Poetry in Prison

Posted by SPACE (Space in Prisons for Art and Creative Expression) Community Fellows Dan Sherrell and Megan Hauptman. 

I stood on the shore
beside the sea;
the wind from the west blows fresh and
free, while past the rocks at the
harbors mouth, The ships went
north and some went south, and
some sailed out on an unknown quest
and some sailed in the harbor’s rest,
yet even the winds blow out of the west.
    I said to one who had sailed the sea,
that this was a marvel unto me; for
how can the ship go safely forth, some to
the south and some to the north,
or out
the sea on the golden quest, or into the
harbor’s calm and rest and even
the winds blow out of the west.
The sailor smiled as he answered
me, go where you will when you’re on the
sea, Though head’s after and flow delay,
you can hope the course by night + day. Drive
with the breeze against the gale it will not
matter, what winds prevail for all depends
on the set of the sail, voyager sail on
the sea of life, o’er waves of sorrow and sin
and strife, when fog be wilder and fools
betray, steer straight on your course from
day to day. Thought unseen currents run deep
and swift, where rock are hidden and sandbars
shift all helpless, you need not to
drift oh, set your sail to the heavenly
gale, and no matter what winds prevail,
no reef shall wreck you, no calm shall delay.
No mist shall hinder, nor storm shall for you
wonder and long you roam, through salt
sea spray and o’er white sea foam, nor winds
that can blow but shall speed you home.                

 -Donald Mayo

 This poem was written in a workshop last spring in the men’s medium security facility at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute.  Each week facilitators brought in poems, songs, essays, and plays that informed the practice of “documentary writing”—writing that presents a narrative of self, whether that takes the form of a memoir, an autobiography, a speech, or an ode. Participants drew on their own experiences to produce writing that was both individually specific and widely relatable, sharing and reflecting on each other’s stories in the process.

This semester, we’re running weekly workshops on everything from poetry to printmaking, in five facilities on the campus of the ACI.  One of the workshops focuses on the work of different women artists across a variety of creative disciplines, using their words and art to inspire prompts and discussion. Workshops have been focused around the work of Anne Sexton, Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou and other female visionaries. Another workshop has been working more in visual art mediums, exploring bookmaking, print-making, collage and watercolor painting in response to writing and music.  A third has focused on poetry reading and writing, exploring the works of everyone from Rumi to George Oppen. Last week we discussed the idea of synesthesia, reading Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and writing our own poems trying to convey meaning through sound alone.

Every SPACE workshop endeavors to create an environment that is comfortable, fun, and reflective within a dehumanizing and monotonous institutional context.  The primary outcome of our program is to provide room for participants to exercise imagination, to pursue artistic projects and goals, and to work respectfully as a group.  For those serving long-term sentences, SPACE can play a part in helping them to create a sustainable mental and emotional life behind bars.  SPACE uses the creative arts to provide intangible resources largely unavailable in the rest of the prison—humanity, laughter, inquiry, and self-expression.

Recently we had the opportunity to meet with Roberta Richman, former Assistant Director for Rehabilitative Services, part of our ongoing effort to engage the administration at the ACI in a conversation about the goals and methods of our work. During the discussion we spoke about the larger implications of the prison industrial complex in America, and how incarceration practices affect not only those imprisoned, but the communities they are taken from. SPACE has begun reaching out beyond the prison facilities to bring our program to institutions focused on post-release rehabilitation, recidivism reduction, and community building. This semester we offer workshops in the Providence Center halfway house and are meeting with administrators at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence to discuss expanding our program there in the spring. 

After reading some of his short stories in a fiction workshop last semester, we enlisted National-Book Award winning author Denis Johnson to correspond with some of the men in the program about his own struggles with drug abuse and homelessness. He encouraged them, in the words of E.M Cioran, to “Write only about those things you would never dare confide in anyone.” This advice, though it may apply to some more than others, does echo an important goal of the program: to encourage both participants and facilitators to be fearless in their writing and their artwork, to embrace and channel creativity even in an oppressive institutional context.