AJ McKenna talks to Apples and Snakes about the subject behind her filmpoem: ‘Letter to a Minnesota Prison’ - a commission for Architects of Our Republic.
Can you give us an insight as to what Letter to a Minnesota Prison is about?
It’s about CeCe Mcdonald, a young black trans-woman who was sent to prison for defending herself and her friends against a racist, transphobic attack. She went to prison as a result of a plea bargain deal she had to make when she realised she had no chance of a fair trial – and she realised that when the judge ruled that a cheque CeCe had written, which bounced, would be used as evidence of her bad character. Not as material evidence, just proof that because she’d bounced a cheque once, she must be a cold-blooded killer.
I had wanted to write a poem about CeCe’s case for a long time, but had never found a way in. Then l read the full text of the MLK speech (rather than just the peroration) and saw the passage near the beginning where he compares the US Declaration of Independence to a bad cheque and that was it.
Can you talk us through the process for the film?
l wrote most of the poem, (the first half) in one burst after having the initial idea, then most of the second half in a similar burst. I worked with Degna Stone, my mentor on the project, to refine it, edit it, and take out some bits which, while good, will probably turn into other poems because they don’t fit this one. Initially we were concerned to try and find a way of tying the poem together at the end – I initially envisaged it as a three-’movement’ poem with what is currently the end as merely a volta leading into the final movement, but after trying to come up with one ending after another which, for all their merits didn’t work, we decided the poem works better with the ending it currently has.
In terms of turning it into a film, my main concern was not to have it turn into a pop video. I wanted to honour the very different challenges faced by CeCe as a black trans-woman compared to my relatively privileged position as a white trans-woman, so I felt being filmed performing in the video myself would be appropriative and egotistical. Fortunately Laura Degnan, the director, was able to come up with some great images that accompany the poem. It isn’t a literal recreation of the events around CeCe’s imprisonment, nor is it a film of a performance. The film in its own way is as much a poem as the poem it accompanies – they complement each other.
Why should people come and see Letter to a Minnesota prison?
Because I think it’s the best poem I’ve ever written, because it’s about something important, and because people need to learn about cases like CeCe’s so we can ensure miscarriages of justice like hers don’t happen again.
How has your experience with this project impacted upon you?
I’ve learned a lot about working on poems as part of something other than performance, about working in other media and developing longer pieces which incorporate elements other than just spoken word. I’m currently working on developing a long piece with music that’s going to be aired on Home Cooking on Basic FM sometime in the New Year. Also, I got to meet loads of really talented poets from other parts of the country, which is great, because I think you can get a bit stale if you stick to your own scene. As a result of working on this project I’ve got gigs much further afield, in London at Jawdance and in Plymouth at Forked later this November. In a way it’s made me feel more like a national, UK poet than just a North East poet. Which is a nice feeling.
What is your dream for 2014?
I think if I have a dream for 2014 it’s to be able to keep producing work that’s worthy of peoples’ time, that says something important, and which changes peoples’ minds and alerts them to experiences outside of their own, and to get that work out to a wider number of people. I’d like for my work to have some kind of real world impact: sometimes you get a bit tired of being satisfied with the thought that you’ve ‘raised awareness‘ in some kind of nebulous way and when I look at how trans people get treated, at how CeCe is still in prison, at how Chelsea Manning is still in prison and fighting just for the right to be referred to by the right name and pronouns by people supposedly on her own side, at the fact that Pink News can give their Politician of the Year award to Baroness Stowell, who supported the transphobic spousal veto tacked onto the Equal Marriage Bill which means that the spouses of trans people who get divorced can legally delay our access to a Gender Recognition Certificate, and the fact that Fox News, the Pacific Justice Institute and a woman who calls herself a ‘radical feminist‘ but makes her money working as a lawyer for a payday loan company are persecuting a trans child so badly right now that said child is on suicide watch even as I write this, things feel bleak and it feels as if words aren’t enough but they’re all I have. But I believe in magic: I believe that the right words, in the right arrangement, said in the right way, can have an effect on the real world, and in 2014 I want that to happen. I want 2014 to be the year when my words start to make a real difference to the lives of trans people.
Watch ‘Letter to a Minnesota Prison’Read More