‘It’s an enforced monastic experience,’ says Rose Simpson, a lecturer at HM Prison Stafford, on a panel discussing Writing from Prison ‘and people find talents they never knew they had.’ At an evening organised by The Koestler Trust and the Southbank Centre, offenders, secure patients and detainees were showcasing their writing as part of the London Literature Festival. Some of the writers are not present, but heard through their writing mentors, or through recordings of them reading their work.
There’s an intimate aspect to only hearing the voice through a ‘messenger’ or especially through the electronic speakers, which is a powerful statement about control and freedom through the medium and the absent writer. One of those writers is Mark from HM Prison Stafford, whose poem ‘A Stranger on the Shore’ Simpson reads to the absorbed audience. The short poem ends with a vivid image:
I was born a million waves ago
In this sea-haunted town.
Simpson also delivers a message from Mark about his confinement. ‘I escape every night by reading, drawing, and writing poetry.’
The Koestler Trust has been running the annual Koestler Awards for 50 years, with the aim of encouraging ex-offenders to participate in the arts. The annual arts awards programme is open to people in custody, on community sentences and on probation in the UK. This year’s 8,800 entries spanned across 61 different art forms.
Another absent writer, whose work we hear via a recording, is Ian from Parc Prison in Wales; which, as The Koestler Trust’s Tim Robinson tells us, has won more Koestler Awards than any other prison in the country. Ian’s prize-winning ‘First Light’ starts with a nomadic account through war from Moscow to Singapore and finally to a closed cell. The unexpected and harsh cold – ‘Nothing could have previewed that snow and ice’ – brings mind the later writings of Anna Kavan. The elements are merciless.
Another participant in the mentoring scheme is Clifford, who first reads from his ‘Appeasement’, an eerie family tale about a New Year’s eve:
and watching the man who would one day become my father-in-law
hold a wriggling rabbit in one hand.
while the other slit its throat, letting blood drip
on moonlit ploughshares.
His other poem, ‘Speedy’, is a meditation about the expectations of a boy growing up. ‘Speed was a useful trick’, the poem winks, its wry rhythms similar to Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Little Red-Cap’:
Because it was bad to be seen as clever
But good to be quick, quick, quick.
Similarly anchored in reality and immediate experience is Vivian’s poem ‘Top Banana’, a collection of pictures of a family’s social history. The life story of the central character – ‘Our matriarch, Elsie, Nana’ – is tied through other relatives into a knot of familial love. Not just a writer but a visual artist and a musician, Vivian tells the audience after his reading how for him ‘existing is about creating’.
Robinson tells us how there’s more competition in the women’s field than in the men’s; only 5% of prisoners are female, but in the Koestler Awards women are awarded 13% of the prizes. Caroline Alford, a tutor at HM Prison Bronzefield, reads on behalf of her student Heather, who won a Platinum award for her poetry collection Swathes of Magnolia. Heather’s ‘Street Predators’ is a short, mordant poem about being subjected to loss: ‘Tomorrow I am homeless/ pray to the streets’.
Michael, whose poem ‘The Silver Locket’ won him a Gold Award, sways like a nursery rhyme or a Gilbert and Sullivan song, this time working a personal history of the object backwards:
The mother must have passed it down with pride.
The lover must have given it with longing,
The young girl must have posted it in anger;
The postman must have saved it from the post.
Michael, only six days in civilian, says after his reading that some of his poems were inspired by the class. ‘But written behind a closed door – well, a locked door,’ he jokes, and the audience chortles.
Enclosures with no control is also the subject of Janetka Platun, whose installation ‘Lights Out’ is exhibited at the lower ground floor of the Royal Festival Hall. In the artwork, a small room is papered with poems – some of them the ones read in the event. The lights go on and off every 2.32 minutes, and in the darkness, other poems appear, printed on the walls in fluorescent text. The time is significant, tells Platun, as it reflects how often a person enters or is released from prison in the UK. ‘I love when people tell me how hot or uncomfortable it is in there,’ says Platun about the audience’s experience. ‘You don’t get to decide.’
‘Art gives life a purpose, and it’s a way of breaking a cycle of reoffending and hopelessness,’ says Clifford in the conversation after the readings. In the deliberately provocative question about the purpose of art in prisons, Simpson offers a disarming response: ‘Let’s have people as whole as we can make them.’