Kevin McCann
H.M.P. Wymott

Kevin McCann's publications include The Trouble with Wings (Toulouse Press, 1982); The Waiting Game (Merseyside Poetry Minibooks, 1985); Mirror, Mirror (Other Publications, 1993); and The Bear (Blue Cage Books, 1995). His poems have been included in small press magazines both in the UK and Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Poems for children are included in anthologies from BBC Publications, Blackie, Franklin Watts, Macmillan Usborne, Wayland and the World Wildlife Fund. Poems for adults in anthologies from Albert Poets, Anvil and Survivors Press. Poems also included in novels ''The Lakes' by K.M. Lock (Penguin, 1997) and 'The September Starlings' by Ruth Hamilton (Bantam Press, 1994). He has broadcast book reviews, drama, poems and short stories on Radio City, Radio Four, Radio Five, Radio Merseyside, Red Rose Radio, World Service, B.B.C TV. As a Windows Project Worker he runs Writers' Workshops in Playschemes, Day Care Centres, Libraries, Community Centres, Youth Clubs, local schools and colleges.


 

Introduction by Kevin McCann, Poet in Residence - H.M.P. Wymott. 

This residency was set up as a result of an approach made to the Poetry Society by Anne Hulse (the prison librarian) who having worked with me before and being aware of my two year writing residency at H.M.P. Birmingham (as part of the Arts Council of England's Writers-in-Prisons scheme) thought a poetry residency at Wymott would be a worthwhile undertaking. So did the Poetry Society and I thank them both for that.

 

So, in the six months of your residency, what was actually achieved?

Well.. .twenty-six men entered something like two hundred new poems for the Koestler Awards (see end for further information); we were the subject of a graduate thesis on the importance of creative work amongst prison inmates; we got quite a bit of press coverage all of which was both accurate and sympathetic; we had a visit from Jimmy McGovern who unravelled the mysteries of screenwriting and explored the relationship between Drama and Poetry; the prison magazine set up a poetry page and one of my students was appointed editor; an awful lot of poems got written.

So, in six months what was actually leamed?

In the beginning most of my students were traditionalists i.e. "If it doesn't rhyme it's not poetry". So I began with a session on rhythm, rhyme and imagery (the difference between a metaphor and a simile) and emphasised the importance of precision in poetry. From there I gradually introduced free and blank verse, the "found" poem, verse drama. At each stage I illustrated my points with reference to the work of contemporary poets (Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Miroslav Holub to name but three) and often used their poems as starting points for directed writing. A lot of poems got written and individual members of the group began to make rapid progress both in terms of their own writing and their selfconfidence. The discussions around individuals' poems in the group became more focussed. We stopped merely decoding meaning and rapidly progressed to a point where individual students were developing both their own and their fellow students critical faculties to a point where I often had little else to do but summarise their suggestions. Many of the students began to meet informally during association and continue these discussions. Several members of the class were doing an accredited creative writing course and all reported a marked improvement in their poetry grades.

And in the six months, what was gained?

In the two years I worked in H.M.P. Birmingham I discovered that with certain types of prison inmates creative work becomes much more than either a way of passing the time or an "educational opportunity". In the process of re-drafting men whose lives were often dominated by the desire for instant gratification learn patience and gain a greater satisfaction in their inner lives as a result. In the writers' workshop they leam the value of listening and develop the ability to accept constructive criticism. In developing their imaginations they begin to empathise. In the constant writing of poetry they have insights into their own lives and begin (in some cases) to admit to the circumstances that led to them being in prison in the first place. Some of them try to change.

Sure, you can tot up how many poems got written, how many awards got won, how many students doing the creative writing option improved their grades, you can indulge in pointless arguments as to whether this is Art or Therapy (actually it's both).. .but in the end you ask the students themselves what they gained:

  • "...it encouraged me to keep an open mind..."
  • "what was leamed was invaluable..."
  • "my poetry writing has improved..."
  • "it has helped me to open up..."
And for me at least, the best of all:
  • "I found a gift worth keeping."

N.B. The Koestler Awards were set up by the late Arthur Koestler. They take the form of awards and cash prizes for creative work and are only open to prison inmates. 


 

EPILOGUE from Kevin McCann

 

Having already done six months as Poet-in-Residence at Wymott I was grateful for the chance to go back for another fifteen weeks. I ran a group of twelve men and concentrated on helping each individual develop their understanding of the craft of poetry. I treated the group as I would any other, beginning with the basics of rhyme (and rhyme schemes), rhythm (and blank verse), similes, metaphor and structure. We did writing excercises (many based on exercises found in Poetry in the Making by Ted Hughes and Jumpstart by Cliff Yates) and discussed each other's work. I shared an insight of Matthew Sweeney's regarding the similarity between poetic and cinematic imagery: "If I dry up when I'm writing a poem, I ask myself - if this was a film what would be happening next?"

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