Poet Ra Avis Wants You To Understand That Formerly Incarcerated People Are Just Like Everyone Else

Photo: Ra Avis / W+G Creative

Ra Avis has been out of prison for five years but still feels the impact of what that time inside did to her. She lost a lot to prison, she says, so she's using poetry to shed light on mass incarceration.

Writing helps Avis process her emotions and experiences; and when she's ready to share them, translating her long-form pieces to poetry helps her do that in a clear and concise way. And beyond acting as a vehicle for her personal healing, Avis hopes her words can help remove the stigma that comes with being formerly incarcerated while also demonstrating the need for serious prison reform.

Avis is performing spoken word during a free virtual event that's part of The Other Art Fair (TOAF)'s Los Angeles festival, which kicks off March 30. While TOAF typically hosts in-person art shows to connect talented emerging artists with art lovers and buyers (in places like London, Brooklyn, and Sydney), it began hosting virtual events during the pandemic—which means, you can join the LA event from wherever you are.

Experts In This Article
  • Ra Avis, Ra Avis is a formerly incarcerated poet and stroke survivor who advocates against mass incarceration.

In addition to Avis's performance, TOAF's LA festival includes a whole slate of wellness experiences, including sound baths, a grief-processing workshop, a curated self-care playlist and more. You're gonna want to check it out.

Ahead of next week's fair, I spoke with Avis by phone to hear her story and how she's able to share it through her work.

Well+Good: What led you to poetry?

Ra Avis: I started writing at a really young age. But poetry became more of a focus after I was incarcerated in 2014. And I think it just became the particular writing method I focused on because it, by nature of the form, kind of constricts what you can say and keeps a focus on it. Because prison itself is an issue that has so many intersecting issues, if I write in my normal form, which is blog posts, articles, long-form, you can get really carried away really easily with side notes. Poetry keeps you on track. It keeps you on the centered story. I started writing a lot more in poetry after I came home in 2015 and basically pursued it since.

With poetry particularly I'm trying to shed a light on things. When I'm processing things I let myself work through all the words I need, so I'll go back to my blog and write 3,000 words on something. And later when I've come to terms with it, I will take that information and try to consolidate it into something crisper, a poem or a shorter piece that can take my story and make it a little bit more universal.

What do you think is the biggest thing that people get wrong when they think about formerly incarcerated people?

People forget that formerly incarcerated people are just like us. We blend right back into society. It's why it's hard for us to hold the truth that we're living in a nation of such extreme mass incarceration: We hold this idea that formerly incarcerated people look or sound or appear a certain way, and because we don't feel like we live in a world full of them, it's hard for us to reconcile with the data that shows, in fact, that we do. You don't know what formerly incarcerated people look like or what brought them to prison or what they learned before or after coming home and where they are in their journey. Just like we don't know that about anybody else we see on the streets; we don't know what the biggest mistake in their life was or their biggest joys. Humans are complex and formerly incarcerated people are no exception to that rule.

We often forget about how the [prison] system impacts people. One thing I try to highlight in my poetry is that I lost my husband while I was inside. And that's obviously important on a personal level, probably the most important thing that's happened to me in my life—the biggest thing—but it's also important on a level when we're speaking to mass incarceration. Because a year with his only person in jail killed a man. It does harm to the families who aren't serving time. The people who are out there while pieces of their hearts are locked away. And there is a lot of healing that the world needs and the first step of any type of healing is to find the wounds.

Now that it's been some time since you were in prison, do you feel like you're fully reintegrated or is there a part of you that always feels like you're in that re-entry limbo?

I hope that it won't be always, but we are at five-plus years and I still do feel like I'm in that re-entry limbo. We forget how big life is. When we think about re-entry in terms of formerly incarcerated people, we think, "Okay, they need a secure job, they need a secure house address, they need access to food, and then they're good." But I think what you forget is that human life is so much more complicated than that.

You have to have the language of the place you're in, you have to have dialects, you have to have community, you have to have interests and hobbies and integrations. You have to know how to talk to a waiter and what to order from a menu and how to order from the menu. These are things that don't seem like big deals until you're teaching them to someone who's had the structures of them destroyed. I've had to relearn things that I didn't think could disintegrate in the year and a half I was incarcerated.

You're also a stroke survivor, can you share a bit about that experience?

Last year I had a series of mini-strokes and it was very confusing. I had a very difficult time with the medical staff inside of the prisons. The strokes were actually caused by clots that came from a hip injury that was untreated from prison. And when we got the clots under control and I stopped having mini-strokes, at that point I had lost my ability to read or recognize written language really in any way. And so I had to go through a lot of neurotherapy and other types of therapy, including just remedial writing and reading classes. I had these little letter blocks that I would match words like "cat," so I'd find a C find the A find the T.

I can't even imagine what that felt like as a writer to not be able to recognize the written word. That must've been really terrifying.

There were a lot of just truly upsetting elements to it, but losing the ability to read and write was definitely number one. Even more than a writer, I consider myself a reader. Writing is a practice and I'm always trying to get better at it. Reading is something I've been good at for a long time and it's more than a hobby, it's really foundational in how I think of myself. And to lose that entirely was really debilitating.

This isn't the first time that prison took my words away from me. In jail, they give you pencils that are too small to use and they only keep the lights on for a certain amount of time. When I got to prison, the library was close to me and they wouldn't deliver the books that my friends and family were sending in. And as a reader and a writer and somebody who's so in love with my community, having those connections taken away was really, really heartbreaking. And to come back out, rebuild them slowly, and then have strokes that were ultimately caused from my time in prison take those things away again was frustrating on multiple levels.

The other day I had trouble with cauliflower and seashells. I was trying to say seashells, my brain was saying cauliflower. I do not know why I compared the two but, it's fascinating to think about how we bridge ideas and connect words. Having to rebuild is terrifying and exhausting, but I feel like learning how my brain organized and assembled those things to begin with has been a rewarding process.

You sound very optimistic, which is so cool. Do you feel like your experiences made you stronger?

Obviously, if I could have avoided them I definitely would choose that path. It's a really common thing for people to think that we come out of our terrible experiences stronger or braver. I actually think we come out of them more fragile, softer, and a little slower and a little bit more cautious of things because we've been a little broken. And usually, when people hear that barrage of words, they think of it as a negative thing. But that's only because our society values speed and toughness.

There's so much joy to be felt in slowness and softness. If I could take back prison and have my husband alive and my brain not damaged, I would obviously do all of those things. But there is something gratifying to be at a stage of life where even though the choice to go slow was originally taken away from me, I get to be in that space now where slowness and stillness and softness are part of my life. And I get to embrace that and be a little bit more vulnerable by nature because I don't have the toughness anymore.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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