The Power of Writing in Prison
Everyone is entitled to paper and a pencil
The Koestler Awards receive over 1,000 poems each year, making it our most popular category. While art materials can be difficult to get hold of in prison, everyone is entitled to paper and something to write with.
Arthur Koestler, who co-founded the charity in 1962, found writing an invaluable escape and source of solace during his own time in prison. The Koestler Awards encourage people in custody to use creativity as a tool for self-expression; increasing well-being, engagement with education and personal development.
In 2017, with the help of our wonderful supporters, we released our first poetry anthology, Koestler Voices: New Poetry from Prisons – Volume 1 to present some of the incredible writing talent from the 2016 and 2017 Koestler Awards. We were delighted to follow this up with Volume 2 in 2019 and continue our work giving a platform to individuals whose voices often go unheard.
Many of our entrants have written about the powerful impact writing has had on their lives.
Poetry judges from the 2019 Koestler Awards also told us about their experiences teaching poetry in prisons, seeing how writing can unlock memories and emotions. Read the interview below.
Interview with poetry judges, Rachel Kelly, Joelle Taylor & Tobi Kyeremateng
What has stood out to you today?
J: The freedom that prisoners find in writing. You get a sense that for many of them it’s the first time they’ve found their pens and realised that a blank piece of paper can be a window or an escape tunnel. There’s a great sense of courage and loss as well, and grief, and I think that comes through in every poem no matter what it’s about.
R: It’s profoundly intimate. They’re windows into people’s souls – some people who have had the most awful experiences, from childhood trauma onwards.
Their lives were written at a very young age. I was struck by how many of the poems go back to childhood, to their relationships with their mum’s and grandparents who brought them up.
T: The creativity and imagery stood out to me. Even though a lot of the work talks about similar themes, prisons and what they look like, there are so many different ways of describing that, in ways I would never think of.
How have you found the judging process?
J: What’s really important for people entering to understand is that judging is subjective. You’ve got three different people with strong proclivities, things we like and don’t like. Take that into consideration for anything you enter.
T: We’ve each had to justify poems that we really like – saying, no, this is the one!
R: I really salute the courage of anybody entering. Especially the subject matter, most of it is pretty deep. There are a few more light-hearted nature poems, or more humorous ones. But 80 – 90% are people are going very deep into their psyche and emotional truth.
J: It’s one of the most distressing, alienating experiences a human being can live through, being othered and kept away from the rest of the world. They let you into that moment. The poems are like little films, like the pen is a camera and they’re showing you a tiny bit of what life is like for them. It’s a privilege and an honour to be allowed into that space. Last year I saw people I knew, ex-offenders I’d met in prison and who are now released, posting on Facebook about winning Koestler Awards in poetry. They’ve used their awards to further themselves as poets, so they’re on the spoken word circuit, doing really well for themselves. So us sitting here and arguing over poems for eight hours can have an incredible impact on someone’s self-belief and ability to move forward. If you’ve left school with no qualifications and you’ve suddenly got a Koestler Award, that’s a big deal. It’s always fantastic to hear about the impact of winning a Koestler Award.
It’s always fantastic to hear about the impact of winning a Koestler Award. What would you say about the impact of creative writing itself?
J: What’s interesting is, why after school everyone stops writing poetry. In normal adult life most people would say, ‘oh no, I f***ing hate poetry’. So much so we had to change the name to spoken word in order to get an audience. Why then, the minute they get put into prison, do they all start writing poetry again? I work in prisons so I can stand by my claim.
It’s because it’s the poor person’s cinema. You can create these incredible landscapes and moments on just a piece of paper. You can also revisit your past, go back in time. Maybe the answer is to lock everybody up!
R: Poetry’s a good medium because it doesn’t always matter if you’re not super educated or literate – you can still express something very powerfully even if it’s not all spelt correctly. We’re not reading it in that way, we’re reading it for when you get goose bumps.
T: It’s so accessible. It’s not like writing an 80,000 word novel. Everyone can write a poem – you just need a piece of paper and a pencil.
R: People get put off at school because they think it needs to be a sonnet, or rhyme… We’ve had such a variety of all kinds of poems, some using traditional forms very skilfully, and some whose great art is expressing emotion, not necessarily perfectly spelled.
Having taught poetry in prisons, would you say that writing poetry has a particularly therapeutic value?
J: It has a huge value and impact. I think it allows men in particular to get in touch with their emotions, to go to spaces they’re not encouraged to go into, and not comfortable going into. You can’t write a good poem unless you can be honest, and that’s where it becomes therapeutic because you have to dig away the sediment before you can get to the truth of a piece of work. That’s its value. It’s about emotional literacy as well as literacy.
R: I think it’s really interesting that men can get in touch with their vulnerability through poetry. Some of the women I’ve worked with can get in touch with their anger. Women are often told they can’t be angry. Images of women being angry are very hostile. Sometimes people say depression is anger turned in, and particularly for women. So for both sexes it enables people to get in touch with things that might otherwise be too painful or too difficult – it’s a way in.
We’re currently working on our new poetry anthology, and a lot of the award-winners you’ve chosen will be included. What would you say to someone considering buying it?
R: I’ve also worked in prisons and run therapeutic poetry workshops, so I have a little understanding of what life in prison is like. But a lot of people have absolutely no idea of the reality of life in prison today. This is such a powerful way to get inside what that really means.
J: It’s not even just getting inside the heads of prisoners, it’s about getting inside the heads of the majority of the country. If you want to understand yourself better, buy this book.
T: This is part of the wider rehabilitation process for when people come out. It’s a very human thing, poetry. There are lots of poetry anthologies with different themes, but really you’re just getting to know people.
R: It is a window into a very different world, but it’s also our world. It’s our common humanity. When you’re reading some of the love poems, others about mental health issues, you see that they’re issues that affect all of us. It’s double – different but the same.
Do you have any advice for poets entering next year?
J: Just write like you believe yourself. Try and investigate a little bit of poetic technique – don’t just close your head off to it.
Remember your pen is a camera, so when you’re writing metaphors, what we’re actually saying is take us into the room where you are. Don’t just tell us you’re locked in a room, take me into the room and show me what it looks like.
R: I would recommend the old cliché of appealing to the five senses, so what does it look like, feel like, smell like… bringing the senses to life. Sometimes we think that poetic techniques are scary; rhyme and rhythm and metaphors and similes. The way I think of it is that the poet’s voice is crying out to be heard, and these are just ways to intensify their voice and get that voice out in an even stronger way. Don’t be scared of these techniques. They’re not there to put you off, they’re there to amplify your voice so we can hear it even more and understand what you’re trying to say.
T: Enjoy it – enjoy the process of building something. And enjoy the editing process of stripping away the things that you might want to keep for yourself, or that you might not want other people to know. You may end up with three completely different poems, one is the one you want to submit to the world, and one is the one you want to keep to yourself.
R: And you end up with something. Before there was nothing and now there’s something.