Before the pandemic, I really had no reference point for correspondence education.

During a faculty check-in call last Summer, David Knight, who taught an incredible remote correspondence class entitled Narrating Social Change, pointed out that each student’s handwriting came to him like a stamp of their individuality. The neatness, messiness, largeness, lightness of any given person’s handwriting, carved by all with 3-inch wooden golf pencils (the only type of writing utensil allowed at Stateville), is one of our only avenues to knowing anything about the person to whom and with whom we write, a pale substitution for sharing space, but a substitution that nonetheless bears the familiar joy of building relationships and connection.

I’m probably misremembering this a bit, but I think in an interview somewhere, the poet Alice Notley once said that years ago, when using mimeograph machines to print small journals of poetry in Chicago, she encountered a particular sensation of embodiment in making stencils of other poets’ writing. To make the stencils from which copies of the journal could be reproduced, she would need to look at someone’s poem, then lay out, word by word, letter by letter, the poem onto the surface of the stencil, creating a circuit — the writing of others would be absorbed first through her body before being cycled back out and onto each page, and in this way built a unique relationship between herself and the words. Part of my responsibility as the Class Coordinator, now that almost everything is remote, involves scanning. Until recently (shout out to Noelle Petrowski, who has stepped in to share the labor), I scanned every piece of writing that passed between students at Stateville and the instructors for whom they were written. The sort of unfortunate scanning app on my phone takes a minute to process each page that it scans, and in this momentary space of boredom, I read what I’m scanning and find joy, longing, anger, inspiration, the gamut of emotions that punctuate daily life in the writing of our students, and hold them inside myself briefly before sending them back into the world for others to read, respond to, and grade, and am grateful.

At a time when it feels like all sorts of walls have been built to keep sickness from spreading, and separation is touted as necessary, and brutal conditions abide, it can feel disheartening to be faced with the inadequacies of our words, the constant delays in well wishes or questions, the depth with which we truly mean “We are thinking of you, we hope you are doing well” often lost to the cold distance of correspondence… it can feel like this moment, more than others before it, is awful. Because, in so many ways, it is. But walls have always been erected under the auspices, we are told, of our safety. “Our” safety. And brutality has long been the condition given to so many of our people, our loved ones, our students, our neighbors, on top of which it is assumed we will neglect our collective responsibility to recognize, reflect and hold space for ourselves and each other. In spite of this, we learn from each other and from those before us that something powerful comes from our struggle to bridge a gap that has always felt impossible, a gap that was designed to be so, and to lie between us, just as much now as it has from the day this work was begun.

It can feel disheartening to read that someone never received a book they were sent, or that the only copy of someone’s painstakingly thoughtful essay never got to their teacher, or that someone’s envelope of correspondence literally blew away in the wind as it passed between the prison and our hands, the contents of what was lost left irretrievable — our challenges multiply and endlessly reconstitute themselves like a virus. But we have what we have, and we work with what we are given, just like our students. And I’m given strength by them, by the enormous breadth of each piece of writing that reaches us, and cling to the lesson I’m learning that when we do only what we can do, it is not only enough, and not only necessary, but extraordinary labor of hope and determination. Like Assata Shakur reminds us,

“I believe in living,

I believe in birth.

I believe in the sweat of love

and in the fire of truth.

And I believe that a lost ship,

steered by tired, seasick sailors,

can still be guided home

to port.”

Cean Gamalinda is PNAP’s Class Coordinator and a practicing poet.