Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On teaching poetry in prison

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On teaching poetry in prison

Poet Cara Benson visits Toronto this week to read from her work at Friday's AvantGarden Fall Poetry Series and to teach the Toronto New School of Writing's workshop Problems and Possibilities of Positionality on Saturday. See our Events page for details.

Here, Cara tells Open Book of the potential she finds in her shared discussions on writing and language with the inmates at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, a medium security state prison for males in Wilton, NY.


Here’s how it goes down. It’s much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher. These students know I have a high tolerance for chaos so poems on papers might literally fly around the room in the wind of an opened window or often enough overtalk among them takes over. Other times I stride in the room focused on Modernism and automation or Black Arts and the military-industrial-banking complex and don’t stop talking for ten okay twenty-five minutes when it’s time to hear their thoughts and poems from during the week. Then we are all all ears. Take notes on each other and feed them back.

Much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher we do have an outline of study. Or do now. For years we rolled with what I got my hands and head around that morning. There is a xerox machine I can use in the superintendent's assistant’s office and I take full advantage of the state budget. Like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher I bring in poems and essays on poetics and historical context and sometimes seemingly unrelated material that we connect through a constellation of dots back to the poems. We curse the government. We write the revolution will not be a status update (yes they know about Facebook) and create our own cosmologies. Rewrite creation mythologies. Look up all sorts of words in the dictionary (I bring in an unabridged whomper every week).

Much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher I don’t know if I’m not also “the man” in some subtle way. That the best that I can hope for is modelling some sort of reverent irreverence for syntax and form and the lineage of any particular trope (“you gotta know when you say rose in a poem that it comes with all sorts of baggage, right?”). I tell them I found out that publishing didn’t save me or anyone but that writing might. And that there is something bigger than me. Than them. That we take part in. And that is language. And that is the writing. And that is society’s currency and when we get our fingers and teeth on it we like Kathy Acker says whenever we “engage in discourse, [we are] using given meanings and values, changing them and giving them back.” That we are changing something. And much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher maybe that writing never leaves the room. Maybe it changes nothing outside that room. Maybe the only thing the class changes outside that room is me. I can’t speak for them.


Cara Benson is author of a book of interconnected pre-elegiac texts for earth plants humans animals called made, now out with BookThug. Her chapbook "Quantum Chaos and Poems: A Manifest(o)ation" won the bpNichol Prize. She takes part in the Dusie Kollektiv, the Belladonna* Collaborative and the publishing cooperative Black Radish Books. She teaches poetry in a NY State Prison.

For more information about made, please visit the BookThug website.

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