Is it writing? Janet Hughes

No Flowers: writing by women imprisoned
ed Gilbert Haisman
Arohata women’s prison, $19.95,
ISBN 0 473 0440

Because this small collection is subtitled writing by women imprisoned I  assumed initially that I was bound to approach it differently from the way I would any other collection of verse and prose. My attention was skewered by the phrase, women imprisoned; but once I had diverted it to the writing I came to think otherwise. The book is offered to us as “writing” — not “documents” or “statements” — and the title-page verso represents it as the fruits of a “creative writing project” (it would have been interesting to know its scale and duration) tutored by Lynda Chanwai Earle at Arohata women’s prison.

Implicit in this framework of presentation is a promise of literary satisfactions, such as we expect from “creative” as distinct from documentary writing. And specifically literary approval is sought — it’s hard to imagine otherwise why some contributors would seek to legitimise their sentiments aesthetically by squeezing them into quatrains or rhyming couplets.

I’ve learned to dread encounters with diligent mediocre students whose work is free of serious error or omission but also innocent of sophistication, grace or interest and who ask me: “What can I do to get an A?” It would scarcely help them if I were to reply: “Make me want to keep reading”. The missing factor is as difficult to teach or explain as it is easy to recognise when it is present. Beyond the classroom it represents a standard suitable for publication (a minimum standard, no guarantee of published success).

No Flowers stands up reasonably well to being judged on these exacting but realistic terms. We have to make allowances for inexperience — presuming most of the contributors are novice writers, apart from other disadvantages they may have had to overcome — as for any writer’s first published efforts, weighing evident promise generously against flaws attributable to inexperience. There is ample promise here but the standard of achievement is very uneven.

There is one really competent, assured poet, whose work could stand on its merits in quite different company. Here is “Blue Heart”, by Cheryl, in its entirety:

I am a cloud
blown in the wind
to you

I swirl into mist
tumbling toward your
inward breath.

Cheryl has three such evocative, spare poems in the collection. “Blue Lady”, a raw poem about shooting up heroin, leaves me with sadness at a talent so compromised by circumstances — but no sense that this is the reaction Cheryl sought by offering her poem for publication. Alone among the poets, she is consistently satisfying in a literary sense.

Jo Dodunski achieves a comparable standard at times and comprehensively in her beautifully constructed and expressed prose piece about her love for her young son. Some others manage it intermittently — more often in prose than in verse — and a decent number very nearly make it much of the time. There is ample evidence of potential which more practice (or more reading) might help to realise.

Then there are those who don’t approach any such standard. This may well reflect a decision to include some work from every member of the workshop (again, it would be good to know) or simply a desire to swell numbers. Whatever the explanation, I found myself very uncomfortable with the exposure — that’s the only word for it — of these writers at this stage of their development to scrutiny for which they are clearly unready.

Their frequent adoption of superficial literary conventions — rhyme is just the most obvious — plainly reflects a wish to secure approval by learning and applying the rules. I suspect the knowledge that this approval was withheld nevertheless, by you or me or whoever, would bring these women pain and frustration. That they are unlikely to receive any literary feedback doesn’t diminish my sense that they have been unduly exposed.

I’m speaking about accomplishment, not ability; and I’m well aware that numerous less-than-accomplished writers get published with no harm or distress to themselves. But the principle worries me, in general and because of the special position of these women, as prisoners and as victims of the misfortunes and abuses detailed in many of these writings.

Having failed to find literary pleasure in some of the works, it is hard not to read them as documents, satisfying one’s curiosity about life behind bars and the people who end up there. A few of the writers reach out directly to try to explain themselves, their feelings or histories to the reader. The writer of “Silent tears” for one  punctuates her account of her imprisonment for murder and loss of contact with her children with “you see”; and I have no problem with reading her story as a testament addressed to me, as a member of her intended audience, whom she desperately wants to “see”.  But others make me feel like an eavesdropper — on the writer’s intimate speech and also on her struggle to learn the mysterious conventions of prose or poetry.

One of the hardest things to teach to student writers is the knack of imagining that composite abstraction which is the Audience. Many writing teachers set the ball rolling by encouraging students to specify the real intended audience — one’s writing workshop or one’s family, say. Some students (and not only the youngest ones) have trouble getting past specifying to conceptualising; in effect, they dedicate their work, instead of imagining generically the kind of person to whom it might appeal; and they tend to see publishing in terms of printing rather than of dissemination.

Many of the pieces of writing in No Flowers bear dedications to individuals. This does not mean that they all represent the kind of confusion I’ve described. The more accomplished of them display a clear grasp of the implicit covenant between writer and audience. This compact involves a recognition, for example, that even a love-poem addressed, and perhaps physically given, to one’s beloved is at the same time spoken to a potentially large and various public if it is to be offered for publication; and that wider audience will read it in the way they would a fiction about fictional lovers.

This is where I worry about the least rhetorically assured of these writings being publicly scrutinised. If they don’t quite work in terms of the literary strategies which encourage us to process true in the same way as invented stories, for their value as stories, this doesn’t mean they won’t work in various other ways. And I hate to think that the often intimate revelations of troubled women who have been told they are publishable writers should be read as case studies in social pathology or penology or writing as therapy — or, especially, as cries for pity rather than for literary admiration.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Poetry, Review, Short stories
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