Feeling it: Reading the emotions of others

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Discussions on literature and empathy continue to buzz around The Reader HQ following Obama’s sentiments on reading for empathy, our founder and director Jane Davis reflects on how literature can help us connect with others.

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The Reader 63

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The weather is turning, the leaves are falling, Autumn is most certainly upon us and with a new season comes a new edition of The Reader Magazine. Introducing Issue 63.

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Redeemable: Erwin James on reading and finding redemption

Ahead of his appearance at the London Penny Readings, we spoke to Erwin James about his new book Redeemable and his relationship with literature.

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The Reader 60

Reader 60 coverThe first issue of The Reader in 2016 is here and it’s a very special one indeed as it heralds our sixtieth edition. There are plenty of diamonds to be found inside Issue 60, ranging from the brand new to the nostalgic, and the inclusion of our One -Pagers’ – the raw, powerful and punchy moments from works of literature that make us feel alive and which we often turn to at times in need of affirmation.

‘We seek the ‘lines of life’. When readers tear from books the words that suddenly matter to them, that is their own pre-poem, the beginning of their work as receivers and transmitters of suddenly felt meaning. Reader writers: apply within.’ – The Reader Writers, Philip Davis

You’ll still find plenty of broader content within Issue 60, including new poetry from Carol Rumens, Julie-ann Rowell, Claire Allen and Vidyan Ravinthiran. The big themes of change and the future – still on many a mind as the year is fresh – feature in Gill Blow‘s story ‘Ladies of the Soil’, and Raymond Tallis seeks perspective on life from the imagined vantage of his future death in an extract from his new book The Black Mirror.

Sitting alongside future thoughts are frequent glances back towards the past, as we republish poems by Les Murray and U.A. Fanthorpe from our earliest issues, and revisit our childhoods while keeping feet firmly in the present day as we talk to Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris, co-writers of the hugely popular Ladybird Books for grown-ups. Our second interview visits photographer Tim Booth, who talks about his stunning collection A Show of Hands – a collection of portraits of hands.

Marjorie Lotfi Gill features in The Poet on Her Work, turning distance that feels like helplessness into clarity as she writes on the subject of gun violence. Charlie Darby-Villis writes about reading poetry in a high security prison, and the poet David Constantine responds with his own recollection of visiting HMP Low Newton. More on the particular power reading can offer come from pieces by Drummond Bone, Ben Davis, David Abrahamson and Claire Sive.

All this alongside our Regulars and Recommendations – there’s much to celebrate in our latest milestone.

If you’re keen to make a literary resolution for the year ahead, yearly subscriptions to The Reader begin from £24, offering four issues of the magazine. You can also purchase your copy of Issue 60 for the price of £6.95. There’s the chance of winning a full set of the Ladybird Books for grown-ups within the issue, so don’t delay in ordering!

For more on The Reader, see our website.

 

Connecting to the stress-relieving power of poetry

london group poemIt’s great news to hear that the connection between poetry and mental wellbeing is being highlighted, thanks to the launch of ReLit and their anthology Stressed Unstressed, a volume of 150 poems selected to ease the mind and provide solace in troubling situations. Amongst those who have identified poems that have helped them to cope during times of stress are Melvyn Bragg, Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.

The members of our Shared Reading groups are experiencing the power as well as the pleasure of poetry on a weekly basis, from community groups in libraries to patients on mental health wards and prisoners in high-security units. Reading poetry aloud as a group gives people access to powerful language, thoughts and feelings about what it is to be human, and in experiencing these complex meanings with others they can start to build – or rebuild – a better understanding of themselves and the world. Whichever way someone is struggling – on a particular day, week or on a longer-term basis – a poem can help to reach out on a personal, emotional level.

The best way to feel what a poem is and can do is to read it, with other people.

Take, for instance, the women at HMP Low Newton who read Mattresses by Jean Sprackland:

Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman can’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listen politely, sensitively, but then the group move on, back to the text, and the talk returns to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changes to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading is a genuinely new one. Another, deeper, insight follows: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startles this woman to a laugh, and you can see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.”

Or a group member on a mental health ward in Manchester, who found comfort in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by Wordsworth:

“On the morning of the group, he was on a 2:1 because he was ‘punching out and shouting at the staff’. He came in to the group, sat down and his focus was completely on the poem throughout. He was calm, reflective, and had read the whole of the poem aloud in a wonderfully clear voice. We were talking about places that we can remember that made us happy, and he told the story of going on picnics with his Mum, Dad and sister.  By the end of the group, he only had one staff member with him, and showed no signs of aggression, upset, or distress.”

group 1A great amount of the literature we use in Shared Reading groups deals with difficult subjects, evoking distress and often painful memories that do not seem on the surface designed to comfort or put the group member’s mind at ease. However below the surface different emotions rise up, showing how we sometimes need what is difficult to break through to the deeper part of us.

“We were reading war poetry and as I read John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields Ivy shifted in her seat, and I could tell before I finished the poem that she wanted to speak. One memory in particular, translated through the poetry, brought tears to her eyes as she shared it with the group:

‘I remember once I walked in on my Father as he was changing his shirt ready to go out with Mother. He shouted ‘Don’t come in, I’ll be down in a minute’, but it was too late, I had seen his side and there was a great hole there. I ran down the stairs to Mother crying and said ‘What happened to Dad? Did he fall down the stairs? And she said, ‘No love, that is a war wound’. I remember I was so upset.’

Her emotion at recalling the story of the wound demonstrated why, even though it took place when she was very young, this was an event which shaped her and has stayed with her over the years. I asked her if she was okay, if she was happy to continue reading the poems and she replied ‘Oh yes, I like them.’ When we read next Now to be still and rest, while the heart remembers by P.H.B. Lyon, she smiled and nodded and was keen to point out, ‘We celebrate every year, we never forget.’ “

Our research with partners CRILS at the University of Liverpool further demonstrates how reading poetry aloud can have powerful effects on people across all ages, backgrounds and life situations, from those living with dementia for whom poetry can stimulate emotional experiences in the present as well as rememberance and help to improve mood, to encouraging better social, emotional and psychological wellbeing amongst female prisoners. The shared reading of poems and literature has the effect of creating bonds and friendships, which our research has found contributes to a more positive outlook on life.

As the year is still fresh, here’s to more poetry, less stress and loneliness – and in reading together, sharing the comfort that comes from great literature on a wider scale.

“Amazing things happen”: The Reader’s AGM 2015

Annual Report frontWhere would you find over 100 guests eating warming bowls of stew followed by scoops of ice cream, taking an exclusive tour of the North West’s forthcoming interactive children’s story centre and sharing poetry, laughs, bursts of emotion and gasps of recognition?

At the beginning of this week, we were delighted to welcome volunteers, commissioners, trustees, staff and many of our shared reading group members from around the country to our base at Calderstones Mansion for our 2015 AGM. Our third AGM to date at Calderstones, we gathered to celebrate a year of many highlights of shared reading activity – the written details of which can be found in our 2014-15 Annual Report. With the appearance of our special guests, we were able to tell some of those wonderful stories aloud.

Acting Chair of The Reader’s Board of Trustees Kathy Doran started proceedings by arranging the board together, before the celebrations of another successful year of shared reading could begin. Once more, the breadth of our activity has grown in the past year but Jane brought us back to the heart of what we do by reading a poem that sums up the fundamentals of what happens in each and every one of our groups. It is our aim, Jane so aptly summarised with help from John Keats, for everyone within a group to find there their own space ‘silent, upon a peak in Darien’.

Keats AGM poem
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer – Jane’s choice of shared reading at the 2015 AGM

Our volunteers from across the UK shared their own stories about the projects they have been involved in – some for years, others for months, but all with real impacts to the communities they read with. From Liverpool to London, Somerset to North Wales, and reading with a wide range of people, including older people with dementia, library-goers and young people outside of an educational environment in their own homes, all of our volunteer representatives spoke movingly about the difference shared reading is making – in some cases, being nothing short of life-changing. This year’s AGM marks our signing of the 125-year lease at Calderstones Mansion and we celebrated all that has happened at the Mansion so far, including the efforts of our Calderstones volunteers, who still get the chance to read in all of their various roles.

We were also joined by Vicci Tatton of Prinovis, our corporate social responsibility supporter, who told us more about how their staff are getting involved in bringing reading into the workplace, and one of our commissioners Richard Rodgers, Lead for Substance Misuse Services at Greater Manchester West Mental Health Trust who explained how shared reading helps to “bring the pace of busy life down” for service users across the trust.

All in all, it was an evening full of inspiration – from the words of classic literature to the numbers of people we’re reaching throughout the country, and most significantly, the stories of our group members. To quote Kathy Doran in her closing speech, “amazing things happen” when people come together to read – and we’re looking forward to even more amazing things in the year ahead.

The Reader’s Annual Report 2014-15 is now available to download from our website – discover more about our work in health, with young people and criminal justice settings, as well as many more highlights from ‘a vintage year’.

Featured Poem: The Angel by William Blake

This week’s Featured Poem is a choice from William Blake, taken from his Songs of Experience. Blake began writing poetry when he was twelve, but his visionary experiences began before then at the age of eight when he told his mother that he had seen a tree filled with angels “bespangling every bough like stars”. Such visions became a theme through his work, with this poem alongside his other I Heard an Angel appealing to a different set of senses.

This poem was recently read in a shared reading group within a Criminal Justice setting, who are making their way through Skellig by David Almond. The Angel is featured within the book, sung at one point by one of the characters, and it was the melodious quality that was picked up by one of the group members in particular. The choice was found to be an ’empowering’ one – take a read and see what you think.

The Angel

I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne’er beguiled!

And I wept both night and day,
And he wiped my tears away;
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart’s delight.

So he took his wings, and fled;
Then the morn blushed rosy red.
I dried my tears, and armed my fears
With ten-thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.

William Blake

Prison book ban overturned

Wonderful news was announced at the end of last week as the ban on sending books to prisoners in England and Wales has been declared unlawful by the High Court.

Mr Justice Collins has removed the ban previously imposed earlier this year by the justice secretary Chris Grayling and has ordered the policy on what can be sent to prisoners to be amended, commenting that it was strange to treat books as a privilege when they may be essential to a prisoner’s self-development and rehabilitation.

The ban provoked an incredible reaction in opposition, leading to a petition and high-profile campaign garnering support from authors including Carol Ann Duffy, Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman, who commented after the reversal of the decision that he was glad that reading has been seen as “a right and not a privilege”.

The Reader Organisation is delighted to hear the news, given our work sharing reading in prisons and criminal justice settings across the UK. For hundreds of prisoners each week, shared reading offers the chance to reflect, engaging with literature and connecting deeper to their own experiences.

“The connections and insights of a shared reading group are endless and some of those most in need of new connections and insights are prisoners. I myself have actually become more tolerant of people and value their opinions far more than I used to as I am constantly amazed by the depth of those insights which frequently resonate with me deeply.

I have benefited greatly from the emphasis upon great literature and have learnt more of what it is to be a human being, the role of emotions in myself and others, in fact the whole range of human experience in these finely crafted works than I have in half a dozen psychological ‘treatments’.” – A, a prisoner taking part in one of our regular shared reading group

Read more of A’s story in our Annual Report 2013/14

Writer and patron of The Reader Organisation Erwin James spoke on BBC Radio 4 following the overturning of the ban discussing the importance of reading in prison and in particular talking about the difference books have made to his life: you can hear the clip here. In Issue 54 of The Reader, he wrote an essay about how he became a reader whilst in prison and how one book in particular gave him hope for the future. In the light of the news, it makes for an even more powerful read.

Recently Lord Faulks QC, Minister of State for Civil Justice & Legal Policy, visited one of our shared reading groups at the Psychologically Informed Planned Environment (PIPEs) in HMP Send. Shared reading has been integrated as part of daily life in seven PIPEs around the country. After his visit, Lord Faulks lent his support to shared reading within criminal justice settings:

“The Reader Organisation performs a vital function in the delivery of the PIPE objectives by engaging prisoners with literature and poetry which is both enjoyable and beneficial for them. I was very impressed with the library facilities at HMP Send particularly with the accessibility to books in all genres.”

Great news just in time for Christmas for prisoners across the country to receive the gift of reading and we continue to look forward to delivering more shared reading sessions in criminal justice settings in 2015.

The Reader Organisation’s Annual Report 2013/14

peckhamFollowing a successful 2014 AGM last week – our second held at our new HQ, Calderstones Mansion HouseThe Reader Organisation’s Annual Report for 2013/14 is now available on our website to read and download.

Our latest Annual Report charts what has been the biggest period of growth and development for TRO, with more shared reading projects expanding across the UK. Highlights of the year include a significant boost to our community projects in South London thanks to the development of a 3 year project to establish more than 100 shared reading groups across the area which meet the needs of the ‘whole person’ – a health priority flagged up at our National Conference 2013 by Andy Burnham MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health; an expansion of our North Wales project, which is crucially volunteer-led to help us reach some of the most remote parts of the UK; a Reader-in-Residence project which saw shared reading brought to the heart of a workplace across Merseyside, and ongoing work with our partners including Mersey Care, Liverpool Hope University and CRILS (Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society).

The report charts our work across a number of areas, including Health and Wellbeing, Dementia, Criminal Justice and Children and Young People, and also showcases the impact of shared reading in its most vital and human sense, as told through the words of some of our Readers from a variety of settings and places:

“I’ve experienced so many emotions; failure, success, fear, laughter, tension and escapism. Most of all, how enjoyable and magical reading can be.” – D, a shared Reader

“I… have learnt more of what it is to be a human being, the role of emotions in myself and others, in fact
the whole range of human experience… than I have in half a dozen psychological “treatments” ” – group member in Criminal Justice setting

“New friendships have been formed, new horizons opened up and confidence has been boosted. The reading
revolution has started in Buckley Library!” – North Wales Project volunteer

In a year which has also seen us consolidate our work in a practical sense with support from Big Venture Challenge and Social Business Trust, it is a heartening achievement that the serious pleasure of serious reading is continuing to spread further from its strengthened roots.

The Reader Organisation’s Annual report 2013/14 can be downloaded or read on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/who-we-are/annual-report

 

 

‘It gives me a sense of worth again’ – A’s Reader Story

At The Reader Organisation, we’re opening up the wealth of emotional experience contained in great literature to people regardless of which life situation they currently find themselves in. Our weekly read-aloud, shared reading groups operate around the country in a variety of settings, connecting people closer to books, stories and poems – and one another – with often very profound results.

Recently we received some feedback from one of our Readers attending a group in HMP Frankland, Durham, about their experience of shared reading.

A had been a keen reader, but found that with nobody to talk with about the things that he was reading that his enjoyment decreased. The act of reading, and rediscovering reading, was vital for A to maintain a sense of normal perspective about himself – something that he identifies as being hard to hold onto while in prison – and reconnect to a more positive mental outlook.

Saying that he was ‘struggling’ with life, A describes attending the shared reading group at the prison as being like ‘a cool drink of water on a hot day seemingly without end’. Though recognising the benefits of reading on an individual level, shared reading within a group appears to make a particular difference:

“If reading by oneself in isolation is inherently edifying, and I believe it to be so, then how much more so when you read with others of a like mind? The connections and insights of a shared reading group are endless and some of those most in need of new connections and insights are prisoners. I myself have actually become more tolerant of people and value their opinions far more than I used to as I am constantly amazed by the depth of those insights which frequently resonate with me deeply.”
The group has read a wide range of literature, from Silas Marner to Frankenstein, with A taking particular hold of the emotional depth of such works: “[I] have learnt more of what it is to be a human being.” Since attending the group, A says that his skills of expression have improved, as well as his confidence, which had been lacking for the majority of his life.
And yet it is not just within himself that A sees the most benefit – the experience of reading and discussing great literature has had an impact on others too:
“I have seen my friends reading and then writing poetry in their own time who before attending the group had not the faintest idea about it nor the inclination to find out.
It connects us, prisoners, lifers in a high security prison, with the beauty that we always suspected was beneath the concrete and razor wire or dimly remembered in another life. “
You can read A’s powerful Reader Story in full on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/reader-stories/as-reader-story,-hmp-frankland
Shared reading projects in the Criminal Justice sector offers opportunities for self-reflection and attitudes to be transformed, and can assist in reducing reoffending. Discover more, including our work in the North East, on our website: http://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do-and-why/criminal-justice