|Inscape number 25 in the 2River Chapbook Series||January 2019|
For the past four summers at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vermont, with the indispensable aid of John Vorder Bruegge, a teacher in the high school diploma program, I’ve led a poetry writing workshop named Poetry as Personal Expression. The name of the workshop is not an incidental convenience. For men in the muffling conditions of confinement, it carries an important, liberating power.
Once each week, from 3:00 to 4:30, eight to twelve men gather around a table in the education section of the prison. About half are regulars, repeaters, you might say, though that’s an unwelcome term in prison. At each session I suggest a topic or two for them to think and write about, though they often ignore the suggestion and go their own way. John Sughrue, whose work you’ll see inside, noted wryly that “many of us are in here, you know, because we aren’t very good at following instructions.”
Whatever they write comes to me by email, and I scribble my comments, reservations, suggestions, and lots of well-earned praise in the margins. John VB makes copies of the poems, and during the workshop, the inmates go around the table, everyone commenting on every poem. They’re free to pass, of course, a rare privilege in this place, but few do. Though they’re hearing and seeing the poems for the first time, they have quite a lot to say, much of it discerning, informed, and helpful.
Not all remarks are laudatory. But even the criticism, often more hesitant reservation than criticism, comes with manifest affection. There is brotherhood here, the camaraderie of proud men similarly confined, some insist unjustly, stripped of agency and entitlement, vulnerable to an array of humiliations, yet determined to make this time not a suspension of their lives, but, if possible, a useful and worthwhile part of it. Their writing, this workshop, is, I think, for many, an important part of that. It is for me, and I’m on the outside, getting on, no longer entirely healthy or feeling immortal, but otherwise remarkably fortunate. And free.
Some of these men are university educated, others broadly self-educated, some to the point of erudition. They are highly intelligent, delightfully witty, deeply thoughtful, and openly and movingly sensitive. You see this in some of the more autobiographical poems, but you hear it also in their responses, when a poem resonates to another’s pained experience. Many of the inmates have visibly teared up on such occasions.
When I come to these sessions, I’m meeting friends and feel they know they’re meeting one in me. Friends, not because all of us are gifted with all the strengths and virtues I’ve just named, but because, though some have done awful things, they are, as I perceive and have come to know them, good, decent, and unusually interesting men. Put simply, we like each other and enjoy being in one another’s company.
What I hope is most apparent in the following poems is that these men are impressively talented poets. Some are new to the art. Others have been devotedly practicing and honing it for a long time.
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