Prison poems

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(HOST) Commentator Deborah Luskin says that teaching writing to a prison population is an effective way to help people come to terms with their lives, and prepare to rejoin the community.

(LUSKIN) I never thought much about prisons until I found myself inside one.

Last spring, I taught a poetry class to some women at Windsor, and they taught me about their lives, so full of hardships that for some a stint in prison was a relief.

Most of my students were in jail for crimes related to substance abuse. Most were victims of domestic and/or sexual violence. Most were mothers, many of young children, children who were now being cared for by the same parents who had raised them. Some of the inmates were related to one another: sisters, cousins, nieces and aunts. Few of the women were well educated, though most were very smart. Finally, all my students were at first both excited and frightened about writing their lives into poems.

We met weekly, to write and to discuss language: how we control it and how it controls us. We talked about the mechanics of making language work: word order, verb usage, figurative language, what makes a stanza. We looked carefully at published poems to see how a single word or phrase can have more than one meaning and how a poet can turn a cup of spilled coffee into a heartache. Reading contemporary poetry both shook up these students’ expectations of what poetry can be and gave them courage to write for themselves.

The students’ initial poems were full of sugary Hallmark sentiments: how much they loved their mothers, husbands and children. It took exposure to poems like one by Sharon Olds, about a mother on the edge, who grabs her four-year old too tightly by the wrist, and “compressed it, fiercely, for almost a/second to make an impression on her,/to hurt her.” It is not a poem that condones child abuse; it’s a poem that explores how even a loving mother can “nearly savor the stinging sensation of the squeezing” and the look of the child, “her dark, deeply open eyes,” which see the mother with fear and knowledge for the first time. Once my students saw that published poets wrote about the dark side of life, they were willing to try.

For starters, I asked them to write about their scars. One student walked out. “I don t like her. She’s too hard,” she sneered. This woman returned, but for three weeks she brooded under a black cloud. Eventually, she started writing poetry – some of the best. After intense, initial resistance, all the women began to write about the grittier aspects of their lives.

The course culminated in an evening program where students had a chance to read their poems to their peers and to people from The Vermont Women’s Fund and the Vermont Humanities Council, who funded the class. It was an empowering experience for readers and listeners alike, reaffirming that telling our stories is how we make sense of our lives. Speaking out and being heard are critical elements of rehabilitation.

Poetry in prison is not a panacea for difficult people in difficult circumstances, but it’s a good place to start.

Deborah Luskin teaches writing and literature to non-traditional students in hospitals, libraries and prisons throughout Vermont.

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