The RISE (Reading in Secure Environments) project begun last month with a series of successful partnership events with Manchester Literature Festival and Durham Book Festival, bringing writers Inua Ellams, Joe Dunthorne, Jackie Kay, Jean Sprackland and Michael Stewart to audiences in secure environments within the cities. You can read how the writers were received by their respective audiences and the thoughts of those who attended the past RISE events over on our dedicated RISE blog, where you can also keep up-to-date with all the latest news and developments from the project.
Our latest partnership was with Sefton Celebrates Writing Festival, presented by Writing on the Wall, and last week brought Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Schultz to HMP Kennet to read a selection of his work to an audience there. Prior to the event, Alexis McNay, Project Worker for The Reader Organisation, read some of Philip’s poetry with his reading group in HMP Kennet. The shared reading group within HMP Kennet has been set up with the aim of engaging men who are entry level learners. Together they explored the links between their own experiences and that of the poet, using ‘For My Father’ to help draw these past memories back to the present.
When we begin thinking about For My Father, one man is reminded of a quotation he has heard recently elsewhere; ‘don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes’. This kind of reaching for a near-fit proverb or axiom happens a lot in groups, and, as a movement away from the personal and specific of whatever is sought by the poetic voice to something general and glossing, can sometimes feel more like a way out than a way in. In fact, it’s a while before I can bring the man’s focus away from the TV programme he heard this on and back to the poem, and then he seems unwilling to expand. Yet, whatever subconscious synaptic impulses have forged the association, it’s clear that they suggest alert reading, an awareness not only of the poem’s surface suggestion of the father’s leg work, but a sensitivity on a deeper level to a tone favouring respect – gratitude, even – over disappointment.
I’m reading with a small group of men who I am learning to judge differently as bits of their stories emerge. I know now, for instance, that three of the four have had no secondary education. There is ambivalence, too, about whether education is an asset that can bring much return in their lives, although how much of this attitude signals the residual defeatism and proud isolationism of the spurned is hard to guess. One man remembers a system that gave up on him, but he blames himself; ‘they didn’t know what to do with me, I was a right little t**t’. We’re hoping to draw on some resonances between these kinds of experience and those of Philip Schultz, who is visiting HMP Kennet as part of The Reader Organisation’s partnership with RISE (Reading in Secure Environments). Philip Schultz knew he wanted to be a writer from an early age, even though he struggled painfully with reading. He did not know that he was dyslexic. He found himself lashing out in the playground against tormentors who labelled him a ‘dummy’ and humiliated in the classroom by teachers who sat him at the back with a book and told him to ‘pretend to read’. Schultz worked hard and somehow believed in himself in the most difficult conditions, becoming a Pulitzer winner for his poetry collection Failure. It’s an inspiring story, and one senses the fruition of that nurturing of possibility offered as a legacy in the poem, that ‘here he could have anything if he wanted it/ with all his life’.
I wonder when considering this poem for the session what that line will mean to the men in the group. That, and the idea of ‘father’. Reading in prison, I tend to be a little more thoughtful about the risk of adverse reactions to fairly benign, and, anyhow, ubiquitous and unavoidable subjects. This may or may not be necessary; experience has not borne out any special sensitivity in this setting, but adverse reactions are as likely as not to be hidden from view anyway. Reading with this particular group over the past few months, though, I’ve become aware of what seems a bigger risk – that there won’t be any reaction. This sounds stark, and to experience it is. There are inhibitors to response caused by technical aspects of reading, by attentiveness and comprehension, of course. These are not a problem. We slow down, shoot the breeze for a while, reach for another cuppa and chocolate digestive. But there’s also a lack of response I think caused by an absence of the thing we rely on so much in our groups; being interested in and caring about characters and worlds brought alive in language, seeing the possibility of ourselves in others. I think again about the beautiful opening of For My Father, where Spring sets the scene for a celebration of generation – passing down and giving life to – and key in this, given significance and made inseparable from the memory and feel of his father by that line break, the fact that his father would ‘tell stories’.
When we discuss the poem, no-one volunteers anything about their own fathers, or about being a father. The discussion at the beginning is modest, each avenue seeming to close up quite quickly. Someone recognizes of the father that ‘he liked his whiskey’ before stating his own penchant for Jack Daniels , though the actual line, ‘his breath/ filled the red summer air with the whiskey of first light’, causes us some problems. No matter. We say it over a few times, just letting it lace the air, and that’s enough. We carry on like this, skimming the poem here and there. There is a breakthrough, though, when I ask what the poem says about the father – the man – and about the poet’s feelings about him. For the first time in the discussion of poetry with this group, I see the lights come on in a young man’s eyes as he responds. Sure, it’s about being pleased with himself for contributing, feeling clever for getting it, but I’ve seen this particular moment before and I’m sure it’s also about something no less than the alignment of the soul of the reader with the emotional thrust of the literature.
‘He tried hard to make money for his family…’ says the young man.
‘Yes, you get the sense of that, don’t you? Do you think he is successful?’
‘Does it matter…..? Does it matter to the son?’
‘He was respected as a hard worker… because people are willing to pay money for his funeral’, joins another man.
‘Yes, and they’re not likely to see a return on that …’
‘Well, it depends what kind of return….’
It’s become a conversation, now, and we’re talking about that recognition, that sense of continuity as ‘his eyes still look at me out of mirrors’, and then we’re thinking is there an echo between ‘his black eyes got big as onions’ in the first stanza and ‘my eyes burning’ in the last. We get back to ambition, and summing up, the young man says,
‘People have to try and make things a lot better for themselves.’
This seems to be another breakthrough; ‘people’- that’s the father in the poem, that’s the young man, that’s you and me. It’s an abstraction that implies the universal we’re after when connecting with literature. I’m struck, too, by that ‘a lot’. There’s hope in there, but also a knowing of the severity of the starting point; ‘a porch so high he could see all the way back to/ Russia’.
For My Father
Samuel Schultz, 1903-1963
Spring we went into the heat of lilacs
& his black eyes got big as onions & his fat lower lip
hung like a bumper & he’d rub his chin’s hard fur on my
& tell stories: he first saw America from his father’s arms
& his father said here he could have anything if he wanted it
with all his life & he boiled soap in his back yard & sold
it door to door
& invented clothespins shaped like fingers & cigarette
that played Stars & Stripes when the lid snapped open.
Mornings he lugged candy into factories
& his vending machines turned peanuts into pennies
my mother counted on the kitchen table & nights he
tripping on his laces & fell asleep over dinner & one night
he carried me outside & said only God knew what God
had up His sleeve
& a man only knew what he wanted & he wanted a big
with a porch so high he could see all the way back to
& the black moon turned on the axis of his eye & his
filled the red summer air with with the whisky of the first light.
The morning his heart stopped I borrowed money to
& his eyes still look at me out of mirrors & I hear him kicking
the coalburner to life & can taste the peanut salt on his hands
& his advice on lifting heavy boxes helps with the books
I lug town to town
& I still count thunder’s distance in heartbeats as he taught
me & one day
I watched the sun’s great rose open over the ocean as I
swayed on the bow
of the Staten Island Ferry & I was his father’s age when
with one borrowed suit & such appetite for invention &
were mountains & the buildings gold & the sky lifted
like a dancer & her red hair fanning the horizon & my
in a thousand windows & the whole Atlantic breaking at
For My Father is reproduced here with kind permission of the poet.