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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A few questions with poet and activist Vanessa Huang

Vanessa Huang is an Oakland-based poet and activist who grew up in the Bay Area and whose work is informed by the "prison abolition, migrant justice, gender liberation, transformative justice, disability justice, and reproductive justice movements." Her first collection of poems quiet of chorus will be published this Fall. In anticipation of the new work, Huang is visiting several cities on a reading tour with a first stop at Atlanta's Charis Books this Thursday, August 16 from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

What do you have planned for your event in Atlanta?
In Atlanta, I'll be visiting a monthly reading and performance series at Charis. They call it the open "no mic." I'm excited to be invited to offer my work in call and response with what others are working on.

You work a lot in the prison abolition movement, but I think that's something that a lot of our readers might not be that familiar with.
For me, prison abolition is about recognizing the role that policing, prisons, and surveillance practices have been playing in our society. When mass imprisonment first started after the 13th amendment was passed, it served a pretty specific purpose in terms of enabling plantation owners to continue to benefit from the labor of people who were formerly enslaved. That was the first inklings of mass imprisonment. Prison abolition is about recognizing that the fluidity of what gets defined as a crime can influence who gets targeted by policing and who can end up spending years of their lives in prison. At this point, the government policing and prisons have become a tool to manage all the social problems and iniquities. If you look at the prison system, when people return home, it exacerbates a lot of those problems. It presents abolition as a strategy rather than reform. It's about recognizing that the prison is operating, whether consciously or subconsciously, in the way it was intended to. It's continuing a management strategy rather than getting at the root of social problems. Prison abolition as a strategy recognizes that you can't just keep adding on to the system and expect poverty and racism to go away. "Prison reform" can sound nice, and increasingly there are more and more specialized prisons, but in the end it's more people being torn apart from their families, more lives being stolen. It just seems to be another excuse to build out the system and manage the poverty we're not dealing with. I know it can sound like, "Well, what would you do if you take away prisons!?" That's a question I get a lot. It's about a fundamental social transformation of the way we live together and care for each other and have relationships.

Most people—even those who are involved in both activism and poetry—often think of those as two very distinct realms. What sort of potential do you see in bringing them together?
For me, it's always been difficult to see one without the other. For a long time, I was just focused on the activism and organizing, and at that time I was also staffing a non-profit full-time, heavily involved in prisoner's rights campaigns here in California. It didn't have the spaciousness to allow me to give the poems the attention they needed. When I was able to create more space for poetry it was very difficult to divorce it from political action. It felt really natural to continue to be in dialogue with those bodies of work and people. I don't know how I would create the work without those lines of communication.

I was interested to read on your website that your tour, which starts in Atlanta and goes on to North Carolina and New York, will result in a short film.
I thought it would be fitting to interview some of my old friends who I've met through my political work over the years. I'll be asking them what's continued to feed their lives and their practices and their hearts as they do the work of prison abolition, reproductive justice, or social justice more generally: What's kept them alive and what's kept them working. There's growing awareness of the challenges of doing social justice work through non-profits: people are starting to talk about the "non-profit industrial complex." We're trying to figure out how do we work within this tool that the government has allowed us to use. I'll be interviewing people about their work along the way. I'll weave it together with some singing, maybe some poetry. It's been invited to screen for the first time at a cabaret of queer and transgendered artists.

Vanessa Huang will read her work and host an open "no-mic" at Charis Books in Little Five Points on Thursday, August 16, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

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