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Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

Prison Poets

By August 18, 2009

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There is something about the interaction of the isolated mind and its own internal language that makes a prison of any kind a fertile ground for poems. Witness the poems written during imprisonment by Mary, Queen of Scots, the Chinese immigrants held on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, and the contemporary detainees at Guantanamo. We’ve noticed a couple of news stories this week about prison poets—one that epitomizes the transformative power of poetry, and another that seems to demonstrate the opposite premise, that people don’t ever really change.

from USA Today:
R. Dwayne Betts: A mind unconfined by jail,” by Craig Wilson
“At 16, Betts was sent to prison for nine years. Now 28, he is living such a radically different life even he is astonished by how far he has traveled.... He was introduced to poetry when someone, he still does not know who, slid The Black Poets by Dudley Randall under his cell door.... Poetry ‘came to me at a time I needed to express myself, and I needed to do it in a way people would listen to the whole thing,’ he says. ‘A poem can say everything you say in a novel in much less space. They’re musical. People hear the music in poetry.’ (He is working on his MFA in poetry, which he expects to finish next July.)”

from The Atlantic:
From Prisoner to Poet,” by R. Dwayne Betts
An excerpt from Betts’ just-published book, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery, 2009, ), in which he describes his life in prison at the time he discovered the poetry anthology that changed his life.

And from a completely other perspective... from The Telegraph (UK):
"Prison poets caught in plagiarism bid," by David Barrett
"A project to encourage prisoners to explore their inner self through verse has suffered a setback after inmates were caught plagiarising poems in a bid to win a 25 prize.... The prisoners' newspaper Inside Time has introduced strict checks on its poetry page because some contributors had copied out well-known poems and submitted them under their own names. In one case an inmate stole work by Robert Frost, the American poet, and another lifted song lyrics from James Brown, the soul and funk singer who died in 2006.... The newspaper, which is published by a charity and distributed to jails across Britain, has warned its readers that each entry will now be vetted in a bid to flush out the cheats."


August 20, 2009 at 5:24 pm
(1) Faye Adams says:

People do change. I know of persons who, during incarceration, took advantage of the opportunity to take creative writing classes, and were able to use the outlet of putting their thoughts and feelings on paper, especially in the form of poetry, to work through the tough days and nights of isolation and frustration in prison and not only change their behavior patterns, but change their entire outlook on life and their own future.

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