Reading Group Roundup: Simon Armitage

The report this month comes from Victoria Barnett, Library Development Manager for five Kent prisons including East Sutton Park where the reading group had a recent high profile visit.

Simon Armitage is the UK Poet Laureate, having taken over from Carol Ann Duffy in 2019. Poet Laureate is an honorary 10 year role, and although there are no specific duties, Simon has been doing a tour of libraries every year since he started and this year it was 5 libraries starting with the letters H-K–I applied in the hope that HMP counted and we were lucky enough to be chosen!

Simon said of his 10 year library tour:

We live in trying times, lurching from one crisis to another, but to my mind that makes it even more important to reaffirm the things we hold dear and think of as important.  Libraries are essential to community life for reasons that go well beyond books and bookshelves, and it’s a privilege to help celebrate their existence and support their ideals.”

The reading group at HMP East Sutton Park is made up of around 10 ladies and is going from strength to strength. The ladies really enjoy the group and love reading and discussing the books they choose. However, I wasn’t sure what the turnout would be for this event because we haven’t read a lot of poetry. I needn’t have worried, the ladies at East Sutton Park were keen to meet the Poet Laureate and we had 24 turn up! The beautiful wood-panelled drawing room was full and buzzing!

When Simon started to speak a hush descended and the ladies gave him their full attention. He started with a little bit of his background (we learnt that he had previously worked in prisons in the North East as a Probation Officer), before he went on to read some of his poems.

Listening to Simon read his poems really brought them to life. For each poem, he gave a little bit of background to explain how they had come about, and that context helped us all to have a deeper understanding of the poems. Many of the ladies said that they would now hear Simon’s voice as they read and re-read his poetry, and that the poems would mean much more to them now. Simon was funny and engaging to listen to, and everyone agreed that they had thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

PRG had sent us copies of Paper Aeroplane because Simon said he’d read from that book, and then as the numbers appeared to be growing, they kindly sent in a few extra copies of Book of Matches and the prison were able to buy a few too. The ladies were thrilled to be able to get their copies signed.

After his visit to East Sutton Park Simon made the following comment:

It was a very positive experience. There was a quietness and calmness in the room – a tribute to the prison library staff and the value given to books and words. The women seemed very engaged and were curious about what poetry is, exactly. I ask myself the same question most days! I think I brought a little bit of contemplation and humour to the gathering, and went home grateful for the opportunity. I’d hate to be in prison – freedom is everything to me. Patience must be everything for most inmates – I hope I helped to pass the time.”

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