Local writer and storyteller, George Murphy interviews local characters and personalities
Award winning poet Sammy Weaver discusses her early life and how poetry helped her to cope with a family tragedy. Having been a prison educator and writing tutor, she shares her strong convictions on the need for prison reform.
Discover her unconventional career path, leading, via life in a circus, to work as Deputy Director of Lumb Bank, the Arvon writing centre near Heptonstall. Sammy explains how writing letters to a prisoner on death row inspired her award winning pamphlet, Angola, America.
Sammy Weaver Q&A
Sammy, how was your early life in rural Herefordshire?
I was lucky to grow up on a smallholding on the Welsh borders near Hay-on-Wye. We had sheep, pigs, chickens and ducks, and each spring, a new litter of wild kittens would appear in the chicken shed. My mum and dad grew all sorts of fruit and veg in the garden. I spent most of my free time walking in woods, climbing trees and swimming in rivers, and mostly unaccompanied by any adults. It was idyllic and we felt cut off from much of the modern world. Bruce Chatwin's novel On the Black Hill wasn't a far-away world at all!
Did you enjoy your schooldays?
I mostly enjoyed school. The local schools were small and you got to know everyone. I was a real geek in school. A good girl. Studying suited me - I like sitting in the quiet reading and writing. Although, that's not to say I didn't have my fair share of misspent youth sat in parks drinking and smoking!
You recently discovered an early poem you wrote. Any good?
Yeh, I was surprised to recently discover an early poem of mine at my mum's house. It is called 'River' and is written in blue swirly handwriting. I must have been 6 or 7 when I wrote it I reckon. And it ain't too shabby actually! I thought I got into poetry in my early twenties but I keep finding bits of writing from when I was much younger…and that makes me feel like I am doing ok, I am doing what I should be doing…
Your father died as you were entering your teens. Did literature provide any comfort at that time?
Reading Seamus Heaney's Digging in school blew my little head open. I had just lost my dad to early onset Alzheimer's and he always loved to dig in the garden. Hearing that poem and then the teacher asking what I felt whilst reading it, really got me, in a good way. In that poem, language, the rhythm of the lines, the images were all colliding to express some difficult feelings I hadn't been able to put into words. No one in my family really reads poems. Finding poetry as a space to work through the pains and challenges of life has definitely helped me. I also remember reading Ted Hughes' Crow when I was a teenager and there was something about the death, violence and terror in those poems that really rang true, that brought comfort in a strange way. Those poems seemed to get to a closer expression of the natural world with all its messiness and chaos, rather than any pastoral, polished version of it. I think my childhood surrounded by nature exposed me to the realities of both living and dying.
You studied anthropology at University. Were you writing poetry during your studies?
I loved studying Anthropology at university but I found the dry output of academic essays tedious. My notebooks from those days are full of poem-doodles though, odd words and word patterns sprawling across the page amongst the more academic language. After graduating, writing poems felt like the only sensible thing to do.
When did you become interested in prison reform?
I remember first hearing about capital punishment, and more specifically, death row when I was in primary school. I couldn't believe that so-called 'civilised' countries such as the U.S.A had a whole system set up for killing its criminals. I have always been interested in what we do as a society with the people that fall through the gaps. I think it is true that we can only judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members, and in our high-capitalist societies that treatment is very clearly laced with abuse. During the past few years, I have been watching lots of documentaries and reading books on the prison system in the U.S.A and the prison industrial complex that is a legacy of slavery. Activist and author, Angela Davis, has been an essential and guiding light for me in terms of learning about prison reform and abolition.
You worked in a prison near Preston running reading groups? How did that go?
Yes, I worked for the reading charity, The Reader, leading reading groups for wellbeing in a prison near Preston. The prison is a Cat C, all-male prison and I went in every Tuesday to lead two reading groups. Some of the men in the group had been in prison for 30+ years; one guy I read with had been in care up until the age of 16 and then went straight into the youth offending and prison system. That man had been abused within the care system and had no good role models. I really loved leading those groups. We read aloud poems, short stories and extracts from novels and plays. We would then pause and chat about our responses to the story or poem. My job was to make the space as kind and non-judgmental as possible so that men who literally never read and have a lot of anxiety around reading were able to share their thoughts on the literature. There were so many golden moments in those groups. We read a wide range of literature from Tupac to Shakespeare, from Maya Angelou to Zaffar Kunial!
You became involved in writing letters to inmates?
It was after watching documentaries on prisons in the U.S, such as 13th and Fourteen Days in May, that I felt compelled to do something. As a writer, I thought, well, I'll write! Lifelines is a UK-based charity that befriends men on death row. Three years ago, they linked me up with a man on death row in Louisiana My friend's name is Bell and we have formed a long-lasting, meaningful friendship. We write and chat on the phone most weeks. My boyfriend and I travelled to Louisiana last February to visit him. It was my first time in the States and it was an incredibly intense trip. What struck me most was the normalisation of death row, when we visited it just felt like another normal day — we ate fried chicken and maccy cheese together on death row with guards with guns around the corner. We met his mum, sister and neice too, which was lovely. I didn't ever plan to write poems on our friendship, but they just came out in a mad rush of writing.
Angola, America (Seren Books, 2022) was the remarkable, award winning poetry pamphlet in last years's Mslexia competition. For new readers, can you explain the title?
The pamphlet takes its name from the USA's largest maximum security prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary, where my friend is on death row. The prison is known as 'Angola' after the former slave plantation on its territory. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the slaves that were put to work on that land were from the southwestern African country, Angola. The prison continues to operate as a profitable 18,000 acre farm with inmates put to work on the fields for little or no wage. The pamphlet explores the legacies of slavery in the contemporary prison system. As a white British woman writing about this world, I grappled with the ethics of perspective I held, and some of the poems in the pamphlet attempt to explore those blindnesses.
In a reading at the Golden Lion in Todmorden, you began with a poem about a letter that went missing?
Yes, that poem is about my first hand-written letter to Bell never reaching him. All the post going into a maximum-security prison is checked and monitored. For some reason, that letter didn't make it through so the poem is about that fragility of connection — and the final line of that poem, 'my words leaching in the Louisiana rain'.
Which other aspects of your correspondence were you keen to convey in your pamphlet?
My writing is often concerned with our relationship to the natural world, so the poems take quite a wide view encompassing all the more-than-human creatures linked to the prison world. So, there is a poem about periodical cicadas who swarm above the prison after seventeen years underground. Those cicadas are relatively free as they fly across North America. There is also a poem about the wolf-dogs that were used to patrol the boundary fence of the prison. I found it fascinating that the wolf-dogs didn't actually make good guard dogs as the wild-wolf part of them was scared of humans and would run away! There is also a poem about terraforming a prison cell, because somehow humans have made a place on earth that is so inhospitable it is like an unliveable planet.
What techniques do you use in your writing? Which writers have influenced your work?
My poetry is very musical and sound-driven. I write by composing lines aloud and listening. If it doesn't sound right, then it won't make the final poem. The poems in Angola, America are all 14 lines, they are proto-sonnets or ghost-sonnets. I wanted a repeating form or restriction for this subject matter. Terrance Hayes was a big influence — in his poem he writes,
'I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame'.
I found that repeating form very freeing actually, like a template with which to experiment. Other poets I am always reading: Alice Oswald; Fiona Benson; Zaffar Kunial (Hebden poet!); Etheridge Knight; Yusef Komunyakaa.
Which aspects of HM Prisons would you like to reform?
First, I would get rid of the 'HM'. Ha! Abolish the Monarchy! Don't worry, I know who I'd get in their place to represent the UK in all those important appointments, the Scottish poet Jackie Kay, of course. To reform the prisons, we first need to reform society. I would make monumental changes verging on communism. The majority of people that end up imprisoned have had a rubbish start in life — poverty, a lack of opportunities, addiction — and changing the way wealth is distributed amongst our society could really change how many people end up committing a crime in the first place. There is a small proportion of people who do need to be kept at a distance from the rest of society for themselves and the safety of us all. For those people, prisons should be chapels of care and kindness, radical kindness where all judgment is left at the door. I also think prisons should be much more connected to wider society, with much more of a flow of people going into prison so that the toxic institutilisation of prisoners is prevented. Countries like Norway are leading the way in terms of healthy prisons.
You won another writing award in Ireland?
In 2020, I won The Moth's Nature Writing Competition for my nonfiction-poetic essay on bats and their echolocation calls. I was chuffed that nature writer, Richard Mabey, chose my piece, and that it was then published in The Irish Times. I wrote that night diary, or noctuary, during lockdown and living on our narrowboat on the Rochdale Canal. Every evening, I would listen to the echolocation of bats through a bat detector that brings their inaudible calls down to human hearing. Much of that piece is attempting to put those bat sounds into human language, which of course, is an impossible task! I don't think you can be writer without accepting, and even celebrating, the failure of language.
So, how did you end up living on a narrow boat on the Rochdale Canal?
My boyfriend, Dave, and I were both between homes, between rented rooms and tired of all our rent going to landlords we never saw, and we had always dreamt of living on a boat. It was an evening in August during the Edinburgh Festival - I was working at the Book Festival and Dave was playing music in a theatre show - and we were sipping whisky chatting with our mate, Nathan, who lives on a boat. We got chatting about our options and by the end of the evening, we had decided to move onto a narrowboat. We bought our first home together, cringingly named 'Utopia', in Staffordshire and cruised her up through Cheshire, Manchester and onto the Rochdale.
How's life on the water?
Considering we had both never been on a narrowboat before living on one, we adjusted to life on the water very quickly! We were used to living in small spaces, we met 11 years ago whilst working for a travelling circus where we lived in wagons and caravans. Winter can be tough, but also so beautiful when it is bitterly cold. There is nothing better than cosying down next to the fire and listening to the ice creak as the boat moves. Living on a boat does make you grateful for the simplest things like running water and a hot radiator! And being surrounded by animals and nature is where I am happiest.
Do you recall your first impressions of Calderdale?
Friendly. Mossy cragg. Damp. Loose.
You enjoy your work at the Arvon Centre, what is your role?
I work as the Deputy Director of Lumb Bank, Arvon's writing house in Heptonstall. I am on the programming team, so I get to book tutors to run courses, which I love. I also work on our partnerships and outreach. Recently, I organised two local school visits to Lumb Bank, Hebden Royd Primary and Calder High, for two days of nature writing with Northern writers, Kim Moore and Elmi Ali. Aside from welcoming lots of paying adults, a third of our work is with groups that are funded to come. I think my favourite week was last August when we linked up with the St. Augustine's centre in Halifax and hosted a group of refugees. Over the next few years, we will be really embedding our focus on local outreach so that Lumb Bank becomes a hub for Northern writers andCalderdale communities.
Here's some questions sent in by readers:
Favourite piece of music?
Right now, 'Willow Garden' by Lankum, a Irish folk band from Dublin
What makes you laugh?
Here comes the cheese - Dave. Our relationship is very much grounded in an absurd, dark and unforgiving humour.
A spicy Korean noodle soup with kimchi on the side.
Best holiday so far?
Any holiday with surfing involved (I'm rubbish but love to bob about in the sea) so West Coast of Ireland, sleeping in the back of the car will do.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Is there a question you wish I'd asked, and how would you answer it?
Would you rather spend your life looking through a microscope or a telescope? A microscope.