As editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Phil Christman does not bat an eyelash at the idea of bringing the arts to prisoners in Michigan.
Christman, a lecturer II in English language and literature, LSA, came to the University of Michigan in 2013 with his wife, Ashley Lucas, to work with the Prison Creative Arts Project. PCAP is a program at U-M that brings the arts such as theater, writing and painting to prisons in the area.
As the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, the role “mainly entails reading every manuscript that comes in and then either accepting, typesetting, and eventually publishing and selling,” he said.
The process of rejection is quite different from other literary magazines. “When we reject something, we try to give some helpful feedback to the people who write rather than give them a form rejection,” Christman said.
Christman said his skillset seemed a natural fit for the review. “This sounded like the most logical way for me. … I’m practiced in critiquing other people’s work and training other people to critique work as well.”
The majority of Christman’s interactions with the prisoners submitting work to the review are via letter. This has proven difficult in recent months as there have been more restrictions put in place on how and what can be mailed to prisoners.
Some things were not a surprise for Christman.
“The challenge I was prepared for was trying to figure out ways to be helpful to people who are at very different levels of experience and competence when it comes to writing,” he said. The skill levels of the writers ranged, “all the way from, ‘I just learned how to read’ to, ‘This person is as good of a writer as I am.’”
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The experience is not just about managing the challenges. Christman said his favorite part of working with PCAP is when someone they have published gets to go home.
“It’s happened a couple of times with writers that I’ve worked with very closely. But, one guy recently came home this past fall and we’ve gotten to be very good friends. That’s a pretty incredible thing.”
Christman’s experience with the review has strengthened his support for prisoners’ rights.
“My wife’s family has been affected by incarceration. So when you see how it works up close, most people’s reactions are shock. Then you get sucked in because you get mad.”
What can’t you live without?
Marilynne Robinson’s prose.
Who or what inspires you?
My wife really inspires me. She does so much for PCAP and so many different suffering people from all walks of life, but she’s still a happy person and cool to hang out with.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. It’s super embarrassing, I’ve never read it before.
What/who had the greatest influence on your career path?
I was avoiding going back to grad school. … Then I got a job at a homeless shelter. The thing that gave me permission to go back to school was finding out how many of those men and women were studying at vocational school and community college.