Inside story: Why does prison provide such inspiration for poetry?

When the magazine for prisoners asked for inmates’ poetry, the response was overwhelming. Peter Stanford asks why inspiration comes as the cell door slams
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The Independent Culture

For those who like to pigeonhole types of literature, prison writing has long been a distinctive and admired genre. Some date its origins back to the early third century when Saint Perpetua sat in her cell in Carthage, penning her "Passion" while she awaited martyrdom. Among subsequent giants are Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Fydor Dostoyevsky, Jack London, Malcolm X, Irina Ratushinskaya, Wole Soyinka and Oscar Wilde.

This last name is invoked on the jacket of a new collection of poems by prisoners. "Let's hope," writes the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in commending Inside Poetry, "that this volume inspires such a spirit of creative competition in our prisons that someone somewhere produces the next 'Ballad of Reading Gaol'." Such an ambition is admirable but may be too lofty for the contributors, says the book's editor, the novelist Rachel Billington. The collection has grown out of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners founded in 1990, which she co-edits.

It began to include poems in 1994. A specific invitation to send in verses and doggerel 18 months ago unleashed a tidal wave of over 2000 submissions, many from first-time writers. After publishing them in special supplements in the paper itself, the best have now been collected in book form.

What is it about being locked up that unlocks the hitherto buried writer in many prisoners? Billington offers a practical explanation. "Prisoners have time - probably as never before in their lives - to think and reflect on who they are, where they are and why they have ended up there. Locked up in their cell with their thoughts, they often find themselves in a kind of emotional freefall. And part of that is searching for a way to express their feelings. All it takes is a nudge in the right direction... and they start writing."

Among the growing band of writers-in-residence is another acclaimed novelist, Carlo Gebler. He works with prisoners at HMP Maghaberry in Northern Ireland and feels there is another factor in this enthusiasm among inmates for the written word. "In prison," he explains, "nothing happens unless you write it down. A prisoner can't put in a tuck shop order for shampoo and tobacco unless he writes it down on a piece of paper. There is extremely limited access to computers and the internet and controlled access to phones. So those inside who are illiterate – and there are plenty – are at a disadvantage, while those who can read and write are important in the hierarchy".

Poetry seems to hold a particular appeal. The recently retired Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, in a foreword to the collection, suggests this is because "of all literary forms, [it] is the one best equipped to convey strong feelings". The list is long of poets on whom prison has left a lasting impression, inspiring some of their most acclaimed work.

Robert Lowell, for example, spent a year in jail in New York in 1946 as a conscientious objector. In "Memories of West Street and Lepke", he painted a memorable portrait of himself and the characters encountered there: "Flabby, bald, lobotomized,/ he drifted in a sheepish calm,/ where no agonizing reappraisal/ jarred his concentration on the electric chair/ hanging like an oasis in his air/ of lost connections..."

The memoirist Caspar Walsh, currently writer-in-residence at HMP Park and Ashfield Young Offenders Institution, identifies another factor that contributes to the popularity of poetry. "Often prisoners will start off with short attention spans and low levels of concentration, so as an introduction to writing, poetry works well. It is a quick and easy way to start before going on to explore prose." Walsh highlights one element of poetry's appeal to young offenders in particular. "I often ask prisoners what Rap stands for... It's Rhythm and Poetry, and what we are able to do in workshops is write poetry that they can then record music to go with."

From poetry, Walsh says, many then turn to memoir and autobiography. Again, this is a well-trodden path. A Sense of Freedom, one of the better-known titles of the late 1970s, was written in prison by the former gangster Jimmy Boyle, while he was serving a life sentence. Its acclaim on publication in 1977 paved the way for his later career as a writer and sculptor.

More recently Patrick Maguire, jailed as a 14-year-old in 1976 as one of the "Maguire Seven" in an infamous miscarriage of justice, published an acclaimed but harrowing memoir, My Father's Watch, about the enduring damage done by his time behind bars when he was innocent. The therapeutic power of writing while in prison may not, of course, translate into something anyone else would want to read.

Caspar Walsh feels that often prison memoirs can be very narrowly focused. "Many prisoners are their own favourite subject and so writing for them is all about attracting interest." And Rachel Billington reports that for every poem that stood out sufficiently to make it into her book, many didn't. They are often "about lying on a bunk in a cell, looking at the ceiling, missing family or girlfriends... They have been written out of need and emotion and that makes them valuable, but it doesn't necessarily make them good literature."

Her own favourite prison writer is Dostoyevsky. "I remember first reading Crime and Punishment when I was only 17 and being fascinated by the realisation that prisoners lose everything when they are jailed." And it is the hope of making a similar impact on readers outside prison, causing them to think afresh about policies on sentencing and what offenders are really like, that inspired her to compile Inside Poetry.

"When people think of prisoners, they have, in my experience, this image of them as tough, hard-bitten, dangerous individuals... So when they find out that prisoners also write poetry, and that some of it is very good and very powerful, it can come as a great surprise to them." That impact on readers, the majority who will never set foot inside a prison, is arguably a key factor in the enduring popularity of prison writings. Their authors may be incarcerated but their voices are free.

'Inside Poetry' is published by 'Inside Time'; price £9.99 from PO Box 251, Hedge End, Hants SO30 4XJ;

The Pigeon

A pigeon sat on razor wire
The picture says it all
Looking in the dungeons
Behind the prison wall
In each window there's a convict
But the pigeon doesn't mind
To him they're just a shelter
And convicts can be kind
He sits there like a symbol
Of everything that's free
Put some breadcrumbs on the sill
And freedom comes to me
In a gentle voice I talk to him
While he sits and cocks his head
He shares with me his freedom
I share with him my bread
Then the moment's gone,
he lifts his wings
And flies back to the wall
A pigeon sat on razor wire
The picture says it all

Gerald Smith (HMP Birmingham)

Taken from Inside Poetry