Poetry in Prison

An opportunity to present poetry in a prison arose this week. I took it. This is my account of what happened.

Prisons, and penal practise, have been places of increasing interest for me in recent years. I have never doubted that prisons are required to both protect and punish. I have suspected that some are happy for prisons to exist as little more than festering containment tanks, with little regard for what happens when the contents are released. I have also long doubted the glib belief that prisons are holiday camps.

So what motivated me to take up the offer to run a poetry workshop in a prison? Curiosity to see what life is really like inside, the challenge of coming face to face with convicted prisoners and discovering how I would respond, the chance to share a passion for poetry with an unlikely audience, to introduce something new to others, and to do it well, to maybe make a difference, to try to do something good for its own sake. It was a mixture of all of those things, not necessarily in that order, and certainly with each not carrying equal weight. But as I walked up to the gate, all fine and worthy intentions evaporated as my mind focussed on simply surviving the afternoon!

For reasons of security and confidentiality, I shall not be specific about the establishment and provide aliases for those whom I met. My group were young adults who were serving a minimum of four years, and a maximum of life. Bad boys, who had done bad things.

Before I left home I joked with my wife that if I was taken hostage I expected a tearful, televised plea for my safe return – not an endorsement of a “no negotiations with hostage takers” policy! It was a nervous joke. In practise I had been reassured that assaults on visitors and education staff were virtually unknown, as we provided much appreciated and welcome relief from the daily grind, the more likely risk being of an inter prisoner flare up. Open body language and non-confrontational verbal language was advised. It seemed like good advice too.

I was quite surprised by the number of female officers , fitness instructors and ancillary staff there . Apparently the benefits are a lowering of physical confrontations, the disadvantage, a lack of muscle when violence does break out.

Mysteries Plays

My biggest challenge was what to do in the workshop. Ostensibly , my objective was to solicit poetry inspired by the Lichfield Mysteries cycle, a series of some twenty six plays based on bible stories as re-imagined over the past 600 years. In practise I had doubts about the extent of the likely biblical and theological expertise I was likely to encounter, and anticipated having to start very close to poetry square one.

No-one knew what the abilities of those attending my workshop were going to be. My primary concern was whether they could read and write rather than their grasp of iambic pentameter, alliteration and assonance. This meant that I had to prepare four parallel lesson plans. Plan A, for absolute beginners. Plan B for functional literacy but no expertise. Plan C for a conventional workshop group, and Plan D, designed simply to amuse them if it was all going horribly wrong. That is thirteen hours worth of material. Oh, and there was one more thing. The session was to last three and a quarter hours, locked in, no toilet or refreshment breaks, expulsion from the class not an option, and sanctions somewhat restricted as we already were in prison! I have friends and family who work as junior school teachers, secondary school teachers, university lecturers and adult education teachers. All reacted with pitying sympathy for a session of that length, in those circumstances. I dismissed their wisdom with a less than convincing bravado.

As an enthusiastic viewer of “Americas Hardest Prisons” on television I was well aware of the hold of gang culture in States side prisons. However I was surprised to learn that it is a significant problem here too, although without a uniform racial divide . Here inter- city and intra city rivalries are to the fore such that regular prisoner moves are required to reduce the risk of territory being established and alliances becoming entrenched.

The extended lesson time reflected prison routine of prisoner movements being kept to a minimum as that was the time of maximum risk. I observed the prelude and postscript to one such movement. The anxiety, tension and anticipation of the mustering officers was palpable, their relief afterwards just as evident. My experience of all the staff whom I came across was of decent individuals trying to do a difficult job to the best of their ability.

When entering and moving around a prison a sense of staccato , restricted movement becomes immediately apparent. Entry into a neutral waiting area is via an air lock device ensuring that direct movement to the outside is impossible. Thereafter I was escorted through never ending combinations of locked doors backed by security grills, past patrolling officers and sniffer dog teams conducting a sweep. Security measures were overt, constant and omnipresent.

I had arrived in good time and was introduced to the study room. It was fine. Large and airy, a battery of basic computers offering word processing, but not internet, lined the walls. There was a conference table, office style chairs, a wipe board, flip chart and interactive screen. It was comfortable, appropriate and adequate, neither lavish nor spartan. I was introduced to the staff who would be with me, Pete, a young wiry IT technician and Roy, an Education officer, a little bigger, a little older, and with the all important radio. Security and safety is always in the back of your mind and it did strike me that (in popular parlance), if it came “on top”, the numbers were against us and we were several sets of locked doors from assistance.

Classroom management was clearly going to be paramount here, and my less than imposing average height and middle aged frame were unlikely to have much impact. But I do have an authoritative voice , and I suggested to my colleagues that if I took control from the start, rather than be introduced, it might help. They agreed. It was a good move.

As they entered the room, in dribs and drabs, I offered each a firm handshake, introducing myself, and asked their name. There was to be no “them and me”, and as it transpired they didn’t know each other. I had the initiative from the start. Handshakes tell you a lot. I felt uncertainty, indifference, apprehension and resignation in their palms. One of them had brought with him a folder of work he had already written – it spoke of home, family, sadness and regret. What it lacked in finesse it made up for in poignant veritas. As they settled down I determined that I could handle them, and that they were going to let me do so. The door from the corridor was then closed and locked. This was it. None of us were going anywhere.

I opened up by offering up only a few rules. We were to respect each other, and what was written. No-one had to do, or write or say anything, they could simply pass on any activity in which they did not want to contribute. It was obvious stuff. Respect is the lingua franca of prisons. Control of anything something prisoners rarely enjoy. The “slow ball” open question of “what is poetry?” was a good opener. Fortunately none of them asked it back to me! The realisation that it might include anything, that even a letter home could be poetic, provided an immediate inclusivity that thawed the inevitable initial froideur of scepticism, indifference and unfamiliarity. And I could see it dawn on their faces: “hey, we could all be poets”. I decided to capitalise upon this advantage by declaring the bravery of poetry and poetic performance. No hiding behind make-up, character, props and other people’s writing as actors do. No hiding behind a band, music and set as musicians do. Poetry is hardcore. Just you, your words, your voice and your audience.

Queen of Hearts

Now that I had their interest, if not their undivided attention I went for my party piece, the “Queen of Hearts” trick. If you don’t know it, I shall not spoil it for you. Suffice to say that it is a questioning device which ensures that you can get any member of an audience, however large, to say, and the rest of the audience to think,“ Queen of Hearts,” after which you produce a pre-prepared giant Queen of Hearts card. Considering that deception, sleight of hand and hustling are traits which are not unknown to prisoners, and prison life, I was delighted and emboldened by the fact that I duped them all: “That’s not fucking poetry that’s fucking magic,” came one cry, the ambiguity of which pleased me still further.

We operated on first name terms, I only asked them to offer up the place they would call their home town. I wanted them to have an identity that lay outside the prison, I didn’t want to know who they were, what they had done to be incarcerated, or for how long they were sentenced. Although you couldn’t help but wonder………….

John Cooper Clarke

My introductory poetic gambit was to ask one of them to read John Cooper Clarke’s “(I Married) An Alien from Outer Space.” It is off-beat, funny, odd, and rhymes. Kevin, an Afro- Caribbean, volunteered and did a good job. But what surprised me was how literally everything was taken from a poem that is anything but, as we discussed it as a group. The mind-numbing desensitisation of prison revealed itself. This was not going to be a poetry appreciation class. Yet I still had all of them with me apart from Chris, a young man whose physique and taciturn demeanour suggested that words were not his favoured form of expression , and who elected to pass on all discussions.

My next gambit was to actively involve them ,and so I moved on to a rhyming competition. Five minutes to list as many rhymes as possible for five single syllable words. I invited them to pick one word so that they could produce a respectable number , I volunteered to take them on by tackling all five. All did creditably with a sharp competitive edge emerging as the “results” were declared, fortunately I won all categories, apart from one in which I was beaten by Chris! He puffed out his chest in satisfaction at his win, I warmed to the fact that I had won too.

Dizzy Rascal

With rhymes in mind I then produced my following exercise, a Dizzy Rascal lyric with some rhyming words, and some random nouns and adjectives removed for them to guess the missing words. This produced frenzied activity, collaboration and discussion, total involvement, and answers which in my opinion were a considerable improvement upon Dizzee’s original efforts. Buoyed by the resounding success of this activity I then challenged them to participate in a round of word association with no rules.

Once again I was struck by how using imagination was such a rusty skill for them. Any word which was triggered by the last was acceptable ( so long as it had not appeared previously in that round), but it took a while to get going even though I had done a demo round with Roy, one of my babysitters. That spark which inspires, which gives us all our identity had been dulled and all but extinguished ,and took some time to re-ignite, then cultivate. Yet it was a pleasure to see that flicker of recognition as we progressed that although physically, we were behind bars –the mind can go anywhere.

Bruce Springsteen

Now that I had warmed up their creative faculties I wanted to introduce them to what could be achieved with imagination and rhyme and showed them “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” by Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen wrote it in his early twenties ( as was true of the John Cooper Clarke and Dizzee Rascal pieces I had given them), the group’s age, as a hymn to street life in New Jersey. The imagery is rich ,operatic and over-blown, opening with the killer line:”He had skin like leather and the diamond hard look of a cobra”. As I looked around I could see minds racing – “hey , no-one can stop what you want to write about, or what you say -, we are free, if only with a pen and paper.”

The time had come to convert both the energy we had created, and some of the rudimentary skills we had practised, into writing some poetry. My earlier assumption that an exercise based exclusively upon my ,and their, exegesis of the Mysteries themes would be doomed, was now a certainty. So I attempted a gear shift, and asked them to write down their favourite things linked to their five senses, and then to mix them up a bit. All eagerly complied apart from Chris who was clearly regressing. “So you don’t have any favourite experiences at all? “ I queried.


“Name me the last thing that happened which made you feel good”

“When my kids came running up to me”

“What did they look like, what did that sound like, what did they smell of, what were they like to touch?…………………………..”

And then Chris understood. .And then, maybe they all understood just a little bit better.

Now I hate being told what to write about at workshops. The more prescriptive the subject, the more I will resist until something has flickered to catch my attention which may have nothing whatsoever to do with the lead subject. I offered them the same courtesy – and choice. They could either write from my four suggested Mysteries themes:
1. If you could create the world again, like a God, what would you change? How would it be different? Would you have a heaven and a hell
2. What do you think that heaven and hell look like/ are like?
3. What would the end of the world be like? What would you do if there was one day left? Who would you spend it with? Where would you want to spend it?
4. If there was a flood and you were given an ark and you could save whatever animals, people and things you could, who and what would you save?

– or they could write about whatever they fancied using some of the principles we had learned.

Brenda Read-Brown, a poet who works in other prisons gave me some very good pre-workshop advice. Some prisoners may wish to write about life inside, but many will want to write about anything but life inside. It was a prescient observation.

The results were a joy, and only one inmate chose to write about their incarceration. I told them that they could just leave them as their own personal pieces, or read them out. Amazingly, every person read their own contribution, a testament to the self-worth which the exercise had given them. Half chose to write about how they would deal with the end of the world. They told of their children, parents, beaches and pastoral serenity. The absence of any form of materialism struck me. Bill, who had ducked in and out of the conversations surprised us all, twice. His first piece was a very funny rhyming poem about losing his hair, which he was not, particularly. More specifically it was about worrying about hair loss, which encompasses all men. Unwittingly he had written an everyman piece which unified us all. The smiles and laughter all around filled his sails. He had a second one, but would not read it, because it was “ a bit gay”. Yet the approbation from all for the first poem meant that they would not let him get away with that. Everyone wanted to hear what he had written, so he gave in, his second poem was about how he would spend his last day before the world ended, playing on the beach with his sister and family. Again they were universal sentiments which even the hard men of the prison could not help but approve of, not deride.

Other contributions stood out for me too. One was about the end of the world from a first time prisoner asking his parents to forgive him for “being bad”, another from a veteran offender a visceral “Crie de Coeur” about how much he hated prison, with each one having its own distinctive smell, which was a poetic goldmine obviously. It also brought the mood of the group down with a bump. Why? Because the frustration and sense of injustice that this man in a prison grey t shirt felt articulated what all the men in grey t shirts felt, and empirically, they were learning about symbolism.

Finally there was Chris, self –styled hellion, reluctant poet, who refused to write anything, because there was no point in reimagining Genesis, because it was always going to be the same, as there was no point in Parliament as it would always be the same with the rich making laws for the benefit of themselves ,and to the detriment of others ( I paraphrase the last point). I told him to write down what he had said as sentences. As a piece of prose it was a stream of consciousness word dump. But there was something to it. And as we sat down and looked at it I realised that with some judicious line breaks we had a powerful piece. So in “Queen of Hearts” style I asked the right questions and we ended up with four powerful couplets as verses with a rather clever internal rhyme in it! Chris was delighted, his peers were impressed, I was delighted until Chris asked, “Couldn’t you have just done that for me in the first place and saved all of this messing about?” And I reflected that there is only so much that you can achieve in three and a quarter hours.

The crackle of Roy’s radio alerted us to the end of the session. It was time for prisoners to be moved. The glimpse of mental freedom crushed by the exigencies of the mechanics of prison. Copies of printed sheets of A4 all that was to remain. As they left, those glimpses of things beyond faded as fast as Cinderella’s carriage after midnight , the greyness of the system waiting to consume them. We remained locked in for our own safety as the prison rotated its charges, and then as the last muffled voices of mumbling prisoners faded ,together with rasped orders from their guards, and the synchronised clanging of gates and doors, I was escorted back to the gatehouse. It was an eerie feeling, like walking through a wood at night, where you know all manner of life is out there, but you can neither hear, nor see it. And it felt surreal, simply walking out. Something that several hundred men could only dream of.

So was it like a holiday camp? Of course not. Did it appear civilised and humane? Yes. Was it a place of punishment? Yes. I reflect on how those outside prison take freedom for granted, and the acuteness with which those inside suffer its loss. As I shook hands with Roy as I left he said ,“Hey, Gary you made a difference today ”and I did a double take, for it was exactly what my friends had said I should not expect.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Prison has a rich tradition of writing, from Mallory, Bunyan, Genet, Wilde to more recently Solzhenitsyn, Mandela and Jeffrey Archer. None are likely to have their literary pre-eminence challenged by my charges, yet the vast majority of poets write, even the good ones, not with an eye on poetic immortality, but in an attempt to express themselves in a way that connects with others. My group achieved that.

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2 Responses to Poetry in Prison

  1. breadbrown says:

    When you go in every week it’s not like this! It’s all a lot more down to earth. But you always make a difference, every time, and that’s why you go on doing it. For people who don’t see loss of freedom as a punishment, tell them about the long-term prisoners who, when they are released, tend to just stand by doors waiting for them to be opened, because they have not opened a door themselves for 10 years or more. Writers in prisons open metaphorical doors.

  2. Jan Arnold says:

    Hi Gary,
    I’ve only just got round to reading of your prison poetry session and I feel very moved by what you wrote and everything you described. Yes prisoners do have feelings too! Well done! Sorry I missed your workshop the other day.
    Best wishes, hope to see you soon,
    Jan A

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