(I'm not a musician.) I was taught as a child that I must not 'blow my own trumpet' as in talking about myself – especially not to say anything good about myself. I was also taught that much of what I could say about myself was nonsense and I needn't expect anyone to believe it. If I myself believed it, I must be mad. If not, I was obviously a liar. Telling my story, therefore, became a very confronting task. I am beginning this blog in my late seventies, and it is only a preparation – things I write on the way to writing the memoir. Nevertheless, everything posted here is copyright and must not be reproduced without written permission from the author (usually me). ____________________________________________________________________________________________
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Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Breaking Into Prison (38) Post script: The unaddressed question

  Completing my recollections of running poetry workshops in Pentridge Prison in the eighties. To read the whole series, see Blog Archive in right column, May - July 2022. The posts are numbered in order, with the earliest first.

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What of the question I haven’t yet addressed. Why was John there? (What had he done?) 


One could ask that of all of them, of course. I don't have those details for most, but did gather eventually that violence was often involved, and sometimes drugs. 


(I do have the details about Sweet-face. Several particularly callous murders. Trust me, more than that you don't want to know. I finally looked him up in the State Library newspaper archives – in those pre-Internet days – since I was there anyway, looking up John.


They all thought they were so famous! But, as I've said, I'd never heard of any of them. I don't think any of the visiting poets had.)


I had realised that John's crime must have been serious if he was serving a long sentence. Then there was the startling statement by Pen-pal. Even though Tallest and I rejected that out of hand, it lingered a bit in the back of my mind. 


Pen-pal did say musingly of John, the day he visited us,


‘He was very subdued when he came out of H Division. He did behave differently after that.’


(I didn’t even know he had been in H Division, the notorious ‘punishment block’.)


But finally the newspaper I opened on that fateful Saturday told me what he had done – one extra shock, accompanying the news of his suicide. 


He was convicted, at 17, of the double murder of two teenagers, and was being held ‘at The Governor’s pleasure’. This did not mean the prison Governor. It’s more commonly known as ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’, the Federal and State Governors in Australia being representatives of the Queen. People under 18, who successfully plead insanity, can be imprisoned on these terms for crimes which would earn an adult a life sentence. The Executive Council, which advises the Governor, decides if and when such a prisoner is ready to be released. There's no fixed term.


Had I been naive and self-deluded? Had I fallen for the false face of one who was really a monster? It was perhaps not impossible, given that efficiency and skill were two of his most obvious qualities. Perhaps he could deceive people skilfully, too? I decided I owed it to myself and him to find out.


So, some time after his death, when I was past the first wild grief and rivers of weeping, and into the benumbed phase, I took myself to the State Library and looked up the relevant newspapers to find all the particulars of his crime. It was time I faced this. Numb was a good place to be for such a confrontation. 


He had shot his girlfriend and his best mate, and claimed afterwards that he had no motive. The three had spent the afternoon together. She was only 15.


In one workshop, I remembered, another visiting poet had said something which seemed like a question about his crime. John said, sounding a bit strained as though covering embarrassment, 


‘It was, er, a domestic matter’ – in a way that declared the conversation closed.


Nowadays the word ‘domestic’ would suggest a specific kind of violence; back then we were more ignorant. Even so, it was possible to conclude that perhaps he wasn’t insane. Perhaps it wasn't motiveless, but a ‘crime of  passion’, of jealousy; and insanity was the plea which, coupled with his age, at least gave him some hope of getting out of prison one day. 


And perhaps to even think that is to malign those dead teenagers. I can’t know, only form opinions.


It was apparent from the funeral notice that he must have been brought up Catholic, even though when I knew him he seemed to lean towards atheism. It appeared that his father was a military or ex-military man – which might explain how John had access to the guns he used to kill his friends. 


I also found items about some dramatic events during the early years of his imprisonment – an escape attempt, and an angry protest against prison conditions – and that he had later aligned himself with the ‘muscle’ in the prison, specifically a white-skinned, right-wing gang competing for power with some other ethnic groups.


In one letter to me, he had said, in a mood of self-analysis about the difficulty of opening up to love,


‘So easy to become ego-centric in here. But no, a little too far right.’ 


I now understood that last sentence rather more specifically!


Then I had to reflect on and process all that I'd learned. I had to weigh it in the balance with what I had observed and experienced, try to conclude what was the truth of the person I knew.


'You have accepted me totally as the person I am today....'


I met a man who was searching, exploring new ways to be human. I’ve already mentioned his unselfishness. If that was an act, I can only say, it was damn convincing! It wasn’t something switched on and off according to convenience. He was sometimes guarded, but appeared at all times authentic.


I think it more likely he had realised that, in order to change his circumstances, he needed to truly change himself; he couldn’t just fake it and expect that to work.


And I was in possession of his poetry notebooks, which I read cover to cover for all sorts of reasons besides the possibility of publishing him. I found poems written towards the end of his life which spoke of finding some stirrings of religious faith (re-finding them, I suppose). 


There are prisoners who have spectacular conversions, which are usually suspected of being an attempt to get some advantage, such as better treatment or earlier release – though of course some could be genuine. This wasn’t like that. He never shared these poems in the group, at least while I was there, and in them he confessed to some embarrassment at the prospect of being seen to have come around to this position, contemplating the possibility that God was real after all – and God's love in particular. The fact of his wrestling with it so privately makes me think it was something he was actually experiencing.


But I can’t really argue a case to convince anyone else. If you are reading this, you must make up your own mind. Or leave it in abeyance, forever  unknown. I don’t blame you if you trust the newspaper reports and the undoubted facts they report on, above what so many who knew him in those final years said, in grief and shock and love, in the death notices.


I can only decide for me. His letters to me always seemed to have a searing honesty. They contained jokes, reassurances, confessions of uncertainty, even tentative declarations – but they were not seductive or manipulative, they didn’t make extravagant promises, nor any demands whatsoever. 


He wanted to grow, to learn, to develop, to do some good in the world, leaving a better legacy than might have been expected – and yes, to love. 




Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Breaking Into Prison (37) Reflections

  Completing my recollections of running poetry workshops in Pentridge Prison in the eighties. To read the whole series, see Blog Archive in right column, May - July 2022. The posts are numbered in order, with the earliest first.

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I came to feel sad that we visitors were so excited about the poetry the prisoners were making, and about poetry in general, that we perhaps gave those guys a false idea of the opportunities for poets Outside. Yes, it was a boom time for poetry, but we all had other things going on in our lives as well. Even the highest-profile poets, and the ones who were most favourably reviewed, didn’t find poetry a passport to an easy life. 


For most of the visitors, it was paramount in life, we identified as poets; but was that the source of our emotional, even if not financial security? I think not. Rather, we already had all our systems and strategies in place. The poets who got out of jail still had to find ways to support themselves in all respects; poetry alone wasn’t going to do it for them. But perhaps we unwittingly misled them into thinking so. 


Did Mr Outstanding, for instance, expect that he would meet, Outside, the acclaim he had received while he was in prison? He did receive it – but the poets were, after all, a very small section of the wider community.


I realise now that the greatest benefit poetry gave most of them was while they were imprisoned – providing an outlet, an interest, goals and motivation. And in the workshops they found comradeship, a like-minded group with whom to share these things as well as the passion for poetry itself.


It seems that poetry is a natural form of human expression, in that it’s common for people who are institutionalised to turn to it – not only in prisons, but also places like mental hospitals. And there are the kids who are imprisoned in a different way, in poverty, who turn to Rap. But, as we discovered, those who are physically incarcerated don’t necessarily keep writing once they’re back in the world. 


It’s whether one really has the vocation, I suppose. I think of my Mum, who wrote beautiful poetry when she stayed with me and joined in workshops I held in my house – poetry that excited me – but who stopped immediately when she went back home.


Those ex-prisoners who do continue, who really have the vocation, are faced with all the other contingencies of life, such as finding a home and earning a living, often with little support as they re-enter society. Perhaps it’s not surprising if they don’t turn up to regular poetry gigs, don’t submit work to publications, etc.


And then, they are not supposed to mix with other ex-inmates after they get out. That makes it difficult, too.


Undoubtedly the workshops gave the prison poets a great deal. None of us realised until later that those benefits wouldn’t necessarily be taken out into the wider community.


Several of the guys expressed gratitude to me, in various ways; but in the long run, it was they who gave me something. A lot! Apart from the precious intangible things, they also gave me a new career.


If I had a profession besides poet, I would have supposed it was librarian. I’d had an 18-year career in librarianship when I was younger, but felt no pull to go back to it. Then one day a friend said to me,


‘You know, Rosemary, when you talk about those prison workshops, you light up! I think that’s what you should be doing.’


I’d continued to regard the Pentridge workshops as a great highlight of my life, despite attendant trauma and grief. I thought my joy in them was because of the particular poets I was working with, the connections we made – even, perhaps, because of being in that environment, which heightened everything. It hadn’t occurred to me I might find it anywhere else. But soon after that comment, another friend, who was conducting writing workshops in a TAFE college and wanted to leave, proposed to me that I should apply to be her replacement. 


I got the job, on the grounds of having a BA degree and being a published poet. Since then I’ve had many years giving workshops as part of Professional Writing courses in various tertiary colleges, or at community level in Neighbourhood Centres. I enjoy it, and it turns out I have an absolute vocation for that kind of teaching, as well as for writing my own poetry.


I think back, now, to when I was working at Victoria College, which later became part of Deakin University. I was walking across the large, almost empty foyer of the main building, just prior to vacation starting, when two of the other teachers on their way upstairs called out to me, saying wasn’t it great to be getting rid of all the 'horrible' students for a while.


‘Oh no,’ I called back. ‘I love all my students.’


At just that moment, one of my students walked around the corner, and sang out, 


‘We love you too, Rosemary!’


Why it is, I don’t know, but it’s always so. I have now taught writing (mostly, but not only poetry) in various contexts, to adult students with a variety of ages and backgrounds – most recently a group of women survivors of major trauma. I find that I invariably do come to love my students (well, most of them) and they (most of them) always love me too. And each other.



Finis.  (Almost.  See Post Script following.)



Breaking Into Prison (36) Surviving

  Continuing my recollections of running poetry workshops in Pentridge Prison in the eighties. To read the whole series, see Blog Archive in right column, May - July 2022. The posts are numbered in order, with the earliest first.

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How could I inflict my grief on my husband and kids, the innocent bystanders in all this? I tried not to, but I was numb for many months, going through the motions of normal living. 


I wasn’t suicidal myself, but when I found a lump in my breast some months later, though I did all the right things and had it biopsied – and it turned out benign – I could hardly bring myself to care.


Whenever possible, I took myself and my grief for long, long walks alone, talking to John all the time in my head, haranguing him in fact. 


I had heard a theory that our grieving prevents the souls of our dear departed from moving on.


‘Too bad,’ I told John in my mind, ‘You chose this. You owe me my grief.


I knew I needed to grieve. I was convinced that the quickest way to get through it was straight through the middle and out the other side, so I let myself feel whatever was there at any time, even an apparent absence of feeling. At least, I did when I was alone (and I managed to be alone a lot).


That, and I wrote a lot of poems.


I think it was about eight months later, that one day I noticed that the grass was shining just a little and a corner of sky was faintly bright. I realised I had been living in a grey world all that time – not that the world itself had lost light and colour; I had lost the capacity to perceive it. 


And so, as the world began to come to life again for me, I too came back to life.


We went for a holiday up north. On the plane I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the first time, and heard myself laughing aloud! I was astonished, and pleased. 


I remembered a book in which the heroine's lover, dying young, comes to her in a seance and says, to persuade her out of her despair: ‘Live my life for me.’ John had so little everyday life to enjoy, I thought. So little normality, so little ordinary fun. Perhaps I owed it to him to savour my own.


Meanwhile I'd resumed corresponding with the three prisoners I regarded as particular friends: Youngest, Tallest, and Mr Outstanding. 


The workshops, too, survived. Cliff continued to run them for some time longer. When he wanted to move on to other ventures, the Street Poets took them over. They were eventually discontinued, by which time some of our regulars had finished their prison terms and rejoined the world outside. 


And how did they survive? As far as I could see, they came out with the same problems they went in with, the ones that had put them there. The addict still had his addiction. The drinker who was too ready with his fists went back to boozing and brawling. And so on. Prison didn’t rehabilitate them. But there were those who rehabilitated themselves, sometimes after a few false starts.


Not all of them continued to write poems. Tallest explained that poetry was the only avenue for his creativity Inside, but once free he was much more interested in photography and film. I’m still in touch with him all these decades later. He became a friend on the Outside too, to Bill as well as me. 


He was one who turned his life around – which wasn’t easy. In time he met a wonderful young woman and became a happy family man. There have been occasions in my life when I’ve needed practical help, once when I had a broken leg, and many years later when my husband was ill. He and his wife have been there for me more than once, with very timely assistance. 


He’s a grandfather now! We live far apart, and haven’t seen each other in person for years, but we keep in touch.


Mr Outstanding has continued to make poems, and even had a book published. He’s another who has been free for many years and completely reformed his life, but after some unhappy personal experiences he prefers to live very quietly and privately. 


Both those men chose to work in the helping professions, in their new lives.


I don’t know where the rest of my erstwhile friends from those workshops are now. I haven’t heard of any making their mark as poets – but then, I don’t know what is happening at every performance venue in the country, or published in every literary magazine. I don’t have a high profile in those areas myself any more; I’ve embraced the online poetry world instead. 


I'm left with one particular quirk. All those popular prison shows on TV, I never watch.



Continued in following posts.


Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Breaking Into Prison (35) Renewed communication

  Continuing my recollections of running poetry workshops in Pentridge Prison in the eighties. To read the whole series, see Blog Archive in right column, May - July 2022. The posts are numbered in order, with the earliest first.

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I received a beautiful letter from Youngest, typed on Pentridge Education Centre stationery, written the day after John died. It said:


Dear Rosemary,


        Our friend, John, has died and I know he would have liked me to tell you that he always cherished the friendship that you and he shared. I know on many occasions he talked about how “Granny” was a “silly bugger”. 


        You know something, he didn’t mind or care when you dropped out of the scene with the book and all. He saw it as a challenge which was only positive if one was to develop. 


        Need I say, John saw life as a challenge and thought it in every possible way. He was so unselfish and full of ability. He taught me how to survive and one needs to be motivated. 


        I know he left everybody a legacy that we will all cherish as he cherished the friends around him and in passing. 


        Granny, I hope that one day we meet again, so as we may talk about our friend and the friendship that we all shared together. Until then my dearest friend, farewell.


And he signed it with ‘Love’.


Yes, I have kept it all this while. A dear treasure, both for what it says and for the love with which it was so promptly written and sent.


Of course I could not ignore such a letter. I wrote back, and we began a renewed correspondence for the next five years until his release. Then we did indeed meet up and have that conversation. 


I never paid him any visits while he was still inside. I could not have borne to set foot in Pentridge again, which he understood. Even now when much of it has been turned into cinema, shops and playground, I don’t think I could cope with it, and certainly have no plans to try.


But after my friend was freed, I drove across Melbourne one night to where he was living, we shared some bottles of red and talked till all hours, saying – freely! – all the things we hadn’t felt able to until then. 


It was he who told me they all knew, without having to be told, that Pentridge had freaked me out; that it did that to most tutors after a while, and that none of them blamed me … he who said, ‘The place messes with your head.’


He also told me that John had said goodbye to him before he died. 


‘He waited for me at the end of that day, to say, “Goodbye, Youngest”.’ (No, not that of course, but a nickname he was known by in the prison.)


‘I didn’t realise. I just said, “Oh yeah, goodnight John” and gave him a wave. But he waited specially to say goodbye to me.’


I write these reminiscences now and think, ‘Yes, that was the measure of the man. He made damn sure that the people who were special to him knew they were. He went out of his way to take care of our hearts, not for his own sake but ours.’


So he must have made up his mind immediately after the interview with the Governor. 


Months before, before I opted out, I had told him in a letter that I was concerned about Youngest, new as he was then to prison life – saying flippantly (but not really), ‘Him’s my baby!’ That term caused John some wry amusement, and rightly so. But from then on he quietly started befriending the bloke. I never told anyone that, let alone the bloke himself, and anyway it was clear that they became such very good pals because they had not only poetry but a cheeky sense of humour in common. What Youngest did for John, I observed, was give him back a touch of youthful fun he’d missed out on by being incarcerated at 17. But it began in John doing something for me, something which he could. He never said so, or made any big deal of it. It wasn’t about trying to impress me, it was about his care for me.


Youngest became part of my extended family for a few years, after his release, and was a good friend to me always. I think I had special privileges! 


'This lady wrote to me for five years!' I heard him tell someone, to explain his regard for me.


But after he found his way again Outside, and I eventually moved interstate, we lost touch. By then he was no longer the lad he’d been in prison. I think we both realised that our lives in the everyday world had too little in common any more, and at that point neither made any effort to keep the contact. Though, come to think of it, he disappeared first, without leaving a forwarding address.


But back when he first re-entered the world, and we got drunk together that night and reminisced, he blurted out suddenly, about the way John felt for me, 


‘It was very deep.’


Exactly what I needed to hear! But I craved still more.


‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘Did he say so?’


‘No. It was little things. Like the way he used to wait for the mail. He was always the first one there, on tenterhooks until it arrived.’   


And so we talked, at length, of our friend, and the friendship we’d all shared. The first and last time, because we did it thoroughly. It was a conversation that could only have happened between us two, no-one else. I got all my questions answered, that I’d had to hold on to so long. I’d waited five years, with great patience and great determination, to hear those details, knowing the time would come and that Youngest wouldn’t fail me.



Note for non-Aussies:  ‘silly bugger’, here, is a term of affection.



Continued in following posts.