Prison Poetry Workshop Prompts

Nazim Hikmet

Nazim Hikmet spent many years in prison in Turkey in the mid-twentieth century because of his political beliefs and activities. Below is his poem, “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison”.

Write your own poem of advice. Perhaps you also want to speak about how “part of you may live alone inside, like a stone at the bottom of a well./But the other part/must be so caught up/in the flurry of the world…” Or maybe you want to make your own list of “sweet, but dangerous” actions (like waiting for letters, as Hikmet describes). Or you can write directly to what one inside can do so that the “jewel on the left side of the chest” doesn’t lose its luster.

Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison

If instead of being hanged by the neck you're thrown inside for not giving up hope in the world, in your country, in people, if you do ten or fifteen years apart from the time you have left, you won't say "Better I had swung from the end of a rope like a flag" -- you'll put your foot down and live. It might not be a pleasure exactly, but it's your solemn duty to live one more day to spite the enemy. Part of you may live alone inside, like a stone at the bottom of a well. But the other part must be so caught up in the flurry of the world that you shiver there inside when outside, at forty days' distance, a leaf moves. To wait for letters inside, or to sing sad songs, or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling is sweet, but dangerous. Look at your face from shave to shave, forget your age, watch out for lice, and for spring nights; and always remember to eat every last piece of bread -- also, don't forget to laugh heartily. And, who knows, the woman you love may no longer love you. Don't say it's no big thing -- it's like the snapping of a green branch to the man inside. To think of roses and gardens inside is bad, to think of seas and mountains is good. Read and write without stopping to rest, and I also advise weaving, and also making mirrors. I mean it's not that you can't pass ten or fifteen years inside, and more even -- you can, you can, as long as the jewel on the left side of your chest doesn't lose it's luster! --Nazim Hikmet Selected Poetry, New York: Persea Books, 1986)

Alicia Partnoy

Alicia Partnoy is an Argentinian human rights activist, poet, and translator. In the mid-1970s, when the military coup in her country “disappeared” many leftists, Partnoy spent time as a political prisoner.

Write your own short poem to your own daughter, son, nephew, niece. Or to the child you hope to have some day. Gather the tenderness Partnoy recognizes she needs to write to her little girl. You might want to mention the hardness, “the soul of stone,” but see if you can push that stone aside and write sweet to a child.

To write to you sun candy, my little girl, I would... I would have to gather so much tenderness... And your mother, my love, your mother is hard, her soul is made of stone, she hardly ever cries, ever... except to write to you, sun candy, little moon crystal. --Alicia Partnoy, Written in Villa Devoto Prison, Argentina This Prison Where I Live: The PEN Anthology of Imprisoned Writers Edited by Siobhan Dowd, London: Cassell, 1996

Coties Perry

Coties Perry has served over thirty years in California prisons. He wrote Kickin’ it with Loneliness in the mid-1980s in response to a visit from guest writer, Ruth Gendler. You might like her The Book of Qualities (New York: Harper Perennial, 1984).

Write a poem to an emotion. Write as though this feeling were a person, someone you could talk to. In writing, giving human qualities to something that isn’t living is called “personification.” Coties’ poem is a personification poem, and yours will be, too.

What do you have to say to Patience, Discipline, Courage, Confidence, Doubt, Compassion, Beauty, Excitement, Pain, Imagination, or any other emotion you choose? Coties is talking to Loneliness from the silence of his cell, and so the tone of the poem is personal and private. You might be shouting to Power out on the yard, or whispering to Depression to leave you alone. Coties mentions Loneliness’s friend, Emptiness, and his homeboys Stillness and Nothingness. Who does Inspiration hang out with? Who does Wisdom love?

Kickin’ it With Loneliness

Here you are again Loneliness sneaking up on me You’ve already taken my youth and freedom now you want my life-of-the-party soul lolligagging style gift-of-gab Damn you! Back off me Loneliness! And take your friend Emptiness with you Who do you think you are? Just when I’m trying to know out some z’s here you come again and make this sleepless nightmare harder than I know how to deal with. I’m trying my damnedest to get you off my back but you’ve got me pinned Look! You’re making me hate to communicate with the free world turning me into a bore keeping me away from checking out Hollywood on the boob-tube and catching that Beastie beat on the air waves. Man! I’m aware of your presence in this cell You and your homeboys Stillness and Nothingness among these crowded out caged loud mouths. Loneliness go away I don’t want you here I’m tired of talking with you and waiting for an unwanted answer I’m fed up with your worthless lifeless ass I’d rather wash clothes and cell bars than watch you and these four walls. Check it out Loneliness give me a chance When I’ve got that caressing touch the smooth flexible female body with free will and want of a fat joint after sex I’ll kick it with you then. --Coties Perry

Kathy Boudin

Kathy Boudin served almost twenty years in New York State. Since 2008, she has been an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. Her poem, Father/Daughter, was published in Aliens at the Border, an anthology of work from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility’s Writing Workshop facilitated by Hettie Jones.
My father picked me out of the ocean when the waves swallowed me. I was five. He was my net. Nets can catch butterflies, fish, Even children. But the years bring tears That cannot be caught. Who would believe It was Almost perfect between us. --Kathy Boudin Aliens at the Border

Haiku - Masters

Write a poem about (or to) someone who was your net, your safety, when you were little. Or write about having no net. Or about being a net for someone else. Boudin starts with the image of her father saving her from the ocean. She lets us know how old she was. Use similar details in your poem.

Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry. In Japan, the syllable count is important. The first line has 5 syllables, the second line 7 syllables, and the third line 5 syllables. Some haiku poets in English also hold to the syllable count. Others say English is a quite different language than Japanese and the point is less syllable count and more to write three lines that are bare to the bone.

A couple primary qualities considered important in Japanese haiku are that the three line poem expresses a new sensation (a sudden awareness of the meaning of some common human experience) and that it doesn’t explain (no cause and effect).

Here are a few examples by ancient Japanese haiku masters. You can see the above poetic qualities and, also, that these English translations don’t follow the traditional syllable count:

The old pond; A frog jumps in – The sound of the water. --Basho (1644-1694) Heat waves shimmering One or two inches Above the dead grass --Basho I go. You stay. Two autumns. --Buson (1716-1783) The two plum trees; I love their blooming. One early, one later. --Buson The autumn wind. There are thoughts in the mind of Issa. --Issa (1863-1827) In these latter day Degenerate times – Cherry blossoms everywhere. --Issa

Haiku - Etheridge Knight

Here are some haiku by Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) who served eight years in Indiana State Prison in the 1960s. His Poems from Prison was published in 1968. Knight’s haiku do follow the 5-7-5 syllable count.

Eastern guard tower glints in sunset, convicts rest like lizards on rocks. Morning sun slants cell. Drunks stagger like cripple flies On jailhouse floor. A bare pecan tree slips a pencil shadow down a moonlit snow slope.

Write your own haiku, using the traditional syllable count or not but keeping to the bare bones in three lines quality of the form. Your haiku might be set in prison or set in memory. Wherever, notice well. Be specific.

Irina Ratushinskaya

Irina Ratushinskaya was locked up in a Russian Gulag in the 1980s, charged with being a poet who wrote about human rights. The conditions were exceptionally brutal. Ratushinskaya wrote most of her poems with a sharpened matchstick on a bar of soap. She then memorized the poem and washed her hands to erase what she’d scratched from the soap. Her poems were published in English in Beyond the Limit (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987).

These lines are also personification (as is Coties Perry’s poem to Loneliness). Ratushinskaya is speaking to prison as though prison were a person she could talk to.

Write your own lines to Prison. Write them on the “first April evening of sadness;” or on Christmas with family celebrating elsewhere; or on your birthday when you remember the child you were and wonder a happier future for that child; or in the visiting room, loved ones around you, when Prison can’t get you because you’re surrounded by love.

Give me a nickname, prison, this first April evening of sadness shared with you… --Irina Ratushinskaya Beyond the Limit (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987)

Spoon Jackson

Spoon Jackson has served over thirty-five years in California prisons on a Life without Possibility of Parole sentence. He’s become a widely published writer with an international audience. His book of poems, Longer Ago, was published in 2010 by Lulu Press.

Read Spoon’s No Moon and write your own love poem in which you describe how you “have a life/but don’t have a life.” Spoon doesn’t use the word “desperation,” but instead uses images to describe the emotion (the “bars that don’t speak,” the “razor wire that longs to sever the throat,” “the cold winds that bounce off the emptiness,” “the moon fading away like a piece of hard rock candy,” the “wind (that) whistles off the back porch pushing on the screen door like ten cats, like ten mad men fighting.)

The feeling of your poem might not be desperation. Your love poem might be one of longing, hope, passion, sweetness. Whatever the emotion, no need to name it. Show it in images as Spoon does.

Notice how Spoon repeats “Shall I tell you…” You might want to use such a repeating line, too.

I was afraid this would happen, the way the night looks with no moon The way the wind whistles off the back porch You want to love me How can I tell you I have a life but don’t have a life What can I tell you Shall I tell you about the bars that don’t speak or the razor wire that longs to sever the throat or the cold winds that bounce off the emptiness Shall I tell you about the trees 200 yards away across the river of electric wire How the trees haunt me like the smell of barbeque the scent of a mountain meadow the sight of crimson painted toes Across the river, across the fields across the hills there is wine that belongs to no one What can I tell you Shall I tell you about the lovely women I never had Shall I tell you about the moon fading away like a piece of hard round candy I was afraid this would happen, the way the night feels with no moon, the way the wind whistles off The back porch pushing on the screen door like ten cats, like ten mad men fighting. --Spoon Jackson

Patricia McConnel

In the dedication for the reissue of her 1989 novel, Sing Soft, Sing Loud, Patricia McConnel wrote:

Write a poem that describes the good gifts shared behind the bars where you live. Be specific. Was the song sung by your cellie one night during a long lockdown when you were both aching for the visits that had been suspended? Did you want to slam the one who told you the truth before you recognized the courage it took to hold that particular mirror up to your face? Did someone pass on a good book when you were in solitary with nothing to read?

“For the women I lived with in various jails and in prison who, though barely hanging on themselves, always seemed to have at least a little to give… a story, a song, sympathetic listening, a good laugh, a spirited fight, truth, consolation, a lie told to protect me, a gift of food…”
--Patricia McConnel Sing Soft, Sing Loud Logoria Books; Paperback Edition, 1995