Monday, May 14, 2018

Tales from the Slammer, Vignette 4

Our sessions have begun and the interest amongst inmates is not high, despite active recruitment and an ad run in the prison rag. The first session is held in a room that, despite having windows, is completely internal and is circled with computers sitting in various stages of awake.

I had no idea about how many we could expect to turn up and the LINC Literacy Coordinator, tireless and full time at the coal face, was concerned that we might have trouble getting people to attend. These concerns are now assuaged, but we began with three inmates only.

Before the session began Mark (no real names are used in these posts) popped into the office with a book of poetry he had borrowed from the library. It’s a book of poems by Geoff Goodfellow, a poet of the people, and one who uses his real life experience in his poems, and doesn’t gloss over the gnarlier aspects of life. I think that this augers well. There is a library in the prison, it’s called the Risdon LINC and I really, really love that this is present inside.

The first session was run with Mark, Andrew and Adrian and it was my first chance to ask them what they actually think of poetry. I was heartily surprised to hear that they didn’t think it was “girly” (sadly a derogatory word in this space) or that it had to rhyme. These ideas came later in our sessions, and the desire for poems to rhyme, as well as, in one instant, an insistence that it is not a poem unless it rhymes.

Both Mark and Adrian mentioned that they already write poetry, they use it as a method to nut things out, and they use it in an attempt to woo and communicate with women. Mark is quite skilled, literate, fluent. His prison swagger is practised, and we had specifically asked him to come along to the groups as he had some sway amongst other inmates. We asked him if he could help recruit for the group. While the future sessions attracted inmates with all levels of literacy, we are primarily seeking people for whom literacy is a challenge.

Adrian writes songs and suggests that his literacy struggle is profound but we’re not sure; his tests reveal an ambiguity. He has told us eagerly that he is a musician, a songwriter, though whether these songs are written down or not is unclear. They’re both smart, though Mark has a more formal education. Andrew is quiet, tough, an element of friendliness and interest that is diluted by wariness. I’d be wary too - some new eager employee, here to help (that’s me). Andrew is quieter, though he explained the lengths that he went to at school to avoid having to read out loud (he’d make excuses, fake sickness). He still actively engages in discussions.

We agree on some group agreement around behaviour, including some parameters around swearwords (attached) and then dive into what Slam Poetry actually is, what makes Slam different to Shakespeare, or to the dusty window sills of reluctant poets reading their words aloud.

The proximity in style to hip hop battles is a good way in, though we focus on Slam’s ability to make social change, and to give a voice to causes overlooked and communities disenfranchised. It is also about being heard, captivating the audience and providing good old entertainment. Slam, this contemporary iteration of performance poetry, has grown into an international movement with competitions happening all around the world, including in Tasmania. So what is Slam poetry? Slam, it seems, while known in theory, and known in terms of rappers and rhymers, is a new word for this group. And while poetry has been spoken aloud, from the balladeers, to the storytellers to the spokespeople for centuries, this incarnation – Slam - is a particular form of performance poetry that began in Chicago in the 1980s.

None of these fellas had experienced slam poetry, or were familiar with poetry in that form – and when asked about what poetry meant to them they had ‘emotional’ and a good way of explaining things to themselves. Andrew stated that he reads poetry because it explains his own emotions to them.

This session, as is the plan for all of them, we shared some videos from established performance (Slam) poets. To begin we looked at Kate Tempest, Erfan Daliri and Omar Musa. We talked about Erfan’s anger in ‘The Things I Hear,’ and the way he harnessed it as if it were a martial art – how he turned around his despair and called for revolution. We talked about how the three poets collapse timeframes into a few minutes of performance and how the poem itself is a prism through which to view the entire universe. We discuss, loosely, pulling focus and using a personal issue as a metaphor and a way to interpret the broader world. Their interest is piqued.

My challenges will be to keep a weather eye on written literacy – bring it back to the skills that can be developed on the written page – and how to improve them. I am learning in this space, glad to be working with the dedicated LINC Literacy program both for company and professional guidance. I am also curious as to how we quantify the improvement - or see tangible improvements. There will be assessments done before and after.

So – ideally our first three attendees will have tendrils and let their poetic energy and interest seep, noisily or quietly, into the wider community here, and that those with a desire to express, to improve their written and spoken language, those with a yen for performance or a yen to create, find this space. I plan to keep it loose around a central structure and with a clear core and motivation (literacy/creativity and expression) plus the opportunity to provide a creative mechanism for self-reflection (collateral for poetry, collateral for any form of writing – writing to get a better understanding of the self and of the world).
How many people will we get next time?

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