Rare Birds – Voices of Holloway Prison

Natalie Scott is all set to create convincing poetic voices for historical figures and she wants to help you do the same.

Join Natalie on Saturday (10th June) at Middlesbrough Central Library (1.30pm) as she introduces the form of dramatic monologue and then guides participants in using factual materials to voice a person from the past. Then on the evening of Tuesday 20th June, Natalie will be presenting her collection of dramatic monologues to creatively retell the story of Holloway, the notorious London prison from 1852 (when it first opened its gates) to 1955 (when the last woman to be hanged in Britain was executed within its walls).

That performance is at Acklam Community Hub and Library when Natalie will also share some of the fascinating documents she has discovered on her visits to the archives in London and will do a script-in-hand performance of selected poems.

Next weekend sees the start of the 2017 Crossing the Tees book festival. The library services for Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Darlington and Redcar & Cleveland have combined to put the printed word and spoken word top of the agenda throughout the Tees Valley. There are some fabulous opportunities to hear from authors and even join them in workshops.

Locally based poet Natalie Scott will be leading a workshop entitled Rare Birds – Voices of Holloway Prison: Poetry Workshop. She will use examples from her Arts Council funded poetry collection in progress Rare Birds – Voices of Holloway Prison. Participants will be encouraged to create their own convincing voices and there will be an opportunity to receive feedback on their work. Book your tickets below.

Rare Birds

I was so drawn to this concept that I had to ask Natalie to tell me more. So I sent her a few questions by email, I hope you enjoy reading her answers.

Q: Natalie could you first tell us a little about your own story and the kind of poetry that you like reading as well as writing?

NS: I’ve been writing poetry for about twenty years now but have enjoyed it as a reader for even longer than that. Poems that inspire me show an unfamiliar view of the world, a fresh perspective on the familiar and the everyday. They have a sensitive approach to the subject matter and use form not as a way to constrict the subject but to let it say more as a poem than it might as a short story or other longer text. I’m particularly drawn to the dramatic monologue. In fact my recent PhD research centres on the characteristics of this form. I’ve also explored polyphony – multiple voices – and how to use them in longer works. In my first pamphlet ‘Brushed’ (Mudfog, 2009) I created dramatic monologues from the point of view of figures in famous works of art. My first full collection ‘Berth – Voices of the Titanic’ (Bradshaw Books, 2012) retells the story of the tragedy through a range of voices and perspectives. I have also used the form in my most recent pamphlet ‘Frayed’ (Indigo Dreams, 2016) and of course it will take centre stage in my latest project ‘Rare Birds – Voices of Holloway Prison’.

Q: You live locally and it seems to me that there has been a very strong poetry and literary “scene” if I can call it that, for some time now. Would that be a fair assessment do you think?

NS: In the ten years that I lived in the Tees Valley (I’m originally from Durham but have lived in Lancaster, Wakefield and Hexham too!) I have experienced its thriving poetry scene. Over the years I have attended local poetry evenings such as the Black Light Engine Room, the Electric Kool-Aid Cabaret, Writers’ Block and Darlington for Culture’s open mic. I’ve always felt valued and welcome at these events. I am also a member of the Tees Women Poets, a collective which has attracted some of the best female poets in the region to participate in poetry events organised by the group. These networks all have a presence on Facebook which makes it easier to connect with other writers.

Q: I suppose writing can be a solitary thing do you enjoy live events and particularly engaging with people in workshops like this?

NS: I’ve always enjoyed working with people and using creative writing as a participatory tool. I’m a qualified teacher, having completed my PGCE training in Creative Writing at undergraduate level, and I think that this has helped me to find ways of engaging people through poetry. I facilitate many sessions locally with an aim to bring people together and connect through writing. I am currently completing a practice-based qualification offered by the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy and am being supervised by Victoria Field, one of the only registered poetry therapists in Europe. Last year I established my own initiative Pen Power™ which offers a range of group sessions for people who wish to maintain their levels of mental fitness through expressive writing. I facilitate these sessions in the Teesside area but am hoping to widen the reach over the coming months.

Q: I am intrigued by this workshop Natalie – is this something you have worked on for a long time shedding light on people’s stories through poetry?

NS: It’s a concept I used in my first collection ‘Berth’ which took three years to write and research. As I’m interested in retelling familiar stories in less familiar ways, Holloway Prison as a subject was for me an engaging choice for the next large project. I’ll also be doing a presentation and reading for the festival on June 20th. I’ll be sharing the research I have completed so far and doing a script-in-hand performance of selected poems.

Q: Do you use much actual historical data as well to build up your word pictures?

NS: I am taking care to ensure that any factual information is accurately represented in the collection. I was awarded Arts Council funding to research and write the collection so the research stages are crucial to the project’s success. In addition to the dramatic monologue form, I will be using a wide variety of other poetic forms in the collection such as found and list poems which will use actual documented material sourced from the prison archives to shed light on the topic from a new angle. I will be sharing some of the historical data at the workshop on June 10th and at the Presentation on June 20th.

Q: Do you see it as giving people back a voice that may have slipped off the page?

NS: I hope so yes. Although I have chosen to voice some of the more famous figures from Holloway’s past, the majority of the collection aims to capture the voices of those who have not been as firmly stamped in the history books. The dramatic monologue is a ‘double-poem’ which means that the voice of the poet blends with that of the speaker. I have to take care that my own voice does not dominate; this is one of the challenges for the collection.

Q: Am fascinated by the processes you might use, can it be everything from the vocabulary, to the way the words are delivered that can be used to capture the character of an individual?

NS: The dramatic monologue is a hybrid form because it needs to realistically capture character voice in a way that would sound convincing when performed, but it also needs to be a poem on the page. Therefore many elements have to be combined to achieve the desired result. For example, I am currently working on a poem informed by one of the personal accounts written in autobiography form. From reading this I can get an idea of any little idiosyncrasies with speech and vocabulary so that these can be accurately represented in the poem. The poetic form lends itself well to this, as any repetitions within speech all help to structure the format and give it shape.

Q: Everyone will have heard of Holloway Prison, it was the most famous or infamous women’s prison in the country up to its very recent closure. Is the intention of your own project to shed light on forgotten histories through verse?

NS: Essentially ‘Rare Birds’ aims to retell the story of Holloway Prison’s beginnings and development between 1852 and 1955 in a distinctive and engaging way. My poems will adopt a range of interesting first-person perspectives, including the voices of actual prisoners, staff and other influential people involved in the prison’s history to create a polyphonic retelling. It will also include voices for inanimate objects such as the Black Maria (the vehicle used to transport prisoners) and the two griffin statues above the main entrance gates. In offering such a range of perspectives I intend the collection to have multiple narrators; so rather than having one person telling it from distance (as is often the case with historical texts), I will enable my characters to speak for themselves. Although Holloway Prison is so well-known I still hope that my audience will learn something new about the topic through the way I am approaching it. For instance, not many people know that it was originally a mixed prison, with inmates as young as eight years old serving sentences for crimes such as pickpocketing.

Q: There must have been some notorious women held in this prison over the years, would you say you are drawn to the darker side, people that didn’t necessarily stick to the straight and narrow?

NS: I have a fascination with human behaviour and the psyche in different contexts, so any subject-matter which sheds light on this topic is of interest to me. The collection certainly does not intend to glorify some of the heinous crimes committed by the women imprisoned at Holloway but rather shed light on the backstory of such women. For example I’ve written a poem from the point of view of a woman who was imprisoned for neglecting her children (two of her children died as a result). Whilst we can’t in anyway condone this act, at the time it was committed conditions such as post-natal depression were not fully acknowledged. This particular woman had given birth to three children before turning twenty and had been abandoned by her husband, so my interest lies in how these circumstances might have affected her behaviour.

Q: Suffragettes including Emily Wilding Davies were held at Holloway and force fed, it must have been extremely brutal and quite terrifying for the women being held in prison.

NS: One of the first poems I wrote for this collection was for Emily Wilding Davison. I was drawn to her story and role as a suffragist, particularly because of her levels of strength and spirit which never seemed to wane even though she suffered the ordeal of forcible feeding 49 times. I wanted to draw attention to this because many people remember her for ‘throwing herself under the king’s horse’ at the Epsom Derby (again there is conjecture around this event) but not as many know about the forcible feeding itself. However, I also want to voice the women who did not achieve celebrity status but contributed significantly to the cause. For instance, Katie Gliddon, who was the only suffragist to write a diary whilst in prison (writing materials were not allowed at the time). She penned her thoughts into the margins of a copy of Shelley’s Poetical Works using pencils smuggled into the prison. Her diary offers one of the most accurate views of prison life in the early 1900s. I had the privilege of being able to hold the original artefact when I visited the Women’s Library in London.

So, at Middlesbrough Library can people try and give voice to any historical character?

NS: In the workshop I will be introducing the characteristics of the dramatic monologue first, enabling participants the opportunity to try out the form. They will then be invited to voice a historical character from a selection I will bring to the session.

Q: Do you think it could be good to do some preparation and have somebody and their achievements in mind?

NS: I would suggest coming into the workshop with an open mind ready to try something new. I will provide all the stimulus material required so no need to prepare in advance, unless participants particularly wish to!

Q: I suppose with wikipedia we can all walk around with people’s biographies in their pockets but can poetry bring us closer to their life and times and voice?

NS: Yes, we now have access to a wealth of biographical information – seemingly too much at times! But through poetry, and specifically dramatic monologue, there is a chance to retell this information with sensitivity and thoughtful crafting. In this collection, I have to think carefully about how the form and structure will support the subject matter. For example, I’ve been working on a found poem made from a list of the items some of the first prisoners would have had at their disposal in Holloway. A book called The Criminal Prisons of London by Mayhew and Binny (1862) has been helpful for this as it clearly outlines the specifics of each cell. I let the triadic pattern of the shelves inform the structure of the poem itself, using a three-stanza list form to convey the items kept on the three-tiered shelf. It is in this way that the poetic form can illuminate a topic in a way that other genres cannot.

I would like to thank Natalie for giving that fascinating interview. It really does whet the appetite for the poetry workshop at Middlesbrough Central Library next Saturday (10th June) at 1.30pm. Cost just £3. You can also hear more from Natalie when she is the after 2pm guest on Bob Fischer BBC Tees show on Tuesday 13th June.

Book your tickets for the Saturday workshop here

You can pre-book tickets for Natalie Scott’s Rare Birds – Voices Of Holloway Prison: Presentation And Script-In-Hand Performance at Acklam Community Hub and Library on Tuesday 20th June at 7 – 8.30pm. Cost just £3.

Book Tickets Here

Please click below for information and all the listings for Crossing the Tees book festival, a fortnight of events at libraries across the Tees Valley.

www.crossingthetees.org

You can find more information about Natalie Scott websites, publications, performances, project in progress:

www.nataliescott.co.uk

www.penpower.org.uk

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