Washington State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen recently held poetry workshops for the inmates at both the Coyote Ridge Correctional Center and the Washington State Penitentiary. Washington State Library has an institutional library branch in each of these facilities and the workshops were held in our libraries. You may not think a prison would be a place that was receptive of poetry but both reported successful programs.
At the Washington State Penitentiary’s program nine inmates attended as well as a couple of teachers who dropped in. The session lasted over two hours and all of the inmates participated in the discussion and asking questions. Ms. Austen started by reading poetry, including her own from her book “Every Dress a Decision”. The inmates were enthusiastic and ready with questions and discussion about the poetry they heard.
After the reading they asked Ms. Austen questions about her writing process and she talked about what can be learned about yourself while writing. The men who attended the workshop also had a chance to read their own poetry and listened carefully as she gave them tips and feedback on the rewriting process to help them polish and refine their words.
Ms. Austen left some poetry books including a copy of her volume. The inmates were very appreciative of the program and enjoyed the chance to meet her. Apparently Ms. Austen equally enjoyed the chance to work with the inmates. In a blog post she wrote about the events she said,
“My role in the workshops was to try to offer the same thing I hope to provide at workshops in libraries on the outside: the chance to read a few good poems together, and avail ourselves of poetry’s power to illuminate our lives and connect us to each other… The original poems they read aloud voiced regret and longing, struggles with anger and addiction, sorrow at lost connections to children, parents and spouses… As with any workshop, I can’t really know if what I did was useful to the participants. I hope so; I know it’s going to take me a while to assimilate the stories I heard through their poems and conversation.”
The program was sponsored by of Humanities Washington and ArtsWA, the Washington State Arts Commission.