Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Monday Muse: Finding Poetry in Prison

. . . In prison, you can't dream . . . 
But we dared to dream, and to dream a lot.
~ Cristina Domenech

In the wonderful TEDx video below, Cristina Domenech talks about her experience of teaching poetry to men incarcerated in an Argentinian prison. Poetry exists even in a prison, Domenech says she told the men, who soon learned that with the language they could not be denied, "they could make the walls invisible, that they could make the windows yell, and that we could hide inside the shadows."

Through her writing workshop, Domenech stresses, the prisoners were able to enjoy "a moment of extraordinary freedom", of dignity as human beings: "Poetry . . . sews up the wounds of exclusion. It opens doors. Poetry works as a mirror. It creates a mirror, which is the poem. They recognize themselves, they look at themselves in the poem and write from who they are, and are from what they write." 

Proof of the truth of Domenech's words is the appearance at the conclusion of the talk of prisoner Martin Bustamante, who was granted temporary release to read a poem he wrote in Domenech's class. As Bustamante relates, "for me, poetry and literature have changed my life."

The talk is in Spanish with English subtitles. (Read the transcript.)


Last year, I read Richard Shelton's excellent memoir, Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer (University of Arizona Press, 2007), about teaching poetry in Arizona's prisons. It is an enlightening, inspiring, and enraging read on the horrors of prison life, the sparking of creative spirit, and the possibility of redemption through art.

I also recommend former North Carolina poet laureate Joseph Bathanti's collection Concertina, which I reviewed in December 2013.

PEN has operated a prison writing program since 1971 and makes available a Handbook for Writers in Prison.

Among other resources to note are the American Prison Writing Archive at Digital Humanities Initiative, Hero's Journey Prison Writing Program in Seattle, Washington, The Prison Arts Coalition, The Prison Creative Arts Project at University of Michigan, and Writers in Prison Foundation. There are thousands of other groups throughout the United States and abroad. Many, many books and periodical articles on the subject have been published.

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