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Every week for a year poet Carole Glasser Langille walked down windowless halls, through heavy, iron doors to a concrete, classroom inside the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Her mission was to bring poetry to the men and women serving time, in the hopes that it would inspire them to write about what they felt mattered and use writing as a way of healing.
“They were very heartbreaking, some of their stories,” said Langille in an interview from her home in Black Point, near Hubbards.
When she gave her first six-week workshop on the North Wing of the Dartmouth-based jail, Langille had no intention of turning her experiences, and work of the men and women she taught, into a book. But as the year went on - she felt compelled.
“I thought if I don’t tell their stories who is going to tell them,” she said.
Doing Time: Writing Workshops in Prison (Pottersfield Press), is a book of poetry intermixed with Langille’s reflections on her interactions with the men and women in prison, as well as their work and observations. She divides the book by the date of the workshop, starting with the first one on Feb. 27, 2014. Everyone who attended her workshops is identified by only their first name. News articles and statistics about everything from prevention of deaths in custody to poverty and the impacts of racism are interspersed throughout the book.
“Every creative act is empowering, generating energy and self-worth. The role of a poet is “to help people live their lives,” [American poet] Wallace Stevens said. This is why I read poetry. This is why I wanted to bring poems to inmates. Because poetry makes visible what cannot be seen. Because poetry takes familiar, everyday occurrences and reveals them to be extraordinary,” Langille writes in her book.
Years of teaching in the Creative Writing Program at Dalhousie University and a Governor General’s Award nomination for her poetry made Langille feel qualified to lead the workshops. But she quickly discovered the inmates had a lot to teach her about what it meant to be injured by poverty, abuse, racism and institutional trauma.
In one workshop a man named Antonio wrote about how his mother took him to a juvenile detention centre because he was angry and acting out. She left him there because she couldn’t take care of him anymore. At age 13, he watched her walk away and didn’t see her for another four years. He cried after reading the story.
“I say, No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader, but I am close to crying too. I say that only when we have the courage to be honest does the reader get something from the writing,” she writes.
In another workshop, when a man named Joe is asked to write about a beautiful place he’s enjoyed, he tells Langille that he can’t remember one because he has been in jail since he was 12 years old. At other times, women inmates break down in tears writing about the pain they endure being separated from their children.
Langille only knew the men and women she worked with by their first names. She knew some were incarcerated for minor offences, others for rape and murder. But she didn’t know specifics or who was accused of what.
“I don’t want to know,” she writes. “I don’t want my impressions filtered through the lens of crimes they are accused of.”
Langille felt her job wasn’t to critique the writing the men and women produced or to judge them for their crimes, but instead to be a supportive voice.
“To encourage people is always satisfying, especially when those I praise have received such little acknowledgement for their strengths and are often not aware of their talents, not least of which is surviving a system that can be brutally dismissive,” she writes.
After every workshop in the jail she returned home and wrote down what had happened. Writing was her way of processing what she felt and experienced. At the end of a year, she was exhausted.
“I saw, during each encounter, what pain these men and women carried, as well as the talent and intelligence that was not being nurtured. Though the connection I felt to participants was strong, as was my joy when I observed how proud they were to share their stories, my frustration and helplessness about their situation was overwhelming. And if I felt this way, imagine the despair and helplessness incarcerated men and women feel,” she writes.
Keeping in touch with the people in the writing workshops proved difficult. Whether they will read her book, she doesn’t know. Her hope is that it honours their work and makes them feel that some of their stories have been heard.
“At least it feels like I haven’t forgotten these people,” she said. “I hope they would be happy their stories are out there, even if their names aren’t.”
Other books on the shelf
In his new young adult book, The Ledge (Orca Book Publishers), author Lesley Choyce writes about a sport close to his heart: surfing. The Lawrencetown Beach-based writer and surfer tells the story of Nick, an athletic 16-year-old who is trying to rebuild his life after a surfing accident leaves him partially paralyzed and angry.
On a fateful day in October, Nick skips English class to head to a place they called the Ledge. He wants to catch the perfect wave, and on that day, there was big swell coming out of the south.
“It was big, mean and more powerful than any wave I’d ever seen. And it looked scary as hell. I slipped into my wetsuit and paddled out,” he writes.
After a wave knocks him off his board, he hits a rock and wakes up in an ambulance, unable to move his legs. Everything feels like it is falling apart. Nick struggles to find a way to get his life back on track after the accident.
In Peter Thompson’s new book, Nights Below Foord Street: Literature and Popular Culture in Postindustrial Nova Scotia (McGill-Queen’s University Press), you won’t find romantic descriptions of the province’s idyllic beaches and rocky shores, its hardy lobster fishermen or iconic lighthouses.
Instead, Thompson traces how authors, artists and filmmakers depict a messy legacy of environmental exploitation, pollution and labour unrest left behind from the industrial era. These stories, he argues are in stark contrast to the romantic and nostalgic picture of Nova Scotia’s industrial heritage promoted in museums, monuments and tourist sites.
Thompson grew up in Stellarton and is now an associate professor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carlton University in Ottawa.