November 29, 2004
Poetry Frees Minds Behind Bars

My home state, Delaware, has a post-election tradition called Return Day, when winners and losers parade together in a show of good will. Sure, some smiles look a little tight and the parade, admittedly, is even smaller than the state, but the ritual is a reminder that administrations come and go, while much of the country’s truest work continues in places far removed from the great halls of power. Places like the MCI Framingham women’s prison, where Elizabeth Lund teaches poetry.

“I was attracted to the idea of writing as a transformative experience,” says Lund, who covers and reviews poetry for the Christian Science Monitor. She has been a finalist for the Brittingham Prize, the BOA First Book Award, and has read at the Dodge Poetry Festival. “Poetry has a profound effect on a person’s life and on the people around them. I think there’s something in people that responds to poetry. Poetry teaches you something about yourself that you didn’t know before. It gives you back parts of yourself that you didn’t know were there.”

For the women Lund teaches, many with only a junior high school education, studying poetry is indeed transformative. Reading the work of poets like Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks helps them articulate what they know. Learning to write their own poetry gives them a way to find their voices as they work toward claiming a better place in the world. Lund, who has been teaching at MCI Framingham for 10 years, prefers to talk more about her own satisfaction in the work than the gift she is offering. But in a time when personal beliefs are tossed down like gauntlets, the simple act of one person helping another realize her potential seems not only generous but also like the most American of values. That the transformation comes through art makes it even more powerful.

“Poetry has a different meaning to these women. Lund says. “It’s not just an intellectual exercise. It makes them think about what kind of weight their words are carrying.”

Lund describes one woman who wrote about how she used to walk around the prison courtyard with her head down and how she poetry has changed her. Now she walks with her head up.

“Now she’s articulate. She speaks up for herself. She’s learning how to have a voice, on paper and then in her life.”

In describing another woman, who is mentally ill and takes strong psychotropic medications, Lund says, “Poetry is one of the only things that keeps her balanced. I can literally see her stepping back from the edge when she starts talking about something she’s writing.

“They’re not the same people after they’ve been writing for a while. They’re more grateful, more aware. They have more hope, more compassion. It’s an honor to be part of that process.”

In one workshop Lund has taught, “Read to Me, Mommy,” women can make tapes of themselves reading a book for their children. For women who may have had limited parenting choices, it is empowering to select their books, practice reading them effectively before a camera, and send the tapes along with the books to their children.

Lund, too, has been changed by her experiences. In choosing poems and reviewing books of poetry for the Monitor, her criterion is now more clearly whether or not the writer has something genuine to say. And she feels her own poetry is “a bit grittier.”

“It may have made me more clear-eyed, and that’s a good thing. It’s made me aware of what’s really going on.”

Lund’s work clearly does not grow out of the cynical “thousand points of light” idea that assumes volunteers will fill the chasm left after slashing human services funding. No, what I picture here is a single pebble dropped into a pool, the ripples spreading out.

What we’re reading now: Elizabeth Lund is reading "Delights & Shadows," by Ted Kooser, the new U.S. poet laureate. "He does such a lovely job of illuminating ordinary moments, things other writers miss. I am reading Michael Holley's best-selling book, Patriot Reign. Although Globe readers know Holley as a sportswriter, I know him also as an accomplished poet.

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Excerpt from Great Neck
by Jay Cantor

“They assembled outside, and David wondered, as he looked at the crowd, if he had the courage to restore himself now, when an opportunity for a victory finally welled before them? What more would he risk for justice in Mississippi?

“Today they sang We are not afraid (because they were afraid), and We shall overcome, because maybe this time, afraid or not, they would. Joshua said, ‘We’re not stopping now. Let’s go down to register.’”

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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