Soft sell, hard cell

Never judge a sentence by its length: Dominic Cavendish reports on an attempt to bring poetry to women prisoners
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The Independent Culture
Be warned: it's not easy organising a tour of five-day performance poetry workshops in women's prisons. Even if you manage to find a prison with a receptive attitude, and facilities to match, there is always the risk that those attending are just there to cadge cigarettes or that the most enthusiastic of your group will suddenly be transferred to another prison midway through the course. But the poet Leonora Rogers Wright remains philosophical about the to-ing and fro-ing she encountered at HMP Holloway, where Apples and Snakes, the London performance club, launched its "Inside Information" tour last month. "A number of women had to leave poems behind for others to read at the performance on Friday. It felt odd, but that's remand prisons for you - you have to grab people's attention before they vanish."

The club's strategy of short, sharp sessions by established women performers is perhaps distastefully down-to-earth for people acquainted with the solitary musings of famous poet-prisoners like Thomas Malory, Oscar Wilde and Sir Walter Raleigh. The brevity of the tour (which has included Cookham Wood in Rochester, Risley in Warrington and, finally, Bullwood Hall in Essex next week) and the intensive nature of each stay reflects Apples and Snakes' view that Britain's women prisoners are urgently in need of some practical word-play.

"At the moment, 40 per cent of women released from prison are reconvicted within two years - very little is being done to address that," explains performance circuit veteran Steve Tasane, the tour's organiser. Although a couple of workshops are hardly going to produce a drop in reoffending figures, they can, he believes, improve literacy and help break the vicious circles of low self-esteem and purposelessness on release.

Three of the women poets, Chrissie Gittins, SuAndi and Leonora Rogers Wright, already had experience working with prisoners; the fourth, Patience Agbabi, was trained by Clean Break, the ex-offenders' theatre company. All are interested in poetry as an oral tradition and had to tackle the preconception that poetry was an upper-class leisure pursuit. "One woman fled as soon as I mentioned the word `writing'," says SuAndi, who attended Cookham Wood. Rogers Wright, herself a former psychiatric prisoner, is unapologetic about the therapeutic impulse. "One woman had had her child taken away and her father had died. She wrote a poem about it and cried when she read it. She said she hadn't cried about any of these things before. It's a release of toxins."

"The last thing I wanted was something that said, `I'm innocent'," SuAndi explains. To counterbalance poems about drug abuse, Aids, the law, husbands and abusive fathers, humour was encouraged. Holloway inmate Sarah Walker's "The Last Rolo" wraps its bitterness in a chocolatey jokiness: "If I was your last Rolo, Would you Unwrap me slowly?/ Would you peel back my wrapper with care? /... Or would you tear into my wrapping and chew me all up/ Without even tasting me?"

"From a critical perspective it would be easy to sit there and say, `call that poetry?' " Tasane says. "But then I could listen to a reading at the Poetry Society and say the same thing." He's convinced that a number of prisoners could hold their own at London's toughest performance venues; others will return to prisons to pass on new-found skills.

SuAndi was told to get back in her cell by a warder. "There it was, the assumption that because I was black, I must be a prisoner." Leonora Rogers Wright was more pleasantly surprised: in a poem diary she noted, "Never judge a crook by his cover/ Never judge a screw by its tail/ Keep an open mind when you are able/ You never know, maybe we'll all get well." It may not be the Ballad of Reading Gaol, but with the prison population spiralling on upwards, a bit of optimism may be no bad thing.

n An `Inside Information' anthology of work from the tour will appear later in the year