11/09/2011 11:01 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

Prisoners Finding Their Voices Through Poetry and Prose: The 2011 PEN Writing Benefit Reading

People often ask me where I got my start as a writer and where I learned my craft. When I tell them that I honed my writing skills in prison from a maverick writer, they do a double take.

My teacher was Fielding Dawson who was the chairman and director of the PEN Prison Writing Committee and Workshop Program. Dawson was a prolific writer, author of 22 books, whose work appeared in newspapers, magazines and anthologies in the U.S. and abroad. He had a flair for promoting social change that followed him throughout his life. This passion became firmly implanted in him after he taught a writing workshop in Attica Prison in 1984. It was there that he discovered the raw intuitive talent found in the genre of prison writing. For the next 18 years, until he passed on, he taught the art of creative writing in prisons across the United States.

I met Fielding while serving a 15-to-life sentence for a drug conviction at Sing Sing. I attended his writing workshops for five years and watched in awe as he brought out the hidden talent that was dormant in many prisoners. What touched me most was the sincerity in his work and his relationships with us. He put aside institution rules that prohibited volunteers to treat those incarcerated as human beings. Fielding knew how important it was to bond with his students and treated us all with great respect.

Fielding took his love of teaching and activism to the radio show he hosted every Thursday morning on WBAI's "Wake Up Call." On his show, "Breaking Down the Walls," he read letters, poetry, and even complaints about conditions by prisoners. He enabled men and women to reach out to their communities for help. He was a solid voice for prisoners, a tireless advocate who shared stories of incarceration with his peers. This cost him dearly, stigmatizing himself, but he did not care. His mission in life became what he wrote about, a compassionate view of life in prison

On Wednesday, November 9 at the National Arts Club in New York City, the 2011 PEN Prison Writing Program will hold a fundraiser. PEN members and special guests will read award-winning poetry and prose from the PEN prison writing contest. The proceeds from the event will be used to help those incarcerated hone their skills as writers and provide them with skilled writing mentors like Fielding Dawson and provide free handbooks for writers in prison.

When: Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Where: The National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South, New York City
What time: 7 p.m.
Tickets: $25. For more info visit their website

If you can't attend, please sponsor an MFA writing student to go in your place. Your ticket will be reserved at The New School for a student.

According to PEN its Prison Writing Program in 2011:
• Distributed more than 8,000 copies of the PEN Handbook for Writers in Prison free of charge to men and women serving sentences throughout the United States
• Connected over 100 mentors with writers in prison for one-on-one instruction
• Judged over 1,500 manuscripts in our Prison Writing Contest
• Reprinted an Anthology Doing Time, with a new forward