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Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Inside the New York State Training School for Girls with Tobi Jacobi and Laura Rogers by Chelsea Debarros
Chelsea Debarros: What is the NY State Training School and why is it significant in your book?
Tobi Jacobi and Laura Rogers: In 1904, the Women’s House of Refuge in Hudson, NY, was converted to the New York State Training School for Girls, a residential home and school for girls up to sixteen years old. In the 1920s and 1930s, between 300 and 450 girls were held at the Training School. “Incorrigible” or “ungovernable” girls were sentenced to 3-5 years of institutional training for issues of vagrancy, theft, poverty, abandonment and neglect, waywardness, and other moral statutes of the day. Despite allegations and reports of abuses such as solitary confinement and enforced silence, the “cottage system,” in which girls lived in three story brick cottage buildings designed to be self-sufficient with sleeping, kitchen, laundry, and living areas, was considered innovative for the time, intended to provide girls with the experience of living in a real home. Girls remained at the Training School until they received outside domestic placements or earned parole, often working at the School’s farm or training in domestic arts such as rug hooking, cooking, and interior design. In 1975, after continuing reports and allegations of abuse and serious problems at the Training School, the school was closed. In 1976, the NY State Department of Corrections took over the site and established Hudson Correctional Facility for men, which was at first a minimum and later a medium security facility. In 2015, the prison once again became a juvenile facility for boys and girls who were removed from the general adult population and renamed the Hudson Adolescent Offender Facility, where young men and women are once again trained in vocational trades and live in the brick cottage buildings once inhabited by the Training School girls.
We became aware of the Training School after a Hudson resident discovered 106 documents including official institutional forms such as medical and social worker reports, warrants of commitment, photos, and letters in a cardboard box at a Hudson yard sale. We were intrigued by the fragmented pieces of the lives of girls long gone and unable to tell their own stories thanks to the digitizing efforts of the Hudson-based Prison Public Memory Project. As we began to research the Training School, we discovered that the New York State Training School for Girls was one of dozens of such “schools" for girls and boys located throughout the country in the 19th and through the 20th century. The existence of such schools has recently come to the public attention with the publication of such works as Colson Whitehead’s novel Nickel Boys, based on a real-life incident in which dozens of boys’ bodies were found at the site of a former training school in Florida. The “Durfee box” documents, as they came to be named after the Hudson resident who discovered them, and Whitehead’s novel bring to our attention the long history of such juvenile carceral institutions in our country. We know that such institutions still exist today, and that thousands of young men and women pass through them every year, their stories for the most part unknown, silenced. We hope that our work with the Durfee box materials will help us understand how the institutional documents created narratives of incorrigibility and deviance for the girls as well as how the letters, photos and personal documents help us understand that girls such as Lila, Katherine, Josephine, Agnes and many others had voices and stories to tell.
Chelsea: How did you gain access to the archival material to learn about the lives of the girls?
Tobi and Laura: In 2013 Laura attended events intended to draw local attention to the historical value of the New York Training School for Girls and particularly one at the Bronson House, the former residence of school superintendents set amid a clearing of trees with Victorian architecture. Tobi saw images of rich archival texts from the exhibit on social media and a connection was made as we both saw the potential value of exploring an unusual access to girls confined in a training school in the early 20th century. Over the next few years, we secured modest funding to support our efforts and became collaborative scholars with the Prison Public Memory Project sharing their commitment to increasing the visibility of prison spaces and the experiences of people who lived and worked within them as a way to deploy “public history, social practice art and new media technologies to integrate community knowledge with more traditional forms of historic preservation”(PPMP website).
We worked with PPMP and had access to a particularly interesting set of 106 documents through a set of artifacts (now referred to as the Lisa Durfee collection and available on (Flickr) found at a Hudson-area garage sale in 2011. These photos, institutional records, reports, and letters sparked our interest and inspired deeper analysis that led us to additional school documents (e.g. institutional logbook, annual reports, committee meeting minutes) at the New York State Archives and library in Albany, NY. We also accessed historical newspapers from the early 1900s as well as New York State census data to triangulate our findings.
Chelsea: What was the process like sorting through the archival material? Was there any one piece of evidence that stuck with you? Or left you wanting to know more?
Tobi and Laura: Sorting through the archival materials was at first an overwhelming experience as there are 106 documents of many different types in the Durfee collection as well as additional materials such as the Training School intake ledger, annual reports, and other institutional documents in the New York State Archives. We spent time reviewing digital copies of materials from the collection as well as hours in the NY State Library and Archives.
It took us several years of looking at the documents and working on various methods of sorting, categorizing and writing about them to even begin to arrive at some kind of understanding of how these documents and the voices of these long deceased girls provided information about the conditions of their incarceration at the Training School and how they could speak to us in the 21st century. We have gone through a process over many years of talking, writing about and sharing the documents with various publics such as incarcerated writers, teachers of incarcerated writers, Hudson residents and outside students. The response of all of these groups have helped us to better understand the Training School documents; for example, an incarcerated writer will make a meaningful connection to their own experience of incarceration, thus helping us understand that many conditions of incarceration in America still persist and cut across time and space.
The many photographs included in the Durfee box collection are very intriguing to us: who took the photos? For what reason? What lies beyond the camera’s frame? While there multiple photos of girls in the collection, some named, some unnamed, with babies, other women, a man who may be Lila Thomas’ fiance, it was Durfee box document #50, a photo of a large, ordinary- looking dog and her puppies, that caught Laura’s attention. The name “Gladys” is written on the bottom of the front of the photo. The only other document that names Gladys in the collection is a court document pertaining to Glady’s discharge and parole.
There is a hand-written note on the book of the photo that reads “Ma and the babies, Ma was mad because she was weaning the babies & did not want to stand, Ma is collie and Airedale but the puppies mostly collie” with the name “Gladys” written in red at the bottom of the photo. The photo stands out as an example of what scholar Jennifer Sinor, in her book The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary, calls “the extraordinary ordinary,” the everyday, the discarded, the not literary or otherwise notable document; it is not even a photo of a person. The dog is an ordinary mixed breed; the puppies, while cute, are scruffy. The photo shows us that everyday, ordinary life went on for the girls at the Training School and that they, like any adolescent girls, had everyday concerns, such as a beloved pet.
Tobi was inspired by a different photo, one featuring a girl who likely inscribed a note to the intended recipient on the back. It is signed Dazzle and features a girl seated in a light-colored dress with a look of confidence and charm upon her face. Her note reads “...“Don’t you want to keep me company? I’m awfully lonesome sitting here all along. This dress is blue silk. You’d never think it tho—would you? Write soon. All the love in the world to you dear from me dear.” The photograph is one of several snapshots included in the Durfee archive, most appearing to feature women residing at the school, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. Like the letters penned by the women, the photos counternarrate the medical forms and institutional histories by widening our deepening understanding of how young women experienced life at and beyond the Training School. Dazzle’s message, one of few examples of personal writing we located, makes no reference to her incarcerated status; it is an assertion of her own rhetorical agency, one in which she is a speaking subject, unlike Lila who appears only as an object of the social worker’s inquiry and her mother’s worried remarks, like all of the documents in the Durfee collection, the Dazzle photograph raised many questions: was this kind of personal communication “ allowed,” or was it considered risky contraband? In any case, it is her self-identification to an unknown recipient as a lonely young woman in a blue silk dress, reaching out for love or companionship that caught the attention of contemporary respondents in our study:
I am glad to hear from you, but sad that you feel alone. If it was possible I would love to enjoy your company again at this moment. No, I would’ve never thought it...you do look dazzling in your blue silk dress. I want you to do something for me. Whenever you feel alone, spread your arms wide because that’s how much I love you and more. You will always know that your (sic) not alone. (inside writer)
“I would like to respond to Dazzle. As I look through her photograph, I feel compelled to tell her to seize a strength that has yet to be uncovered. I would tell her to resist the narratives under which these institutions seek to portray her.” (outside writer)
While the literal representations of Dazzle--her hair style, clothing and shoes--and the type and quality of the photograph itself along with the location of the photo’s discovery suggest that the image is from the 1920s or 1930s, as researchers, we invoke what Jackie Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s Feminist Rhetorical Practices frames as “critical imagination” to understand how the photo functions alongside court documents, results of invasive STD testing, and social histories. The snapshot records Dazzle in a relaxed and happy pose. She grins at the photographer, seemingly at ease on a bright day, a scene that offers a stark contrast to the images documented in the 1920s annual reports from the Training School which depict domestic training classes, formal relaxation on an outdoor green, or isolated girls in their rooms. Dazzle’s pose and writing invite engagement in the middle of what is likely an institutional training regime intended to rewrite such affections into a more polished and restrained version of womanhood. That the photograph remains in the Durfee box suggests both that it did not find its intended recipient but was valuable enough representation of Dazzle’s experience to be preserved. We think so.
Chelsea: Why is it important to use a feminist critical lens to examine the experiences incarcerated girls had at the NY State Training School?
Tobi and Laura: We have chosen to use a critical feminist historiographic approach for this project so we may foreground the neglected and suppressed voices of the incarcerated women and girls of the Training School by working with these fragmentary archival documents across time and space. In their collection Ethics and Representation in Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry, Amy Dayton and Jennie Vaughn note that feminist rhetorical research has three main components “recovery and revision” of texts by women and girls, “case study research of particular sites of reading and writing,” and finally, an expanded view of “linguistic practices” that “’count as women’s rhetoric’” (5). We have worked to pay attention to all three of these areas in our study of the girls of the New York State Training School. The documents were literally rescued from a yard sale, and we focus on the Training School in the 1920s and 30s as a “case study” of the literacy/rhetorical practices of both the incarcerated girls and the carceral institution. We hope to move traditional historiographic practices toward a feminist public memory approach by questioning who can critically read and respond to archival texts by incorporating in the book engaged responses from currently and formerly incarcerated writers, college faculty and students, and activists and staff working in U.S. criminal justice contexts. Their responses disrupt the story that institutional documents have long foregrounded as the officially archived historical record of girls and their experiences of confinement at the school, a familiar narrative that is often contested by people who write and think about contemporary mass incarceration in the United States.
We hope to reread and rewrite stories of girls incarcerated at the Training School to honor and restore agency to their lives and suggest alternatives to the characterizations of the girls as immoral, incorrigible, and delinquent and to rescue their stories from the trash bin of history they might have been relegated to. Our use of a feminist historiographic lens allows us to focus on both currently incarcerated girls and women and the girls of the Training School, who could not tell their own stories and are largely defined by the remaining institutional documents that fix them in stories of deviance and criminality. They were so much more, and we hope that our use of this lens can help us re-see and rewrite their stories as well as those of the thousands of currently incarcerated girls and women. By bringing these narratives to light, we can begin to build a public memory site for the girls of the Training School and add to the growing number of archival projects from carceral spaces that bring the hidden stories of the over two million citizens incarcerated in the U.S. to public attention.
Chelsea: How can the revelations from your book be applied to the contemporary U.S Justice System?
Tobi and Laura: Our aim is best described as revisionary; we hope to bring alternative narratives into view about the lives of girls residing at the Training School in the early 20th Century by contrasting and extending the largely silent story told by institutional records. The project also introduces a methodology for inviting currently incarcerated people and their advocates to engage with historical narratives in order to re-see their own circumstances within a flawed justice system. Writing about concepts of freedom, voice, identity, and equality with inspiration from diverse archival materials invites a long view of (in)justice in the United States. Our books invites prison educators, writers, and activists to see spaces like the New York State Training School for Girls and the women who lived within its confines as part of a history worth remembering and revisioning. In line with the National Archives guiding principles for reparative description, we encourage writing educators and advocates to adopt the following kinds of actions:
- to encourage active participation and transparency in the selection of historical materials through training in archival methodologies when possible,
- to identify and circulate local/regional/national archived prison materials responsibly, particularly those that are under-seen and/or suppressed,
- to improve visibility of the long view of justice and institutionalization in the United States by making space for currently incarcerated people (and their advocates) to identify patterns and cycles within systems of confinement with particular attention to examples of repression and injustice
- To reflect actively and often on the ethics of circulating and writing about experiences of incarceration–historical and contemporary.
Chelsea: How can readers learn more?
Tobi and Laura: We aim to have the book completed soon and are happy to correspond with interested readers. We can be reached via email at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
"About The Prison Public Memory Project." (2011), The Prison Public Memory Project, https://www.prisonpublicmemory.org/about.
"Archival Postcard of the New York State Training School for Girls." (2016, May 6), Incorrigibles, https://incorrigibles.org/get-involved/share-your-story-with-us/foralison2_f-tif/.
Jacobi, & Rogers. (2015, Summer), "Pop-Up Museum Photos 1-3," Personal Gallery.
" NY Prison Archive." Prison Public Memory Project on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/prison-public-memory-project/albums/72157689809794984.
Thursday, December 8, 2022
Getting Sandpointed: A Conversation with Jackie Henrion
Getting Sandpointed: A Conversation with Jackie Henrion
KIRPAL GORDON: Reading the poetry collection, Sandpointed, I wonder if the community in Sandpoint, Idaho, knows you from your weekly radio broadcast you host and curate, “Songs-Voices-Poems,” every Sunday at 7 PM on KRFY 88.5? I ask because the book is like an extension of your radio show! What also knocked me out is this back cover blurb from the town mayor’s wife Katie Greenland: “Sandpointed is a wise women’s collective weaving of place, presence, and possibility. At once a portrait of sassy poetics, a song of seasonal survivance, and a recipe for medicinal brew sure to tantalize any literary appetite. Written by a royal flush of witty and playful writers well-versed in lettered seduction. A soul-nourishing read.” Quite skillful of you and your writing group to get your town represented in the arts!
JACKIE HENRION: We were thrilled to have her endorsement. Katie and her husband, Shelby Rognstad, are not only supporters of the arts but they are courageous thought leaders, and devoted parents to their two children. As part of her doctorate studies in Leadership from Gonzaga, she now conducts presentations and workshops around the world about the power of women’s stories. In fact, the other endorsements at the front of the book are from a number of potent women in the Sandpoint arts community: Carol Deaner from the Pend Oreille Arts Council, Karin Wedemeyer, founder of the Sandpoint Music Conservatory and Suzy Prez, Manager of 88.5 KRFY.
KIRPAL GORDON: It appears this group has a long history. Why did you decide to publish a book now?
JACKIE HENRION: With covid restrictions and shutdowns, the women of the Sandpoint Monday Writers decided we would stop meeting for a while. Our long-term meeting place, Foster’s Crossing, an artistically quirky antique mall and restaurant, closed. We missed each other. We also missed the weekly practice: writing extemporaneously to prompts, witnessing our feelings, and giving wings to our creativity. In 2022, we decided to reinstate the meetings at the new Monarch Mountain Coffee, recently relocated to the heart of downtown Sandpoint. The book honors the writing process and this moment in time—our moment in time when women’s voices are at the crest of a cultural tsunami.
|Jackie Henrion, Rhoda Sanford, Sandy Lamson, Robens Napolitan, Desiree Aguirre, Sandra Rasor|
KIRPAL GORDON: Cultural tsunami? How so?
JACKIE HENRION: The most evident tsunami is that of high-profile figures held to account for their abuse of power for sexual ends. Women are challenging traditions around the globe, most evidently in the Middle East, on the African continent, and in France. During the covid shutdowns we had more time to reflect how human culture is changing in many related ways. For example, younger generations are showing us how to be more fluid in our identities, our jobs, and our families. In over a decade of Monday morning writing sessions, we also see changes in our language. We have matured in our perspective, occupying more space and holding the interspace for other women; less judgmental and more nuanced in our observations. Not just about poetic details but about ourselves. In a way, we are more forgiving of our formative conditions. Aging together makes us laugh more about our hair color, weight, families, memory lapses, and pets. Sandy Lamson’s piece, “The Oldest Bike,” is evocative in this way: ...“it leans against the wall to witness everything going on. The oldest bike in Sandpoint is envious; the last time it tried to see and hear everything, someone pushed it outside, where it fell into a crumpled heap from which it could not extricate itself without assistance. It was very embarrassing.”
KIRPAL GORDON: How did you discover or decide on the title Sandpointed?
JACKIE HENRION: We stretched the town’s name to a descriptive term to increase its stickiness. If you know a little about the literary history of the Northwest, you will have heard of Richard Hugo, the revered poetry professor at Montana State Bozeman, memorialized by the Hugo House in Seattle. He wrote a book called The Triggering Town, about his poetic philosophy. The resultant dominant cultural legacy from Seattle’s University of Washington out to the plains of Montana, is place-based. Certainly in Sandpoint, our creative language can’t help but include the geography, such as my poem “Lake This.”
“The lake exudes a tufted sailing regatta, lofted
Scrims wafting, floating, coasting along
The viscous surface about to be ice.
Like tall ships and small craft, drifting in the Northward breeze
Stately procession, over immobilized waves. Ducks
Dive, punctuating the edge of the crust periodically, Purposefully."
Or Desiree’s story about Marburl, the lone post-apocalyptic figure who accumulates family on his way to the remembered safety of Sandpoint. In this way one can see Sandpoint as an enclave of hope where men and women can navigate new streams from their regional cultural lineage.
KIRPAL GORDON: The reputation of North Idaho and the extremist community called the American Redoubt movement have grabbed headlines in the recent past.
JACKIE HENRION: They are a noisy minority. But our group chooses to focus instead on authentic experiences and communal sensibilities. This book amplifies our shared experiences. We wish to become louder, inspire others. We write about this place and the paradox and diversity of viewpoints found here. We embrace them all. Writing our first and best thoughts, reading them to each other, and acknowledging each other happens quietly, yet profoundly, every week.
KIRPAL GORDON: Does the Sandpoint community know that you received your MFA degree from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University? I ask because your poetry project reflects a commitment to make community wherever you are, which the original JKSDP program directors, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, powerfully espoused. How did your degree from Naropa affect this project?
JACKIE HENRION: Although my work at Naropa influenced my language, our writing group uses the concepts through osmosis. At Naropa, I experimented with writing tools that helped me rise above cliches and think more poetically from Eleni Sikelianos. I also learned much about women’s writing and philosophy in Gabrielle Civil's class, discovering my lineage of the interspace and bridging through Dickinson, Anzaldúa, Perloff, and others. From Anne Waldman, I learned how politics begins and ends with personal sensations. But more than anything, I absorbed the value of continuing focus and energy: The “vow to poetry,” Anne describes. To learn the fundamentals of eloquent expression, then to value it enough to go to print, is a kind of sacred rite. As a result, it has been a delight to work with Laura Wahl at Turtlemoon Publishing, whose underlying mission is to publish women's stories and work. My MFA from Naropa helped me navigate the curating, editing, publishing, and marketing arenas more confidently. But all this knowledge fits within my parallel study of meditation and mind.
KIRPAL GORDON: Can you say more about your study of mind?
JACKIE HENRION: Before I went to Naropa, I had experience with meditation, and my undergraduate degree was in psychology. Then I encountered the work of psychologist Daniel J. Siegel. His concepts provide a framework and tools to integrate all of this knowledge in a helpful way for writing. I will mention only two here. His “wheel of awareness” describes four areas of insight critical to growth: the five senses, sensory awareness of subtle internal body processes, our thoughts and emotions, and finally, interpersonal dynamics. We can rise above the conventional when writers integrate language in these areas.
The second is what I see as original innocence. When we start to discover ourselves through writing, we are more compassionate if we understand that we, and others, are formed from our DNA and circumstances. We learn how to survive through our formative environments. For example, Robens’ poem, “Where God Lives,” is a poignant artifact of her upbringing as a minister's daughter.
“In my palms, the heat of suppressed youth
pulsed and ran up past the restricting cuffs
of my Sunday dress into my restless arms.”
When we become more self-aware through these writing processes, we learn that we can choose our actions and words differently with a focus of attention. Then our writing can take wings poetically. Our resultant growth and integration and provides something valuable for readers.
KIRPAL GORDON: How do you see that shaking out for readers of Sandpointed?
JACKIE HENRION: I see it as a kind of chamber music. The unique thing we have found through the group is a resonance of words and concepts. We achieve this resonance through one of our processes: collecting a list of words during the month which we use directly or for inspiration. In our writing, you can hear a repetition or echo in the finished pieces. Like the first poem by Desiree Aguirre mentions porcupines, so does one of my poems. You will also encounter some “recipes” from different writers. These repetitions are random and individually filtered yet pull the work together: a collection of “Wild Minds” at work. Like music, it takes time to absorb the vibrational qualities. Rhoda's Sanford's last poem in the book, “Give It Some Time,” is an apt invocation:
“...savor the taste,
feel the richness.
Relax into the pungent whisper of fulfillment.”
Hopefully, it will inspire people to take this home and start writing groups of their own. It can be transformative---in the most subtle and fundamental ways.
KIRPAL GORDON: How can readers find the book?
JACKIE HENRION: It’s available on Amazon as well as in local shops (https://a.co/d/9o0OHWh). Many come to Sandpoint to enjoy skiing, the lake amenities, hunting, fishing, and scenery. But this book is a gift to yourself or someone else about real people who live here, their interior landscape, their hopes for growth, and ultimately their courage to share their work.
Sunday, December 4, 2022
Giant Steps Press December 2022 Newsletter