A couple of weeks ago, the APBP team received the heartbreaking news that one of the members of the Appalachian Community Think Tank (ACTT) has passed away in prison.
His name was Jon, and he was preparing for an upcoming parole hearing. In his words:
“I’ve been incarcerated for the past twelve years and have been working on myself mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally in order to become not only a better person but also a better husband, father, son, sibling, and friend.”
We are devastated by this loss. Our thoughts are with his surviving family members and fellow ACTT members.
Katy Ryan, who taught the 2019 Inside-Out class that evolved into ACTT, said of Jon:
“He will be so missed. Jon held us to high standards, especially in terms of honesty and accountability. He showed us how to make room for ourselves and others to grow. We will keep fighting for a better world, the one Jon imagined and powered and deserved.”
A couple of weeks before he died, Craig, another student from the Inside-Out class and ACTT, asked Jon about his writing process. Jon spoke about honesty, freedom, education, and his favorite authors. We’d like to share their conversation in his memory.
The following interview appears in Write Now! A Guide By and For Incarcerated Writers (2020), which was created by writers at SCI-Fayette in collaboration with the Pitt Prison Education Project.
An Interview with Jon
Jon was raised in the grime left behind by the smog-belching mills of Youngstown, Ohio in the 80s. Back then, the gangsters in his neighborhood were warring over drug turf and Jon was counting corpses when most little boys were counting with Count von Count. Poverty and blood exacted a toll. Starting at 11, Jon was in and out of the juvenile justice system and county lockups. He was shipped upstate at 27 for third degree murder and decided he wanted more from life than money and bullets. He dedicated himself to making sure this trip to prison would be his last.
Jon and I met in the paint on the hoop court shortly after he arrived at SCI-Fayette. Taking a rebound from him was like getting a salmon out of a grizzly’s mouth. He liked that I wasn’t scared to try, though, and out of mutual respect our friendship was born. We became college classmates three years ago when the University of Pittsburgh offered its first Imagining Social Justice course behind our fences. The bond we’d formed on the court carried over into the classroom and beyond.
Jon was a poet, a novelist, and a playwright. Most recently, he and Yair collaborated on a prison cookbook called Not Your Average Noodle. A month before he passed away, he agreed to do an interview with me for the writer’s guidebook that a handful of us have been assembling in conjunction with Professors Puri and Holding from the University of Pittsburgh. Because the quarantine had killed our regular Wednesday night talk time in the library, Jon told me to write down my questions and he’d supply the answers. What follows is my final conversation with my friend.
Craig (CE): What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
Jon (JB): A long poem titled, “Who Stapled This Shit?”
CE: Why was that your best piece?
JB: It gave a visual to one of the most important times in my life.
CE: Where did you get the idea?
JB: It’s funny because it’s such a light-hearted, comedic attempt to describe an environment created by the Pitt University people combined with SCI-Fayette called Inside-Out where incarcerated students join students from the university to study subjects such as English literature, political science, anthropology, arts, etc. Within these studies, the professors usually presented a social justice/reform-oriented curriculum. This would make for a tense and sometimes murky road for students to travel through some of the world’s darkest times as they sought to bring a positive change through education, whether it being themselves or others.
CE: What was the process of writing it like for you?
JB: The process was rather simple, as all I did was observe and report.
CE: What do you like best about writing?
JB: The freedom it provides, along with the diversity, which allows any age, race, gender, or creed to express themselves through a plethora of genres.
CE: What do you like least about writing?
JB: That more people won’t indulge, especially our youth.
CE: When is it hardest for you to write?
JB: I wouldn’t say it’s ever hard to write versus it being hard to find the gems within that which you do write, a process I call “weeding the garden.”
CE: If you could pick anyone in the world, who would you most like to read your writing and why?
JB: Those that are underprivileged, oppressed, and anyone who’s ever been discriminated against, so they can see that not only sympathizers exist but also that they are not alone in the ugliness imposed upon them by the world.
CE: What kinds of things are you most comfortable writing?
CE: What kinds of things are you least comfortable writing?
JB: My truths.
CE: What has writing added to your life?
JB: A vessel through which I can express myself freely.
CE: What has it cost you to become a writer?
JB: Secrets. Because honesty makes for the best writing.
CE: Who are your favorite writers?
JB: Toni Morrison, Dr. Joy DeGruy, Chris Wilson.
CE: How does what you read affect your writing?
JB: Early on in my career, it was a negative as I found myself mimicking, but as I read and revised my work (weeded the garden), I found myself making reading others’ work influential as well as pertinent to becoming the writer I am today.
CE: Tell me about the last piece of writing you quit in the middle of writing?
CE: Tell me a about a piece you had to struggle to finish.
JB: Every one (LOL). It’s the hardest aspect of writing for me.
CE: Tell me about your favorite character you’ve ever created.
JB: A young, Spanish kid named Flacco. At 15, he’s left to survive the heartless ghettos of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: the inner city. He never knew his father, an undocumented immigrant. His mother, a prostitute, was murdered, leaving Flacco to fend for himself. As he struggles through life, surviving poverty, abandonment, homelessness, and a near-death experience, he learns life lessons, falls in love, and finds his niche in life before being framed for killing the love of his life, the mother of his children. I like this character a lot because he shares many qualities along with experiences that I myself have had.
CE: Who has helped you the most on your road to becoming a writer?
JB: My mother.
CE: Why has she been so crucial?
JB: Her support and encouragement have helped me continue when times become rough or I feel like quitting.
CE: When you think about your future as a writer, what do you envision?
JB: Mostly support letters and job request templates. I’m preparing myself for parole in a few months. I always write poetry on almost a daily basis, ranging from short and sweet haiku to long, drawn out mini movies.
CE: What advice would you give a writer who is just starting out?
JB: If you’re serious about your craft, educate yourself.
CE: What do people mean when they say a writer has found his or her voice?
JB: To me, that means you found a way to express yourself in a distinct manner where your work is identifiable without naming yourself. You’ve gotten into a groove and you’re writing fluently and strongly. Confident in your work. The words, sentences, and paragraphs have become a fingerprint or DNA that leads back to your true self.
CE: Have you found yours?
JB: I’m not sure. You’d have to ask my readers, which are few.
CE: What was that process like?
CE: How do you know when you’ve found it?
JB: When the fear of honesty no longer resides.
Thank you, Jon. My life is better because you were in it.