by Alice Wilder

Latoya Dickens and I have been pen pals for a little over a year. In that time, I’ve moved four times. I’ve worked three different jobs and traveled to four different states. But several times a month, without fail, I’ve scooped thick envelopes out of my mail box and unfolded yellow lined pages filled with Latoya’s neat cursive. I’ve written her letters in boring classes (sorry, Professor Fhunsu), on my apartment’s staircase, at picnic tables after a hike. She writes her letters to me from the Lee Arrendale State Prison, in Georgia.

Probably my worst quality is my impatience, and it is what makes writing to Latoya so frustrating- it has been a year and she is right where she was before. Prison does this. Our power dynamic is inescapable- I am constantly moving around Chapel Hill and she is in Lee Arrendale State Prison, where she has been for nearly twenty years. I get to sit at this cafe and write about her life. That’s power.

But it would be dishonest to define Latoya as a powerless victim of the prison system, although she has, without a doubt, been negatively impacted by it. She is currently serving a life sentence for the death of her husband Otis, who abused her for nearly their entire relationship and threatened her life.

Although she is inside of this building, she is continuing to flow and grow. She tells me in her letters about her theology classes, her poetry classes, the books she reads. How she admires Serena Williams and loves the show Empire. She tells me about the ministry she wants to start when she is freed: she wants to focus on counseling people who are dealing with domestic violence and other forms of abuse.

Latoya loves to write poetry, so I sent her some questions for our Black Women Create series. Her poetry centers around womanhood, God, and love in all its dimensions.

Love Is

Love is beautiful
Love isn’t blind, it can see
It sees the beauty within, not
the skin
It isn’t a sin
Love is you
Love is me
Masculinity, masculinity
Femininity, Femininity
Love is love, let it be

Why do you enjoy writing poetry?

I never really thought about why I enjoy writing poetry. Since you asked, I honestly believe I can say it gives me peace, a sense of release and renewal. It is also one thing that can’t be taken away from me.

What advice would you give to a girl who wants to write poetry but is nervous to do so?

Sweetheart, it is definitely a way to release all that you may be holding in. Embrace that fear and find your voice as well as renewal. No fear, because fear immobilizes us. For example, Maya Angelou, she speaks volumes and where she came from was her foundation. She never sugarcoats.

What is your inspiration?

I’d have to honestly say that my family is my inspiration. I sometimes look back at where I used to be and it helps me to focus on where I want to be. And definitely my higher deity. As well as wanting to assist younger women and men to strive for better. Having the freedom to continuously elevate educationally, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, is inspiring in itself.

Latoya comes up for parole in 2016, this means that she will go in front of a parole board and have to make a case for why she should be free. With support and some luck, she could be out, free, in another year. But parole is incredibly difficult to get. Click here to learn more about her life, and how you can be part of a letter writing campaign to her parole board.