Poetry from prison
The pen is mightier than the pen
by Jim Graves
In "To Althea from Prison," the 17th-century poet Richard Lovelace made a virtue of necessity by concluding that "stone walls do not a prison make." At least his spirit was free. The attitude understandably receives no overt endorsement from the 20 contemporary prisoners who contributed to a lively new anthology, From This Distance: Poetry from Prison, edited by UNI Associate Prof. Rosanna Warren and UNI graduate student Meg Tyler. Yet the authors, who are confined in the Bay State Correctional Center for men in Norfolk, Mass., show frequent signs of Lovelace's deep engagement with the boundless world of the imagination.
Their work is the fruit of poetry workshops under a program directed by Warren and taught by Tyler in 1995 and 1996. For some of the participants, the workshops represented their first formal training in writing, says Warren, who notes "the variety and intensity of these poems" as well as their "equally impressive range of theme and voice."
Included are couplets, tercets, quatrains, sestinas, and free verse. "Learning the craft of poetry is like learning grammar," says Tyler. "Once you've absorbed the rules, you can break them. But you have to learn the rules because they provide a structure in which you can work, a sort of container for the chaos of creating."
Besides the impression that the authors are generally in control of their material, arresting imagery and language help to account for what Warren calls "a great freshness in these poems." In "Littoral Reflections," for instance, Dennis J. Beldotti speaks of seamen who "put caution to the foghorn's music/As they braved their way through the waves." Warren Poole in "The Moth" sees butterflies as "those flashy arrivistes." And in "Sicily LZ," Tuan D. Nguyen portentously recalls a "C-130 thundering down the echo of night/Sixty-four Special Force troopers on a one-way trip."
Tyler says that initial sentimentality and hostility shown by some of the inmates she taught dissipated as they followed her advice to keep writing. She recalls particularly one student who has spent 40 years in prison. "He became more thoughtful as he opened his heart and began writing about his guilt," she says. "Writing is a release. Although I don't much care for the term, it can be therapeutic."
The unusual workshops are part of Boston University's Prison Education Program. With help from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund, Warren initiated them in 1995 at the women's correctional institution in Framingham.
Selections from the new volume will be read at Marsh Chapel at 7:30 p.m. on September 19. Since the authors obviously cannot attend, their work will be read by distinguished poets, each of whom led a workshop for the writers. Besides Warren and Tyler, the readers will include Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Gail Mazur, David Ferry, Lloyd Schwartz, Tom Sleigh, and Teresa Iverson. The evening, which opens Marsh Chapel's Poetry Reading Series for the year, will begin at 6 p.m. with a roundtable discussion, and a reception will follow the reading.
Copies of From This Distance are $1.25 and are available at Barnes & Noble at BU. For more information about the Marsh Chapel Poetry Reading Series, dial 353-3560.