Sunday, March 12, 2006

Poets Grey Held and Shelby Have A Captive Audience.

(Grey Held)

Grey Held and Shelby Allen are more than just publication -focused writers. Both are accomplished poets, but they don’t spend their time getting their nose-browned in the rarefied groves of the academy. They go the trenches of the poetry world. They run poetry workshops for inmates at the “Northeast Correctional Center,” in Concord, Mass. Grey Held who was the recipient of a NEA grant and a nominee for a Pushcart Prize, and Shelby Allen a 2004 Boston Herald Poetry Prize winner told me that they are constantly surprised about how insightful and bright the inmates are, most of whom lack a formal education.

Shelby Allen told me she came to poetry from acting. She said: “Acting was a way not to write. Poetry came to my life after a period of creative confinement.” Her work in a correctional center was a natural progression. She recalled: “So naturally I responded to people who were literally confined.”

Held got his start with poetry in College. He had a teaching assistantship in Creative Writing at MIT. Held told me: “I work in the business world, but I did drawing and painting on the side for many years. About six or seven years ago I really felt the urge to write again. I took a workshop with Barbara Helfgott-Hyett. I just loved the creative, free-write process they practice there.”

Held met Allen at the workshop, and through literary circles they found about volunteer opportunities in prisons. This lead to their current stint as poetry workshop teachers at the Concord Correctional Center. Both find that poetry is a lifeline for prisoners, and a way for them to come to terms with their inner demons.

This poetic duo uses poems that inmates can relate to, and encourages them to use objects and experiences from their everyday life.. One inmate poem they shared with me concerned the prisoner’s hat, and the symbolic weight it carried.

Allen said what’s interesting about her experience as a workshop leader is: “Once you get into the experience, it feels like any other poetic situation. The prison goes away.”

Both Grey and Held agree that many of the prisoner’s poems they have read would stand on their own merits in the outside poetry world. Held said their work is: “Evocative and pretty amazing.”

The workshop is voluntary so participants really want to be there. The prisoners are not the caricatures you see on the TV prison drama “OZ” Many of the prisoners are self-educated and erudite. There is a complete range of skills, according to Allen.

The inmates according to Grey and Held write because they are in prison and in spite of it. Held speculated that if they were not in prison in the first place they may not have had the opportunity to study poetry. But many of them do turn to self-enrichment courses like poetry at this phase of their lives. Ironically, Held told me that many inmates have told him: “Prison has saved my life.”

Doug Holder

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