Poetry from Prison

To get to the chapel you must walk an uneven footpath, which winds past the greenhouse on a subsiding lane through the prison yard. I try to maneuver the wheels…

To get to the chapel you must walk an uneven footpath, which winds past the greenhouse on a subsiding lane through the prison yard. I try to maneuver the wheels of the cart on the rutted concrete, hoping my boxes of markers and construction paper don’t spill onto the grass and into the wind. Blessed are the jailhouse art teachers, I say to the staffer steering the dolly, thankful that my usual classroom supplies are just paper and pen. I typically teach a poetry writing class at the prison, but for the first session of this course we are making craft Frankenstein monsters: some women will rip up photos in old magazines to assemble their own weird creatures, while others choose to make little green puppets with gnarled, goofy faces.

The sign-up sheet for the Frankenstein Community Reads program went up at the women’s prison, and I hoped at least seven people would express interest in the two-week summer series. When I learned over 100 women applied to participate in the course, I was floored, but was also left scrambling to collect enough magazines and craft supplies for the large class size. Every item has to be pre-approved: popsicle sticks; googly eyes; glue sticks. I am often encouraged to use stick pens instead of retractable pens, because technically pens with springs can be hacked to create a makeshift weapon. When my box of 50 copies of Frankenstein passed through the metal detector—enough for the 50 students accepted into the course—a guard had to fan through every page to ensure I am not smuggling in contraband. I worry that by telling you this, you’ll assume my students are monstrous, and not the facility which houses our classroom space.

There are plenty of things to fear in a prison, but fear can be a fickle creature when discussing a shared love of reading. My intent in introducing Frankenstein in this space is to encourage participants to consider how Mary Shelley uses “the tremendous creature” as a metaphor for the ways a violent, neglectful society encourages violence and neglect in people. While representations in film and popular culture present the creature as a mindless, violent thug, Shelley’s version of the creature is much different. Intelligent. Articulate. Lonely. Neglected. Misunderstood. Mistreated. Afraid. For example, an analysis written by Mary’s husband, Percy Shelley, has this to say about the intent of the creature metaphor:

Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn;—let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind—divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations—malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that, too often in society, those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments, are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed, by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse.

When Indiana Humanities asked me to write a guest blog about our summer literacy program in the detention facility, the same problem I often run into resurfaced: how do you tell a story about a prison classroom? I’m not allowed to bring a camera inside to document the experience, and it is against the rules to share student work with the greater public. I am not allowed to describe participants in a way that points out identifying characteristics. In fact, I am not even supposed to specify which facility I work with when I tell stories like these.

Beyond the rules, my biggest concern when I write about my students is that I will accidentally represent them as subhuman. This is why I often rely on poetic descriptions to document the little moments in our class. While there are a lot of details I can’t share, I can tell you how elated I feel to see students smell the pages of their books when I pass them out. “I love that smell,” one participant says. “It smells like,” she holds the novel to her nose,” new book!” The smell of a new book is one of the tiny loves many bibliophiles take for granted before they are incarcerated.

For the second of four sessions, I present the Frankenslam: a hybrid lecture and poetry performance about Frankenstein mythos, spanning from Keats and Byron to contemporaries like Margaret Atwood and Jericho Brown. During my set a woman raises her hand and asks how Victor can create something so passionately, and then immediately reject it and flee. I ask if she’s never met a man who split when confronted with responsibility, which elicits laughter and applause from the group. This prompts a “call and response” that we would perform in subsequent classes. Any time we would speak of Victor’s neglect, I’d say, “Remember, Victor Frankenstein is…” and the group would respond in unison, “Trash.”

One area of focus in the Frankenslam explores the ways that Mary Shelley was a societal outcast. While we know her as an author of the highest literary merit today, in the 1800’s she was a pregnant teenage runaway who fled her home to hang out with derelict artists with Romantic attitudes about sex and drugs. The Shelleys burned bridges by borrowing money from friends and spent their lives dodging creditors. At least two of Mary’s children died due to their transient lifestyle and possible neglect, a crime for which some women in the class are facing life sentences. While the women I work with are often judged by the entirety of their crime, the Shelleys have seemingly been pardoned in the public eye over the course of the past 200 years. 

For the third session, my friend Jamie Zipfel facilitates our book discussion—a challenge in any class of 50 students, let alone in the acoustically-unkind basement of a prison chapel. Jamie asks what themes are evident in the novel that they see in their own lives. Women highlight themes like isolation; addiction; neglect; mental illness; racism and prejudice; bondage; making contracts with God. In the novel Frankenstein a woman named Justine is accused of a murder committed by the creature, and instead of rescuing her from the death penalty by confessing that he created the murderer, Victor silently allows her to be sentenced for his own crime. One of my students is flabbergasted by this. “How could he just let her take the rap for something like that?” she asks, shaking her head at the novel in her hand.

On the final day of our time together, we watch James Whale’s masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein. Some women in the class ask why we are watching the sequel instead of the first movie. I tell them it is the better film, and short enough to fit into our restricted class time. Secretly, I want to show them the redeemed version of the creature. In Whale’s original film, the creature is a silent ogre, who stalks and murders humans with no regard. In Bride, the creature is redeemed in many ways. He meets a blind hermit in the woods, who teaches him how to speak and the difference between right and wrong. The scene of the creature discovering the man is described by poet Edward Field:

He is pursued by the ignorant villagers,

who think he is evil and dangerous because he is ugly

and makes ugly noises.

They wave firebrands at him and cudgels and rakes,

but he escapes and comes to the thatched cottage

of an old blind man playing on the violin Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.”

The blind man confesses that he has prayed to God to send him a friend, and the two forlorn men gently embrace one another next to the fire. When the creature weeps at the man’s kindness, the women audibly sigh and cheer at the screen. Kindness is a precious commodity in prison, and as a celebration for the end of the course, the prison administration leaves a box of Hot Takis and Cheetos for us to eat, and a cooler of ice-cold Coca-Cola. Though I’d only been incarcerated as a guest for a couple of hours on this day, the taste of the coke against my lips is indescribable.

Another reason it is hard to tell the story about a prison classroom is because often nobody asks. I’d like to thank Indiana Humanities for giving us a chance to tell our story, and I’d particularly like to thank Megan Telligman for coming to visit our book discussion. While the Frankenstein program is over, my semester-long poetry writing class is scheduled to begin next week. In closing, I’d like to share a poem I’ve written that contains some Frankenstein metaphors. The poem comes from a classroom interaction with a student. It was winter, and we were all bundled trying to keep warm in the drafty education building. I asked the class to describe the cities they have visited in their lives, and the student responded that she has been incarcerated so long that she cannot remember the names of any towns she has been to. The moment struck me, and conjured in my mind the same imagery of Promethean bondage that inspired Mary Shelley. For the sake of her confidentiality, I have changed her name to Justine.


Pseudo-Rondeau for a Prison Classroom

by Adam Henze


Mittens grip a printed poem quaking with fall’s first shiver.

We plunder its body like yeggs cracking at a casket’s sliver.

I mention (M.) Shelley and boot-clomp past the colossal fact

some bards in class have stuffed parts in a garbage sack.

With practiced hands, do we grasp the quill or quiver?


Writing time: I’m electrified with a prompt to deliver.

Bethink a city you’ve seen. Retrieve its streets and rivers.

Some recall family farms with apple orchards out back

but Justine can’t remember the names of places she’s been.


Chained to rock waiting for some thunder god to forgive her,

as class ends she considers the multiple meanings of trigger.

At an after-hours bar a flourishing gurgle in my tract;

I can’t stop pondering—while Old Crow chews my liver—

that Justine can’t remember the names of places she’s been.



Adam Henze is a poet, educator, and doctoral candidate at Indiana University, where he serves as a Research Associate at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. He is the founder of The Power of a Sentence, a literacy and writing course at the Indiana Women’s Prison, and is a Bureau Speaker for Indiana Humanities’ year-long One State/One Story Frankenstein program. Adam is one of the co-founders of Slam Camp, an international summer academy for teenage poets, and is the Vice President of Southern Fried Poetry, Inc., which hosts one of the longest running poetry slam festivals in the world.