Ear Hustle's Nigel Poor on Empowered Women and the Secret Life of Men

Ear Hustle's Nigel Poor on Empowered Women and the Secret Life of Men

by Althaea Sandover

If you’re aware of the podcast Ear Hustle, you’ll know the name Nigel Poor. From inside San Quentin State Prison, California, she and co-host Earlonne Woods bring us stories of incarcerated life. Outside, she is a photographer, teacher, and visual artist. Her work is thoughtful; she has compassion for humanity and the way we communicate. Hearing Nigel talk about her artistic endeavours is like taking a splash of water to the face, if that water was empathy and creative energy.

Nigel is fascinated with the physical traces of human life, or “left behind things”, and the way we try to find meaning in humble objects. For a past project she took a selection of banned books, ripped them in half and threw them in with her laundry. The “beguiling, sometimes evil and surprising” bits of books that survived the washing became the photographed subjects of a series titled Remainders: God, sex and animals talking. So why wash books?

 N: I wanted to use a process which at one point had been considered women’s work, which is doing laundry. I like the idea that this simple domestic task could reveal something really beautiful.

‘Madam Bovary’ from  Remainders: god, sex and animals talking , by Nigel Poor

‘Madam Bovary’ from Remainders: god, sex and animals talking, by Nigel Poor

The chosen books all had women’s names in the titles and had been banned somewhere in the world. Despite the typically feminine, domestic connotations of laundry, Nigel feels that washing a book is “a pretty violent act”. There is a triumphant quality, she believes, to the book that survives and is transformed after such a trauma.

N: They were a lot of oddly feminine shapes; vaginal shapes and softer shapes that came about. They were floral and feminine but also really strong.

From our conversation about Remainders, and also the way she talks about Jody Lewen from Prison University Project (“she’s my mentor”), I can tell that Nigel is a believer in women and their strength. On the other hand, she admits that her opinion of men has not always been particularly high. We laugh about it, but she follows up with sincerity: her experience working on Ear Hustle has changed the way she thinks about men.

N: What’s funny is I gained so much more respect for men having spent time in prison because I feel like I’ve been able to see into [their] secret life and how difficult it can be. [It] has made me way more sympathetic to men who end up in prison because of how they grew up, or feeling that they have to have certain masculine postures.

Even still, there have been occasions when the podcast’s on-air conversations around women have been difficult. For the most part, Ear Hustle stories featuring women are pervaded by an air of wistfulness. It is as though the existence of women outside of San Quentin is synonymous with the freedoms that the men inside lack. That is, until the dating episodes aired...  

Episodes 23 and 24 focus on the complications of being in a relationship while in prison. In the latter episode, aptly named ‘Prime Real Estate’, we hear some interesting perspectives from self-titled players on the physical appearances of women they’ve dated. But it’s Episode 23, ‘The Big No No’, that I want Nigel’s perspective on.

In this episode, we meet Erin who, like a lot of the guests on the show, is a great storyteller. The emotionally eloquent account of his relationship with a former prison volunteer is poignant and romantic. It’s impossible not to root for this boundary-crossing love-story.

It’s a dreadful moment when the listener finds out why Erin is incarcerated.

N: My philosophy has been [that], unless it’s very relevant to the story, we don’t go into the crime. [But] I was worried that the story would come out and people would start researching him. A lot of listeners would feel like we were dishonest – it was a real moral conundrum for me.

Erin, the listener discovers, is in prison for the murder of an ex-girlfriend. 

N: As a woman it’s a difficult topic. [For him] to kill a woman is a frightening thing.

Why was it necessary for Nigel and Earlonne to reveal Erin’s past? Media, according to Nigel, has “a big responsibility to empower women”. For the podcast to ignore the issue of violence towards women in an episode about dating would have been a dangerous rose-tinting of reality.

N: Like I said, I don’t like starting off with the crime. But I felt like in this case it would matter and that women particularly might feel like we didn’t make them feel safe.

It’s important to Nigel that Ear Hustle avoids creating a “false sense” of prison and the people inside, which is why plans for future seasons include running stories from prisons beyond San Quentin.

N: Like so many things, women are not getting the attention they need, and we need to hear stories from women’s prisons.

And yet, Ear Hustle in its original form is a space in which incarcerated men, specifically, are given ownership over their own narratives. For a society still reeling from the recent explosion of #MeToo stories in the media, it’s a contentious issue. Perhaps some wouldn’t think such men are deserving of an opportunity for redemption. But, for Nigel, this is an important aspect of the work. 

N: People do change. [Erin]’s not the same man he was 20 years ago. It was hard, but I do stand behind it that ultimately, we had a responsibility.

This is a dual responsibility; both for the narrative being fed to the listeners and for the dignity of those sharing their stories on the show. Though we are being given permission to eavesdrop on the lives of those imprisoned, Ear Hustle only asks that we listen – never judge. Perhaps this was why Nigel works so well with Earlonne, who she describes as being “super quiet”. Quiet people, she says, are “good observers”.

N: In some ways now when I think about my art, it’s about the art of listening and being a generous listener. I don’t think we’re trained to be generous listeners.

The art of listening is important to Nigel because, for her, art is about communication. She hopes others will be inspired to create when they encounter her work, especially during a time which is so politically bleak. She has a belief in “the strength of individuals” to reach out and have a “ripple effect” on the community that they touch. And that is what her creative drive is all about. 

N: I see the biggest impact in what we’re doing with Ear Hustle because it reaches so many people […] I always want to encourage people: don’t give up on your own ability to get up and make change. 

You can find Nigel Poor’s visual art projects online at www.nigelpoor.com

Catch up with all three seasons of Ear Hustle on your favourite podcast app, or on www.earhustlesq.com

Harpy would like to wish a warm congratulations to Earlonne Woods, whose sentence was commuted on 21 November 2018.

Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods. Image sourced via  Ear Hustle/Radiotopia from PRX

Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods. Image sourced via Ear Hustle/Radiotopia from PRX

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