Al-Jibouri is three years in at Poetic Justice now, and she has a lot of stories to tell about the transformative power of words, even for those who have been sentenced to life without parole. She also continues to teach elementary school in a state that's making national headlines for the historic strike.

For Al-Jibouri, literature, education, activism and advocacy all work in tandem, and resonate from her core. She and her colleague at Poetic Justice, Ellen Stackable, will speak at the Ron Robinson Theater at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 28, as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival. The discussion is accompanied by a screening — the first outside the state of Oklahoma — of "Grey Matter," a 20-minute documentary on the nonprofit organization.

Describe your first Poetic Justice visit.

I was given brief guidelines to follow. I had to wear closed-toed shoes. I couldn't wear orange. I had to leave everything in the car but my keys and my license. I was just going in with no expectations and also a whole myriad of expectations that I didn't even realize I was having once I actually stepped into the classroom at Tulsa County Jail.

It's an interesting space. I'll describe it. We're in the pod where the women live, 100 per pod. To the side, they have their cells where their beds are, then a lobby with TV and chairs. Off to the side, there's this really tiny classroom that fits 25 women. That was our capacity. The room was full, plus five of us. When you think about the 75 women not in the classroom making noise, just being there, it was a pretty chaotic and hard-to-focus area. We realized we had to be super intentional on setting up a space where women were able to focus, to make sure that they were separated from that pod even if they were still in it. I don't think we planned to do this, but we did a breathing exercise and a meditation. Now that's become a norm.

Poetic Justice credits literacy as a powerful transformative tool that can be lifesaving. Can you elaborate on that idea?

We started with not knowing what we're doing, but we had a lot of questions. One of the questions was: Can writing save a life? ... We went in with a predetermined answer, [but] seeing it play out in the jail was extraordinarily different. When you're at the jail, you're there for about three weeks — maybe a month — waiting for trial, waiting to be released. It's a holding tank or a waiting room. At Tulsa County Jail, things are so out of order and disorderly, so there were women waiting a year or even two years for their sentencing. It's a really depressing place if you think of it only in that regard.

We knew that writing could save these women's lives, but it might not be as easy as it was to save my life. So we really had to establish that safe space. In the two hours that we were with them, observers who watch us are always remarking on the fact that we only write for 15 or 20 minutes. ... What we are saying is that writing is more than simply the act of writing. Writing is a way to tell stories, a way to communicate and be in healthy relationships with others. We do a lot of that in class, aside from just the writing itself.

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We've now moved to prisons, and I would say a big difference there is that we were meeting women who had received their sentences. A lot of women taking our class were never leaving the criminal justice system again. They're sentenced to life, many without parole, so our question had to shift. It was no longer "Can writing save someone's life?" but "Could writing save someone's life even if they were going to spend the rest of their lives in prison?" So that question is one we're still constantly exploring, and I feel like it absolutely can. Because if you can't have a meaningful life, regardless of where that life is, then what is your purpose? What is the point of being who you are?

I think therapeutic writing has shown itself to me, and to the women, to give them a voice and let them be heard. More often than not these women are talked at — they're not listened to. Because of this, we do a lot of listening, and I think it's one of the rare times when they're incarcerated that they get to be heard.


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