IMG_5149Why do we do things that scare us?

The day before I was due to teach a poetry workshop to the Polish community in HMP Wandsworth for Safe Ground’s Groundation Poetry project, Marek Kazmierski friend & editor of Not Shut Up magazine sent me a link to a Guardian article by Zoe Williams about conditions inside Wandsworth prison. I asked around: what did friends think the staff to inmate ratio would be? No one, including me, guessed it right. It’s currently 150 men to 1 officer. Understaffing means less healthcare, less education, less rehabilitation, more abuse, more deaths from illness, more suicides.

As someone who has worked for Women’s Aid, been a Women’s Self Defence teacher and campaigned for the rights of victims, do I see a contradiction in standing up for the rights of prisoners some of whom may have committed the crimes? I don’t. It goes back to Us v Them. Human rights can never be an either or. If we make anyone a Them and mistreat them it comes back on us all.  Zoe Williams puts this much better in the article.

Before the workshop I talked to buddies. One piece of advice was ‘avoid emotive subjects’, which I had to ignore since Safe Ground had asked for a workshop on the theme of ‘Home’.  Three great poets I talked with were : Aviva Dautch who’d worked in HMP Holloway, Sarah Hymas who’d worked with various young offenders including at HMP Lancaster and David Swann who has written a collection of poems based on his year long residency in HMP Nottingham called The Privilege of Rain.  When you teach adults as a freelancer you’re often left to get on with it, but here I was also fortunate to work with the immensely supportive Safe Ground project.

Armed with blank sheets of white paper and śliwki w czekoladzie (plums in chocolate) I told the men I had come to infect them with the poetry bug. So there we were –  an older woman poet and 18 mostly younger, tough looking men who said their experience of poetry had stopped after primary school in the main. What did we have in common? Firstly, as Poles, there was the fact that home outside of your homeland has a layered meaning. There is the home (mine in Brighton) we find ourselves in and there is the Where I Come From Home. A  different language/culture/cuisine/history. But also, secondly, there is this excitement – and profound humility – when you set out to write anything. It doesn’t matter how experienced or published you are, how many awards you have or haven’t won. Each new blank page is exactly that. Blank and new. None of us knows exactly what will happen once we start writing. That’s what makes it so thrilling – but also scary – that’s where the magic begins. Will it be any good? Will anyone be interested in what I say? Do I have anything to say? Is it important? Everyone worries. Dave Swann had mentioned to me that he’d used the idea of animals in his writing excersises. To encourage the magic I asked all the men to chose a Power Animal to help them that day. They were to introduce themselves and their Power Animal to the rest of the group. Radio Wanno, the prison’s radio station, were recording us and had provided a microphone for us to use. One by one each person got up to speak. Soon the library was full of lions and pumas, rats, pigeons, wolves, dolphins, even a cloud and a giraffe. And once all of them had appeared there was no stopping us. We read poems by Moniza Alvi and Tadeusz Różewicz (two of my favourite poets), we talked and shared ideas about home, how it can be the best, a safe place or a hard and difficult place and everyone wrote poems.

This is the poem I have read for the men in HMP Wandsworth from my most recent collection At The Library of Memories (Waterloo Press:

The Cedars of Walpole Park


Their dark shapes stand out from the white sky.

Vast, statuesque and tall as liners

moored on the grass, they are dreaming ships

in a green ocean of hours.


You could look up into the blue sprig crown

of a tree like this. You can kick and flay,

you can slash its broad trunk.

Feel its thick, ridged bark rub your cheek,


you could be left against a tree like this.

You can pray, pick up spicy brown cones,

fall asleep beneath a tree like this.

If you weep under it,


if you retch or lose your mind,

if you can’t go home, you can climb

into its flat, open boughs –

you can sail away in a tree like that.


Marek Kazmierski, editor, writer and translator, has kindly agreed to translate some of the poems which the participants wrote in the workshop into English for publication in Not Shut Up. Theirs are voices which need to be heard.



Installation of t shirts outside MACBA in Barcelona