Many of the things I’ve done in my life have been the result of happenstance. I didn’t plan on being a staff welfare officer on top of my library job. I was asked to do it, and I said yes. I loved doing it, and it gave me an entry point into counselling, which I found extremely fulfilling. I didn’t plan on bringing poetry to the patients at the State Hospital, Carstairs either. I’d written a piece for a library journal on literacy in prisons, and the Carstairs librarian asked me to visit the library. That led to her asking me to read my poetry to their book group, and I’ve now been visiting for around seven years, running workshops and readings. I didn’t plan on developing an increasing interest in working with mental health groups and those with learning difficulties, but it has happened, and I’m very glad.
Letting poetry into your life is an enriching experience. Readers of this blog know that already, but taking poetry into environments where it’s not part of everyday life isn’t easy. Thanks to funding opportunities there are several residencies in workplaces and communities. Among these residencies is a network of poets who work in prisons, and I’m a member of that group. Strictly speaking, Carstairs isn’t a prison, although the level of security is necessarily very high. The patients have a variety of serious mental conditions, which have led some of them to commit serious crimes. Other patients are there for shorter periods, because they require the specialist treatments available there, together with a level of supervision which can’t be provided in the community or in standard mental health facilities.
I know, from personal experience, how effective poetry can be in situations of bereavement. I’ve seen at close hand poetry read and written by those affected by depression, cancer treatment, grief, dependency, domestic violence. I’ve seen the joy in the face of a teenager with learning difficulties who realises that she’s just written her first poem, and that her friends like it. But poetry isn’t in itself a magic wand. It won’t cure cancer; it can’t alter the mind of a psychotic; it isn’t a methadone substitute for a drug addict; it can’t fix a brain damaged at birth or later; it won’t stop a partner hitting you.
So does it do any good at all? I would argue that it does. We’ve evolved as social animals, communicating with each other by means of language and images. Poetry uses words and word-pictures to illuminate the world and ourselves. It can make people feel better, in themselves and about themselves; it can help to underpin the healing process by demonstrating the shared nature of our human experience – the stories told by others in this most intense form of language are not all that different from our own.
At Carstairs, because the staff and a proportion of the patients know me from previous visits, I start by talking about the things I’ve been doing – maybe I’ve been walking in the Highlands, or visiting family – and I’ll read them a recent poem I’ve written about that experience. That’s the ice-breaker, and it demonstrates how my experiences feed into my poetry, as it does with all poets. Then I’ll read a poem from one of the anthologies I’ve brought with me – maybe The Rattle Bag, Staying Alive, or The Edinburgh Book of 20th Century Scottish Poetry. I’ll choose a poem (in advance) for its potential for exploration by discussion. I make sure that these discussions are as inclusive as possible. There’s a considerable range of intellectual capacity around the table, but everyone is encouraged to express an opinion – the poetry is treated as a vehicle for self-expression. Often the discussion will throw up an idea which I can link to another poem, and so it goes for the first half of the session. In the second half I’ll try to get everyone writing. I discovered early on that some were used to writing on their own, while others didn’t (or couldn’t) write at all. So I introduced the group poem, in which everyone can participate, and it’s been successful. I’m told by the staff that the level of communication between patients is higher after my visits. I finish by reading a few of my own poems, which they seem to like.
Over the years, it’s become a personal relationship with the staff and patients. Although there is a turnover in attendees, I’ve known some of them over several years. Some will respond to treatment and return to their communities; others are there for the long term – some will die there.
There’s a new network for poets working in prisons, supported by the Scottish Poetry Library, and it’s a great forum for exchanging ideas and experience. And since Scottish Prison Service staff are part of the network, it’s a great way to get feedback. There are differences between the work in prisons and my work at Carstairs – in my case less turnover, no opportunities for one-to-one working, different funding arrangements, different management (Carstairs is part of the NHS), but there are important similarities. The most fundamental one is that they are all closed communities, isolated from the outside world, in large measure separated from families, but with the normal human needs for empathy and the mental stimulation outside contacts bring. In these situations poetry becomes an outstretched hand. It’s great when people take it.