Last week I was invited to judge the poetry collections for the Koestler Trust Poetry Awards. These collections of at least ten poems are all written by people aged 18 and over who are serving a prison sentence, or a prolonged stay in a high security hospital.
It’s an absorbing and rewarding task and I feel privileged to read the work and gain an insight into lives very different from my own. There are familiar themes – much about life in prison, the hopelessness
of it all, the sense of futility – sometimes written with a victim mentality, sometimes full of remorse for past crimes. Then there are the love poems, mostly written by men idealising their wives and girlfriends and tormented by a sense of loss, loneliness and jealousy. Often written very simplistically and with forced rhymes these poems sometimes make heartrending reading.
But when the writer looks beyond his or her grim situation there are moments of sheer genius quite unlike anything I’ve come across before. In the case of poetry written by Offenders, good work doesn’t seem to emerge when the poets write what they know as is so often advised for novice writers, but when they
write what they imagine. In the sheer monotony of prison life the imagination fires brilliantly and the best poems, even in their naivety, are full of character, pathos, humour, eccentricity and wisdom.
I sat in a room without my fellow judges, surrounded by files of poetry, with the sun streaming through the window and a view of Wormwood Scrubs outside, and felt moved both by the work, and the lives of these writers behind bars to whom poetry can give such hope.
The 2013 exhibition of visual art, poetry and music opens on 24th September at Festival Hall. I recommend it.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.