Poetry behind bars

Local journalist and co-founder of the app iFpoems, Rachel Kelly, talks about taking poetry behind the bars of Wormwood Scrubs.

“The most striking aspect of visiting HMP Wormwood Scrubs for the first time this month was the silence. After clearing security – passport checks, form-filling, handing over mobile phones – and passing through a sort of holding pen (one door slides open, and you wait for two minutes before the next door opens) – our little group of poetry enthusiasts stepped into a vast courtyard at the centre of the prison blocks. I could only hear a robin sing. The silence endured as we walked across the yard, admiring the chapel which was built by prisoners past, through another double lot of sliding doors, up some stairs till we arrived at Room 13. Still it was quiet. Only now did the noise of some of the 1,100 or so prisoners greet us. Some 25 offenders, mainly dressed in grey tracksuits and trainers, young and old, and chatting to each other, entered the prison classroom and took their places in chairs placed in a circle. They had all volunteered to come.

I was there to talk about the poetry anthology IF: A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility which I have co-edited with Allie Esiri, while my co-presenter was the poet B.H. Fraser, outstanding versifier of life in the City, who was there to read some of his poems and to talk about life as a working poet.

That was the official brief. Talk I did about the transporting power of poetry, how a poem like W. B Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ can take you to a different place, how a poet like George Herbert can become a compassionate voice in your head and give you a different narrative, how William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wondered Lonely as a Cloud’ is about the power of imagination that can function even in the incarceration of prison. Nelson Mandela famously clung to W.E Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and its last verse ‘It matters now how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll/ I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.’ Meanwhile Benjie had superb tips for the novice poet. Start small, writing about important events in your family, be they christenings, weddings, funerals or celebrations, and reading them out in the safe environment.

But joyously we soon wandered off-piste: this was about these men finding their own voice, not just listening to ours. As the group relaxed, there was a chance to hear poems they themselves had written, to laugh (“Do you find you write better after a glass of wine?”) and to be profoundly moved both by their own work and some of the great verse of the past which was read by different individuals. Initially, only a few of the group took part. By the end of the two hour session, hands were raised and volunteers to read came forward. Finally, in a show of surprising professionalism, we were both interviewed by an individual prisoner for the prison service’s radio network, an excellent training scheme for offenders which helps give them skills for life beyond prison.

The group left, each with a copy of the book kindly donated by Canongate, and signed by me. Each offender in turn asked me to write a different message at the front, reflecting what they most hoped for, be it luck, love, peace, or freedom. A few days later I got an email with some feedback from HMP Wormwood Scrubs heroic education department. One of the prisoners who had attended the session had reported that he had stayed up all night with the book. Poetry had worked its magic”. ifpoems.com

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