Activist-essayist-poet Jackie Wang Tackles Incarceration

Jackie WangJackie Wang. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

Local poet Jackie Wang will not be pigeon-holed. She’s a performer, the author of multiple radical zines, and a self-described “poetry-school drop-out,” “library rat,” and “trauma monster.” She’s also a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard in African and African American Studies, and, she cheerfully adds, “I also make music and films!”

You may have heard her name most recently alongside the term “prison abolitionist.” Wang’s new book, “Carceral Capitalism,” is a collection of essays that investigates how the economy of incarceration has evolved over the past few decades. It was published by Semiotext(e), an imprint of MIT Press, in February, and she’s been touring behind the book as an advocate for carceral change since its release.

Her sharp focus on prisons grew out of personal experience: her older brother was sentenced to juvenile life without parole in 2005. (Recently, his sentence was reduced to 40 years.)

“I usually start with a question, then figure out what tools or resources I need to address the question,” she explains. Needing to expand her financial vocabulary to write about municipal finance, for instance, Jackie watched a bootlegged video course on finance. “For each essay, there was a dimension of the carceral state and contemporary capitalism that I wanted to understand and unpack, whether it was the legal conception of the ‘juvenile’ and its relationship to the superpredator myth, the political economy of fee and fine farming by the police, algorithmic policing, the racialized nature of the debt economy, or the poetics of abolition.”

Before her book was released by MIT Press, I saw Jackie read from it at Harvard’s Houghton Library, alongside other poet activists, at an event titled, “Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The excerpt she chose for the event, the only poem in a book of essays, stunned the entire room. It was the first section I turned to when the book came out a few months later, so I asked her about her decision to include the poem in a book of essays.

“The poet is a reflection of the present insofar as they index the reality that has produced them,” she says. “What is in the consciousness (and unconscious) of the poet is the world—it flows through them.”

For Jackie, the world flowing through her is one of capitalism and incarceration, and it is a world that needs to change. “Poetry not only indexes the present, but it engages in imaginative work that makes new futures possible,” she says. “It is a pickaxe we use to chip away at the edifice of the carceral capitalist present.”

What’s next for the activist-essayist-poet? Wang is investigating America’s bail system: the bail bonds industry and the use of risk assessment tools by the state and non-profits to make decisions about bail and pre-trial detention. At Harvard, she’s working with her advisor and another peer on curating an exhibit of highlighted papers from Civil Rights Movement activist and feminist Angela Y. Davis. And, just in case you were worried she might have some free time to go on a picnic this summer, she’s also working on completing two books—one of poetry, titled “The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void,” and another collection of essays, “Alien Daughters Walk Into the Sun: An Encyclopedia of Extreme Girlhood.”

This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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