AS TOLD BY RACHAEL KELLY
Tell people you run poetry workshops in prisons and most are baffled. ‘Poetry? Prisons? How does that work?’
Rewind 17 years. That was when I first discovered poetry as an aid in my battle against depression. Poetry was literally a lifeline.
At first, I was only well enough to absorb one line from the Bible, itself full of poetry. My mother would sit by my bedside and say aloud a phrase from Corinthians that reminded me of my childhood: “My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
There was nothing else to which I could turn. My psychiatrist and his drugs hadn’t cured me. My mother and husband were as loving as they could be, but couldn’t reach me. I had ceased to be aware of them. They had faded in my consciousness to vague presences. But the words my mother recited were lifelines.
As I recovered I was able to absorb a verse, then a whole poem. I was drawn to poems such as George Herbert’s Love, with its message that we need a compassionate inner voice. Poems are free, have no side effects, keep me in the moment, stop me worrying about the future or regretting the past, and provide a positive narrative in my head.
“I began to share poems with others who found life hard. I was electrified that they found healing words helpful too”
I began to share poems with others who found life hard. I was electrified that they found healing words helpful too. Inspired, I decided to write a memoir about my recovery and the poems that most helped, as well as start running workshops.
Given the poor mental health of many prisoners, I jumped at an invitation two years ago to visit my local prison on National Poetry Day and share with inmates poems I thought they might find consoling. One prisoner had to hold back tears. He said a poem by Derek Walcott, Love after Love, was the first time he felt understood in twenty years.
Since then I have become a volunteer with the prison’s education department and visit as often as I can, usually every four weeks, working with a group of between ten and 15 men. I now also run my workshops for mental health charities such as MIND and Depression Alliance.
Typically, the workshops last an hour. We share around six or seven poems, with different prisoners volunteering to read. Sometimes we might look at a particular theme – diversity, or love – many inmates are keen to communicate as best they can with their families and loved ones – but we always tend to return to how poems can provide consolation.
For many, the last time they read aloud was as a child. It is wonderful to see these practices rediscovered in adulthood. Reading aloud has huge benefits. It helps you to digest the poems, opens your eyes to the musicality of them, and allows you time to put the text down and listen to others reading. It can also provide a confidence boost – the first time you volunteer to read something aloud can be a big step for those taking part.
For my charities, I run a four part series of workshops. Each session looks at the poetry and wisdom best suited to support the reader during a journey from dark to light, the last session working with poems to help with everyday life. The sessions also include handouts of the poems and prose extracts to discuss and take home.
The first session includes a general introduction on poetry’s healing nature; Apollo after all was God of both poetry and medicine, and we look at the neuroscience behind poetry and how poems can help with mindfulness. We focus on understanding darkness and despair, with cathartic poems and descriptions of mental unrest.
The second session focuses on poems I feel give readers the strength to overcome desperation and the motivation to fight on. The third workshop is about re-engaging with the wider world, and the final session is about literature for everyday life: poems to deal with what Freud called ‘ordinary human unhappiness.’ Writers I use include Stevie Smith, George Herbert, Emily Dickinson and W.B. Yeats.
Reading the poems can work a bit like mindfulness, because sometimes concentration is required to unpack the meaning – this keeps everyone present in the moment. We all get a little respite from our worries.
Participants say they particularly enjoy the sense of community that is instantly created through the shared discovery of verse. Poems are often my companions when I feel at my most desperate and alone. Sharing poetry with others is one of the most effective ways to dispel isolation. As I leave the prison or the charity’s offices, I always feel cheered: we know helping others is one of the best ways of helping ourselves. My strength is indeed very slowly being made more perfect in weakness.
Rachel Kelly’s memoir, Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression, is published in paperback by Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99, and is available for purchase on Amaz
‘Stopping war and hate comes from each of us’ – Arun Gandhi shares lessons from his grandfather,the late Mahatma Gandhi (news,interviews)
Peace activist Arun Gandhi reflects on the enduring wisdom of his grandfather, the Indian spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi
When Arun Gandhi was 12 years old, his parents sent him from their home in South Africa to live in India with his grandfather, the spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi. Just 18 months later, Gandhi was assassinated, throwing the newly independent nation into turmoil. Although he initially struggled to understand his family’s response to racism and violence, his experience would eventually lead Arun – now aged 81 – to become a lifelong advocate for Gandhi’s ideals.
Danielle Batist: The great legacy your grandfather left you is the notion of nonviolence. Can you explain why you see this as more than peaceful conflict resolution alone?
Arun Gandhi: Unfortunately, a lot of the scholars in Gandhian philosophy all over the world have looked at nonviolence as a weapon: a strategy to use in certain conflicts. But I think it really is about personal transformation. My grandfather was very concerned about the culture of violence that dominates humankind. It has taken roots so deeply in us that we don’t even recognise that many of the things we do are violent.
In the US alone we throw away $120bn (£81bn) worth of food every year, when an estimated one million people are going to bed hungry. That is a form of violence too. It is that passive violence that accumulates and creates anger in the victim, who then resorts to physical violence to get justice. Logically, if we want to put out the fire of physical violence, if we want to stop wars and hate, then we have to cut off the fuel supply, which comes from each one of us. That is where we must become the change we wish to see in the world.
You were raised in a family dedicated to nonviolent social reform, first in South Africa with your parents and later with your grandfather in India. Do you think it is possible for every child to learn such lessons from a young age?
It has to begin from home. We need to realise that often, our parenting is violent too. When we threaten children with punishment if they misbehave, we are teaching them that violence is right. Right from birth, we bring them to nurseries where they are brought up by strangers. Children are tired after being in daycare centres all day and parents are tired from working long hours. The children see that their parents work hard for material gains, so materialism becomes their way of life too. By planting those seeds of selfishness, we are telling them that it is right to trample over people to get to the top.
“I consider myself to be a peace farmer. A farmer goes out into the field to plants seeds and hopes he will get a good crop. I go out wherever I can to plant seeds of peace.”
Do you see any way to break that cycle?
We have to find the balance between materialism and morality. My grandfather used to say that the two have an inverse relationship and we see that every day. The US, as the most materialistic society, is the least moral. We have to make a living and a career for ourselves, but that shouldn’t be the only obsession we have. If it is, then we shouldn’t have children. If you decide to have children, you have the responsibility to give them enough time to lay the foundations for their life.
Many parents would say that they are working to pay for childcare and to be able to afford the best education for their children.
The best education that a child can get is from the parents at home. No private school with thousands of dollars of fees is ever going to teach the child what the parents can teach in the first five years. We think that we can buy everything: from top education to success in life. But you can’t buy compassion and love and respect.
You have worked as a journalist for The Times of India for 30 years. How do you think the story of our world compares to what we see on the daily evening news?
The media project a lot of negativity. As a result, a lot of people have switched off and don’t know what is going on in the world. I believe that news is not just about all the violence; it is another way of educating society. We could and should emphasise the positives and the differences that exist in society and try to make people understand them.
Gandhi said that the “true India” was found in the country’s villages, but more than half the world’s population now lives in cities. How can change be created in urban areas?
We can still do something within cities, by building smaller neighbourhood villages and connections. When we live in a big city we get so lost in our own world there. With new technology we have stopped making friends next door. We make friends who are thousands of miles away, some of whom we only know by their picture on Facebook. We come home, lock our front doors, watch TV and go to work the next day. Our scattered relationships don’t add up to a cohesive society.
Can the same technology also be used to connect, rather than distance, people around the world?
It could and should be used like that, but I don’t think it is happening. I have been on Facebook for the last three or four years. I started off posting some thoughtful messages, seeking responses from people. We could have a constructive debate, but what happens is that they just press “like” and go on. So I have a thousand likes but I don’t think anyone has read what I have written. It is meaningless when people’s attention span is so short.
The narrative of the world is often told in terms of victims, heroes and perpetrators. Do we need to adapt this story in order to build equal relationships?
We are always looking at relationships by asking what we personally gain from them. If we don’t gain anything, we wonder why we should bother at all. We need relationships to be based on mutual respect, love and appreciation, so we can feel each other’s suffering and be able to help. We think we make the world better by killing the bad guys. What we don’t realise is that each one of us has the capacity to do good or bad. We can be bad guys if the wrong buttons are pressed, but that does not mean we are bad for life. We lock up our criminals but crime is still growing, because we never look at what motivated someone to commit a crime. We address the person but we don’t address the problem. That is the big mistake.
Gandhi’s lessons are still widely quoted, even though he did not want his writings to become a dogma after his death. Have you felt the need to adapt his teachings?
Any philosophy has to keep evolving. What my grandfather said a hundred years ago will not be entirely true today. Philosophers don’t like it when I say this, but I believe that the moment you put a philosophy down in a book, it ceases to be a philosophy and becomes a dogma. Everyone will refer to that book and ask: “What did Gandhi say?” and then apply it literally. It is the same with religion, which was written down in books and scriptures thousands of years ago. We need to have the intelligence to see what was meant and use it in today’s world.
Does it frustrate you to see people misinterpreting Gandhi’s teachings, or not applying his lessons in their own day-to-day lives?
I don’t get frustrated because I don’t have big expectations. I consider myself to be a peace farmer. A farmer goes out into the field to plants seeds and hopes he will get a good crop. I go out wherever I can to plant seeds of peace. If I have the expectation that I can transform a few thousand people who come to listen to me I would be disappointed, because not everyone gets that message.
You lead Gandhi legacy tours in India and South Africa. Do you believe witnessing change-making first-hand is a more powerful way to create understanding?
I thought it would be a good idea to show how many individuals or small groups of people help others overcome their problems. There are some amazing ideas that others can use in their own community. Take the Barefoot College: they educate local people without formal education. One woman who can’t read or write trained in dentistry and runs a clinic like a qualified dentist. I see all of these projects and I feel hopeful that change will happen. It could happen much faster if all of us look beyond ourselves.