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Sing Soft, Sing Loud - Patricia McConnel

S. Yaeger's picture

I will use this page to record my ongoing thoughts while reading "Sing Soft, Sing Loud"

read first chapter

think about use for class



btoews's picture

 Hi Shannon -  Below are some

 Hi Shannon - 

Below are some of my thoughts on the first chapter of this book. I look forward to hearing your ideas as you read! As usual, I give some ideas below on how the text might be used so curious your reactions to those. And, should we read the whole book? 

I read the whole book a number of years ago but it is the first chapter that has always stuck in my mind. Iva has a striking relationship with the window and tree – she looks out/at it each morning, she doesn’t want to leave the block because of it and she doesn’t tell people about the view (she mentions this twice). This view out her window isn’t just of something pretty to look at – it is a symbol of punishment and the control others have over her; it is a symbol of both the limits and possibilities of freedom, both institutional and personal; and it is a secret that she guards dearly for fear of the consequences. What she positions herself to see each day simultaneously confines and frees.

I look out many windows each day and, most of the time, they are just windows with views to the outside. I have rarely, if ever, considered the deep meaning that windows or their views hold. Yes, research suggests that views have the potential to impact people’s lives and relationships – e.g., views of trees out apartment windows can reduce aggressive behavior, views of nature out of hospital windows reduces the time it takes to heal from medical procedures, and views of nature out of prison cell windows can reduce the number of sick calls an incarcerated person requests. But Iva is suggesting something deeper. It is one thing to say I feel good when I look out a window (which Iva also says). It is another to link it to punishment, confinement, freedom and secrets (and humanization, hope, discouragement, etc.). With this deeper meaning, it is not surprising Iva keeps silent about the window and tree. To speak of it is to potentially put her humanity in jeopardy. Her comment at the end about how it makes no difference where she spends her time so clearly communicates that it does.

The “difference it makes you where sit” is not just physical, not just about whether one can see the tree or not. Iva’s conversation with Rupert also hints at the different vantage points that shape how the world is understood – whether and how one understands the importance of window/tree or whether and how one understands why someone women are in jail and others are not. These different vantage points are based on institutional status (prisoner or “screw”), street hustler or $500 call girl with an escort service madam. One could wonder if she is also implying differences related to race and other forms of socioeconomic status.

The fact that Iva remains silent on what she sees in the physical world of the institution stands in stark contrast to what she gives voice to, that is the pathways into the institution.  She sees distinctions between people and their experiences and these “sights” need to be spoken about.

There is also something there that I haven’t yet put my finger on. She opens the chapter with her eyes open, describing her block, the window and the tree. In B tank, she wants her eyes open and it seems to “open” her (feels good, links to freedom). She ends the chapter closing her eyes, to block out Rupert. In A tank (which has no window), she doesn’t want to see or has nothing to see. She has closed down.

This chapter gets me wondering:

-       What do we see in our daily lives that is symbolic of or communicate messages about who we are individuals, our place within an institution or society, the degree to which we have control or are controlled and the limits and possibilities for our futures?

-       What are the sights that we intentionally or unintentionally hold secret and why?

-       How do we choose when to open our eyes to see and when to close our eyes to shut out? What does this say about what we choose to see and what we choose to not see? How do these choices influence how we understand the world? How are these influenced by the differences in where we sit?

I also like McConnel’s writing style- it “gritty” and descriptive. When I read, I can visualize the jail, the window, the tree and hear and feel the chaos.

This reading could be used in a few different ways:

-       Reading for the very first campus-based class as it introduces the idea of needing to pay attention to those things we take for granted, serves as in introduction to course themes and gives a first glimpse at institutional life

-       Shared reading for the first class at FDC for the reasons above with the added benefit of conversation with FDC women. It could also serve as the jumping off place for activities (in-class or for the following week) related to, for instance, what we see and the meaning those things hold for us, who is in prison and who isn’t, things we talk about and things we don’t, etc.

-       Shared reading for the second unit in the FDC that focuses specifically on daily life in the institution. It could serve as the basis for in-class discussion as well as serve as the backdrop for a between-session assignment of paying to what we see and the meaning those things hold for us, ways in which find privacy, what sights we keep to ourselves and what we share, etc. 

Patricia McConnel's picture


Google alerted me to this page. I'm glad to have discovered it. Your perceptions about Iva and the story are right on. It's always gratifying for an author to become aware of a sensitive reading. It does a lot to counter experiences like "Is all that bad language really necessary?" - that's a real question from a reading I did in Utah.

What I can contribute here is that although the symbols in the story are clear enough now, while writing many times they come spontaneously from the "creative unconscious" and I don't recognize them until later. I think this is true for many writers. And certainly the symbolic significance of many things I experienced in jail and prison weren't at all clear to me at time, and also only came to me later, usually when I started writing about them. Also common, I believe, for anyone, not just writers.

I would be happy to answer questions from your class(es) by email.

By the way, my father enrolled me in Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Baltimore when I was 13 or 14. Already well on my way to total dysfunction, I fucked up and flunked out. I'm sure you'll appreciate that it amuses me greatly to now have my book used in a class at Bryn Mawr College.

Barb Toews's picture

Thank you for your post!

Patricia -

Thank you so much for introducing yourself and commenting! And, thank you for the invitation to respond to questions students have. I will take you up on that! Let me tell you a bit about the class that is reading the book. In short, it is a class of students from Bryn Mawr College and students at the Cannery, one of the two women's institution within the Philly Prison System. We are having a combined 6 week workshop where we meet in the jail and, together, read and discuss shared readings and create individual works of art. The first chapter (and I am going to add the second chapter) will be read in a few weeks when we explore Toch's idea of niches. I would love to have the combined class pose questions to you! They are reading the excerpt for Nov 9 and so I am thinking that we can send out questions within a few days of that class for your response which we would then take back into the institution on November 16. Does that seem feasible with your schedule?



Patricia McConnel's picture

Very late answering your reply to my post

After posting my comment back in October 2012, I came back several times but there seemed to be some malfunction in the page at that time, and I could never see my post and eventually decided that it was not accepted or ???? I did not receive email notification, either, though I had check the "Notify me" box. So I gave up and never saw your response until today, when I found a link in Google and tried it. So sorry I missed a chance to answer questions from your students, and to interact with you. You must have been frustrated when you didn't hear back from me. Just wanted you to know I did not ignore your message - I never saw it.

If you use the book again, contact me by writing - that way we'll avoid any further such messups.

And thank you for your interest in my work.

S. Yaeger's picture

I read the first two chapters

I read the first two chapters because I just kind of got all caught up in the story and didn't realize that I had gone past the first.  I actually think that they both could be used as shared readings.  They're both relatively short and accessible, and I think they both pick up on themes of vision, both literal and figurative.  

The first chapter picks up on all the themes yoou've outlined above, and I think that the questions you've created above are really good conversation questions. I assume that nearly everyone has, at some point, held a secret sight or vision, so this is a good unifying text between the two classes of students.  

I was struck by the sheer specificity of where Iva would need to sit in order to be able to be "opened up" by the sight of the tree through the window.  We all have looked through windows toward what's beyond them, but how many of us have had to calculate a position down to the centemeter in order to do so?  Also of intrest here is the idea that Iva is not only accessing a tree beyond the block, but also accessing her own figurative idea of freedom.


In the second chapter, I really liked the tension between how one women sees herself and how other see her.  Iva sees the new girl as a tourist in spite of their common reasons for being there.  What does this sat about our ability to truly define ourselves?  Are we free to envision our selves into who we want to be, or are we always bound by others' perceptions?  If the latter, then who suffers the most from these limitations?  Where are the racial, economic and gender dividing lines. and what happens when they intersect?