Combining text from government questionnaires and reports, lyric poetry, and photography, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes examines the possibility of a privatized prison system in Canada leading up to then Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative government passing the Anti-Terrorism Act, also known as Bill C-51. This legislation criminalizes Indigenous peoples’ attempts to protect their traditional and unceded territories from ecological destruction by classifying their actions as acts of terrorism, at the same time that it criminalizes refugees, who as victims of colonization and globalization, attempt to flee genocide and poverty yet are targeted as suspected terrorists. Simultaneously, the incarceration of Indigenous people, refugees, and people of colour is rapidly increasing and corporations eagerly court the government for private-public partnerships to fund the building of new prisons and detention centres.
Eng’s father was an addict who supported his habit by breaking the law. As a result, she spent her formative years acquiring intimate knowledge of the Canadian prison system through visitation rights. The impetus for Prison Industrial Complex Explodes was the discovery of a cache of her father’s prison correspondence: letters from the federal government stating their intention to deport him because of his criminal record; letters from prison justice advocate Michael Jackson advising her father on deportation; letters from the RCMP regarding the theft of her father’s property, a gold necklace, while in transport to prison; letters from family members and friends; letters from Eng and her brother. The cold formality of the government letters in accidental juxtaposition with the emotion of the personal letters struck a creative spark that led to the writing of poems in this collection.
Mercedes Eng is a teacher and writer in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territory. She is the author of Mercenary English (CUE Books), which explores the potential of documentary poetics. Her work has appeared in West Coast Line, Canada and Beyond, The Capilano Review, and Geist. Much of her creative writing is grounded in struggles for social justice in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In 2014 she wrote a series of articles on poetry and gentrification in Vancouver for Jacket2, Penn University’s online poetry magazine, and in 2012–2013, she wrote several articles for a community newspaper, The Downtown East. She has spoken at the DTES Writer’s Jamboree at Carnegie Community Centre (April 2011) and lectured on visual representations of the missing and murdered women of Vancouver at Simon Fraser University (March 2011).
“Simple – but not simplistic – lines such as ‘i think about that yellow bead a lot’ reflect Eng’s exquisite attention and make me feel intimately connected to the poet-speaker. … [Other lines] reveal imagination and attention to lineation. … At once powerful and beautiful, gentle and urgent, I await more from this voice.”
—Doyali Islam in the Globe & Mail
Praise for earlier work:
"I situate Mercenary English in a diverse line of revolutionary poetics – including those of writers like M. NourbeSe Philip, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Kamau Brathwaite, Cecilia Vicuña, Heriberto Yépez, and Laura Elrick, to name just a few ... this weaponized English is a vulnerable and tender form of revolutionary poetics [that] erupt with insurrection ... redoubling this call with the courage to affirm: “my voice / it’s mine to find / when it comes / my call will make you deaf.”
– Natalie Knight in The Capilano Review