Paula Cisewski’s ‘F@#K Your Punishment Culture’ Project Needs Your Help

Over at USA Projects, Nightboat Poetry Prize winner Paula Cisewski is looking for a little push to fund her new memoir project, ‘Fuck Your Punishment Culture.’ According to Cisewski’s proposal, the book will “incorporate narrative and lyric essays, physical documents, interviews, poems, fragments, and photographs. It will explore the story, and the lack of story, around the loss of [her] brother, who escaped from prison in 1982 and was never heard from again.”


We emailed a couple of questions to Paula to find out more about the context for this project:

Coldfront: In many of the poems that take on the subject of your brother, you often feel the need to rename him, or reinvent him in some way that’s tactile. I suppose absence makes doing things like this necessary, but can you talk about how this situation is different than, say, a deceased relative or truant parent?

Paula Cisewski: I was sheltered from death as a kid, so I thought that kind of loss would feel a lot different. Except for my brother who disappeared when I was 13, I didn’t lose anyone, even a grandparent, until I was twenty-one years old. Of course, when I was a kid, I thought the not-knowing was worse. “At least there are answers when someone dies,” was an inexperienced thing I thought. There isn’t a better or worse way to lose someone you love. Every experience of loss is entirely new, which is one reason, perhaps, we thankfully never get good at it.

CF: Can you tell us a little about how you decided to finally commit to this project? You mention various practical and impractical reasons, but what makes this project so important to you at this point in your life?

PC: I have wanted to write this book for as long as I can remember. I started interviewing family members in 2008, and in 2009, I received a grant and traveled to complete the initial research. I wrote a lot then, but I still couldn’t hear my prose voice, even a hybrid, lyric prose voice. I thought, being a poet, that was just the type of writer I was. Some people make seamless leaps between genres, and maybe I just couldn’t jump. In time, I came to realize there were two other issues. One is simply this: it’s frightening to share this kind of story. The other is this: I didn’t fully believe that it was my story (also my story) to tell. I have found over the last few months of sharing bits from FYPC and claiming my experience as my own, that people identify. People are more supportive than I could have imagined.

This past year has been revelatory for me in ways I can’t explain. I realized I need to commit more fundamentally to my work. Instead of dipping in and writing autobiographical bits and pieces in different collections, I need to draw out the narrative arc and learn from it and share it. As an artist and as a mother of a wonderful young man and as a citizen of a country with a number of broken systems, including the Prison-Industrial Complex, I feel that this story is my job. I can hear the voice for it now.



In the new era of crowd-sourced funding, this project has terrific potential. Help make it happen by visiting the USA Projects page and doing what you can!


Paula Cisewski’s second poetry collection, Ghost Fargo, was selected by Franz Wright for the Nightboat Poetry Prize. She is also the author of Upon Arrival (Black Ocean), of the chapbooks How Birds Work and Two Museums, and the co-author, with Mathias Svalina, of Or Else What Asked the Flame. Her poems appeared recently or are forthcoming in Cant, PrettyLIT, South Dakota Review, failbetter, Everyday Genuis, We Are So Happy to Know Something, BOMB; and REVOLUTIONesque.