Poetry in a closed world

I spent an interesting day last week doing some voluntary work for the prison arts charity the Koestler Trust. The trust receives more than 8,000 entries each year into its Koestler Awards, ranging from painting, drawing, and print-making to ceramics, textiles and all forms of writing. The best go on to be shown at the South Bank Centre in an annual exhibition which is well worth a visit if you are passing. I think it is on in the late summer/autumn.
So, a group of writers were there to carefully read through and provide written feedback on thousands of poetry entries which were diverse, moving, inventive, often inspiring and occasionally very good. In fact, the very good ones, that is to say, original poems with that indefinable spark, literally leapt off the page and into the mind.
Most were typed, some were handwritten, with accompanying illustrations (usually in felt tip) and there was a huge variety of form and content. Interestingly, there were no common themes as such but a powerful sense of humanity came through, particularly the sense of being alone, or not heard.
Writing about the family, about nature, animals, emotion, and plenty of politics. Not much, at all, about incarceration or redemption. ( I guess that says more about my expectations than the reality). And a lot of humour - several made people laugh out loud.
You could tell who was reading modern poetry, and who perhaps was not, and you could hear music and occasionally sense desperation in the words.
There was a sense, reading these poems, of being with the author as they bent over the blank page, pen in hand, in an institution. Some entries were from secure hospitals too. (We ourselves were using the tiny, 'safe' prison pens which don't have an inner ink tube.)
Everything I read that day had a quality to be admired. And it was a privilege to write feedback to each author; to feel that a small connection was made between the creator and the audience.
One day soon, most entrants in the poetry category will hopefully receive a sheet of hand-written feedback, praising their work and suggesting ways to improve it further, and perhaps it will encourage them to keep reading and writing and expressing themselves.
I expect prison life is often monotonous and dispiriting. What power books and art has, then, in that environment. Does each prison have a library? Do inmates get to visit them? I don't' know.
I found this quote by Stephen Shaw, prisons and probation ombudsman which pretty much sums up how important art is, not just for prisoners but for everyone:
"...all jails inevitably restrict the human spirit.
"The major exception to this rule is to be found in the arts and crafts rooms in prison education, or in the artefacts made by prisoners in their own cells. Art flourishes in prisons to a degree perhaps unknown in any other institution. It inspires thousands of prisoners, most of whom have shown neither inclination nor talent before entering custody."
I feel like we are all only a step away from the prison world - through naivity, mis-judgment, or bad luck. We all walk a fine line along the spine of the law, every day, through our actions, or inaction and circumstances.

Anyway, if any artists or writers are reading this and are interested, here are some mentoring opportunities available with the trust -



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