These poems and ballads have been written during poetry workshops at Reading Prison (a Young Offender Institution); St Leonards Probation Hostel (for those taking their first steps out of the prison system); and Reading Youth Offending Service (for young people at risk of going into it). The prison is famous through Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and this influence lead us to adapt the mostly rap lines to a ballad form, which can be spoken or sung. It also lead us to look for and develop story in the poems.
No particular themes were given, though the project had an overall interest in England’s landscape and social landscape. The project was part of ‘Made in England’, a partnership between Arts Council England and BBC English Regions, which aims to explore our country through its people and its art. We were taken aback by the amount of writing being done in Reading Jail, and by the interest in writing rap lines and poetry. Much of this reflects a desire by prisoners to communicate with family and loved ones.
One of the main purposes of the project was to reduce re-offending. We encouraged participants to reflect on their lives (much as Oscar Wilde had done), through a belief that understanding your story, and the part others play in it, is an important step in moving forward positively in your life. Our other main purpose was to present the young writers as creative and thoughtful people, to a wide audience. Some of the back-stories and lines were broadcast on BBC Radio Berkshire in the week of 20th – 24th April 2009, and some of Shaun’s story and lines (page 7) were chosen for Radio 4 ‘Pick of the Week’ the following Sunday.
The collection finishes with two poems by poet John Hegley which he wrote for the project, the first near the beginning of the process, the second just before we went on air.
Jon Potter, Company Paradiso Productions