Friday, May 4, 2018

Tales from the Slammer, Vignette 3

Access to clean drinking water and a roof over our heads is vital. So is having access to story, to be able to listen as well as to telling them, and ideally to write and to read them. To be literate, in other words. This is maybe not crucial to staying alive, but necessary for a sense of self, and a sense of community. To be able to tell our own stories helps us nut out our place in the world, to see how we fit in and to see how we ended up where we are. It can mean a life that is more understood, more examined. In Tasmania, like any other damaged first-world state where literacy cleaves the population in two (haves and have-nots), and where we have been forcibly denied the ancient and living history of the island, story is even more crucial.

The decision has been made to explore slam poetry with a small group of inmates with low literacy levels. While well versed in poetry, and often an appreciative and exhilarated audience member, I’ve never taught, or even facilitated slam poetry. The thought that I will also have to write to perform is intimidating, though I have been rolling the idea around in my head for a few months and this is a way to make that manifest. A perfect confluence, a perfect storm. The slam performances I’ve seen are generally revivifying and energetic. In the performances, issues that may be dry and dour on a normal telling are given creative voice and poetic licence.
Slam is a contrary form of poetry, one that began in response to reluctant readings by poets who worship a canon – and ones who palpably did not enjoy reading their work out loud. Slam has been  considered crass and abrasive, an utter show pony in comparison to the hallowed halls of more traditional forms of poetry, though this opinion is most often wielded by those dusty old poets, the reluctant readers. It has also reinvigorated poetry as a form, excited generations of students and, hopefully, in Risdon, will provide a vehicle to work with inmates on their literacy.

Slam poetry offers an empowering opportunity to tell a story in an entertaining way, it offers the opportunity to make powerful social change through the stealth vehicle of poetry - and for us, it offers a way to improve literacy of inmates, and to provide them with a voice. This is a rare opportunity for members of society who, by dint of their imprisonment (by dint of their crimes) are voiceless, stereotyped in a system that focusses on the punitive.
We have placed an ad in the prison rag, and the full time LINC Literacy Coordinator, my right hand for the duration of this contract, has begun to actively recruit people who she believes will benefit, and also those who she believes will be good for the group dynamics.

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