While I was in prison it was easy enough, and often useful to other prisoners and staff, to define myself as a ‘prison poet’, whatever that means. Now that liberty has finally raised her handsome head, I have had to ask myself why I am doing all this. Of course, the immediate answer, as I keep repeating – and will continue to do so until our politicians have the courage to discuss the problem with their electorate- is that I want to help improve conditions in British prisons. But that is not really an answer as to why I have chosen to express myself through poetry.
I have written poetry since I was at school but never had any serious commitment to it until I was locked up. I still have a school report dated Summer 1964 wherein the English master states: “Very talented and plenty of potential in this subject. His O Level grade will reflect his energetic unconcern for the more trivial accuracies – it does not matter.” What a superb comment from what I now regard as a great teacher, though I’m unsure that I saw him in that light then! He was, unfortunately, also 100% accurate in his forecast and had little influence on my academic career or lack of it. I can only remember the first line of the poem I wrote which he raved about:
There in the classroom the victor stood while I, defeated, prostrate lay…
I am sure that there are academics amongst you that could explain why a grammar school English teacher in the sixties might think that was good. For my part, I can only remember that the subject matter was a pathetic description of a 15 year old boy’s hang ups with becoming a sexual animal – physical courage, or pretence of it, being part of that. Once I left school I did lots of writing, as we had to do in those days to communicate over distances, and, as I became part of the burgeoning folk scene, rewording and piecing together folk songs – real folk songs – and providing some explanation of their meaning, came to me quite naturally.
Anyway, that is a bit of background that might be interesting, if not really providing an explanation of this current mission. I guess what happened is that in prison, where there is a tradition of poetry writing due, I think, to the limitations of space, time and materials, I felt I could reach a higher standard than most of the rest. Most importantly, once I realised, at HMP Highpoint that prisoners, prison officers, prison workers and, above all, the chaplaincy seemed to like listening to my poetry and I started to receive requests for poems for various events or occasions, my poetry writing just seemed to create its own momentum. How devastating it was when I was returned to B Cat conditions in the last year of my sentence where the conditions were not made available for me to write.
And now here I am trying to find a public voice…..