Creative writing at HMP Guys Marsh
Ella Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Bath Spa University, writes about her experience coordinating a creative writing course last year at HMP Guys Marsh. She shares an extract from the resulting anthology ‘Chrysalis Chronicles’, written by Kam, one of the men taking part.
They said it couldn’t be done. One prison, twelve weeks, five professional authors and an anthology of publication-standard writing by prisoners dedicated to their literary craft.
Colleagues questioned the level of engagement required of prisoners. Least convinced of all were the men themselves. They doubted their abilities, the integrity of the publishing industry and their chances of success. And although it was hard, it was exactly these difficulties and the men’s struggles to overcome them – their raw tenacity and persistent efforts – that turned dreamers into writers and the scatter of individual egos into a community of serious, committed wordsmiths; novelists, screenwriters, memoirists.
The experience has convinced me more than ever that just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. HMP Guys Marsh, a category C men’s prison in the South West, has a solid track record in offering creative activities that challenge and develop their learners’ abilities and skills. Working together with Weston College and Not Shut Up magazine, we took the aspirations of the workshop participants seriously. In the same way that we offer our students at Bath Spa University opportunities to learn under the tutelage of acclaimed authors and working professionals, so too we brought to the prison the very best of the South West’s writing talent. Masterclasses aimed at inspiring and stretching the participants were augmented by workshops that supported their efforts and built confidence in their achievements.
And it doesn’t stop here. Kam, one of the four authors who stayed the distance, is putting his renewed sense of optimism and tenacity to use as he applies for university degree programmes studying film and TV. Certainly, the below extract from his novel, Out There, shows his literary talents are not in question.
While creative writing was undoubtedly at the centre of everything we did on the course, the relationships of trust and cooperation that developed between the men were of equal importance. Each one of them demonstrated an abundance of sensitivity, altruism and emotional intelligence towards the others in the group – qualities, like literacy skills, that prisoners aren’t supposed to have.
They said it couldn’t be done, but these men proved that it could.
Perhaps publishing Chrysalis Chronicles will help enable these kinds of opportunities to be extended to the wider prison community. As Ian Bickers, Deputy Director of the New Futures Network, writes in his introduction to the anthology:
“My hope is that this is a stepping stone for more pieces of work like this and for those who have started to write to continue to do so – the work is simply inspirational!”
At Bath Spa University we are currently working on ways to enable the masterclass series to continue even in a time of Covid-19. Using key technologies and an abundance of imagination we’re confident we’ll find a way. They already said it couldn’t be done once.
An extract from Out There, published in Chrysalis Chronicles.
Josh sat quietly on the floor with a mountain of Lego in front of him. His sister complained when she stood on a piece as she walked past with her times-table book in her hand. She was practicing for a test she had the next day at school. The room was too small for three people but Josh, his older sister and his mother had lived there for as long as he could remember. The brown carpet was worn and frayed, it left imprints on Josh’s legs when he switched positions. At one end of the room was a small sink filled with dirty dishes. Directly opposite was a small window that had a view of the street to the front of the building. Josh had perched himself between the double bed that they all slept on and the built in wardrobe opposite which housed their clothes. In the corner between the window and the wardrobe was a small television that had a coat hanger for an aerial. Josh didn’t know what he was building, it didn’t matter, he’d know when it was finished. It’s gonna be amazing, he said to himself.
“Nine times nine equals eighty one. Ten times nine equals ninety. Eleven times nine equals ninety nine,” said his sister as she paced up and down the small room. The door to the room opened and Mrs Markman quickly entered with four heavy Safeway bags.
“Why are all these dishes in the sink, Layla? I told you to make sure you have done your chores before I came home,” said Mrs Markman furiously. Josh continued to build his structure, oblivious to his mother shouting at his sister until he heard a scream and the sound of breaking crockery. In that moment time seemed to slow down for Josh. He looked up to see his sister standing next to the bed with the fear of god in her eyes. Thick red blood ran down her face from the gash that seemed to cover her entire forehead. A broken coffee mug on the floor at her feet.
Josh had never felt adrenalin before. Never been so scared he couldn’t move before. He had never seen so much blood, he thought his sister was going to die. He slowly turned to look at his mother but saw only what he could describe as a monster with wild eyes and snarling teeth. He froze with fear as she turned to him and said; “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.”
Ella Simpson, Bath Spa University
Ella Simpson is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Bath Spa University. Her teaching specialisms include narrative, cultural and convict criminology along with expertise in the theory and practice of creative arts interventions in criminal justice settings. She is the Chair of Not Shut Up magazine.