Summoning inspiration from solitary, Missouri resident wins PEN America prison writing award
TOPEKA — Alex Tretbar scratched Lou Reed lyrics into the concrete “rhomboid exoskeleton” of an Oregon jail’s solitary confinement hole, then found the strength to write about it.
“Some people work very hard,” the song goes, “but still they never get it right.”
Tretbar, a Wichita native and University of Kansas graduate, references the experience in “Variations on an Undisclosed Location,” a poem he wrote while incarcerated for five years for his role in a drug-related shooting. PEN America announced Wednesday that Tretbar’s poem was a first-place winner in the organization’s annual prison writing contest.
The award is a testament to Tretbar’s ability to reconcile his battle with opioid addiction through the “self-psychotherapy” of writing. He now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, after being paroled in July.
“I was like, OK, there’s not really much left for me to do other than try to improve myself and get clean, and writing was just — it wasn’t really like a choice. It was just what I do,” Tretbar said.
He said the poem is about working out the effects of segregation on the personality, how time is perceived, and grappling with addiction and suffering and racism.
“It kind of goes all over,” he said.
PEN America champions literary art and free expression through its Prison and Justice Writing program. The organization’s annual awards spotlight writers “who are critically reshaping the conversation on mass incarceration, advocacy, and justice in the United States.”
Robert Pollock, manager of the Prison Writing Program, said this year’s anthology of winners takes its name from Tretbar’s poem because it “resonated with us so deeply.”
The way Tretbar sees it, prison saved his life.
Tretbar grew up in Wichita and graduated in 2012 from KU with degrees in English and journalism. He said he was involved in the Lawrence music scene, where he played bass guitar and managed the college radio station. He also developed an addiction to oxycodone and other opioids while in school.
“I wasn’t necessarily like this reclusive drug addict,” he said. “To a certain extent, I was a functional addict when I was in school. And that ended up not being tenable after I graduated.”
When it became difficult to find pharmaceuticals, Tretbar started using heroin. He moved to Los Angeles to pursue music and journalism — “just running and not really thinking straight” — and washed up in a hostel in Venice Beach, trying to get clean. Then it was on to Portland, Oregon, with a woman he met in L.A.
He worked at a law firm for a while, ghostwriting recommendation letters for immigrants who were trying to get green cards. He was on methadone and still chained to opioids. In 2016, he started using again and lived on the streets for Portland for about a year.
That’s when he made a “horrible mistake.”
Tretbar and a drug dealer went to settle a debt, which led to gunfire. Luckily, no one died. Tretbar fled the scene instead of calling 911 or attending to the victim. He was charged with first-degree attempted robbery.
“Sometimes it doesn’t really seem like me, looking back on it, but it definitely was me,” Tretbar said. “I take responsibility for it.”
In the years that followed, “I’ve tried to live my life in a way that would honor not only the victim, but my family and friends who also suffered while I was in prison for my absence, and also to honor myself and honor the life that I should have been living all along.”
Tretbar said he worked as a librarian and GED tutor at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, where he met several mentors from Oregon State University who helped him work on his writing. In 2021, he won second-place PEN awards for poetry and fiction writing.
This year’s award-winning poem evolved from a prompt with his mentors. It begins:
wasn’t. All of the other & inward
voices came out: my neighbor
summoned summer with his absent eye
-tooth: perfect mimic
of a lost-in-basement cricket. I carved Lou
Reed lyrics into my concrete rhomboid
exoskeleton. I found a letter toothpasted
to the ceiling claiming
I had written it.
The lyrics were from the Velvet Underground song “Beginning to See the Light.”
Tretbar said he draws inspiration from the music of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and “krautrock” artists. His writing influences include Topeka natives Ben Lerner and Michael Robbins.
He is now working remotely for an old friend at a political consulting agency in Omaha and searching for post-November writing work. He hopes to attend graduate school and work as a GTA next year.
Tretbar said he never thought about prison or mass incarceration until he was arrested.
“Five years was the right amount of time to get sober and get my head straight, and so I have a complicated relationship with prison, because I’m grateful for it,” he said. “Sure, I hate and despise many aspects of incarceration — the mindless bureaucracy and the dehumanization and all of that. But for some people, it works.”
Tretbar said his first impressions about people “have almost always been wrong.” Similarly, other people have the wrong idea about prison.
“I struggle with coming up with a single sentence that says, ‘This is how you should feel about prison.’ But I would say don’t make up your mind too readily about the kind of person that goes to prison and the kind of person that gets out of prison, because every single one of them is different,” Tretbar said.
I seek — sought — asylum
in silos, syringes,
sickness for the sake
of getting well again.
I am a word, of or relating to
what tries to turn around but can’t
stop turning, dizzy dervish.
I demand the panopticon crown
my oatmeal with an orchid.
— from “Variations on an Undisclosed Location”
This story was originally published by the Kansas Reflector, a States Newsroom affiliate.