Nikita Gill: I took poetry into a prison and it changed the way I saw poetry forever

October 4, 2023

Nikita Gill took poetry to a prison library where she rediscovered that poetry, art and language belong to us all.

To make art through the most difficult times of your life is both therapeutic as well as an act of resistance.

This is what I learned when I took books filled with poems of hope to people who have been incarcerated. For a long time, while we've focused on the value of poetic language and craft, the value of poetry as therapy has been understated. But reading poems of hope in a prison library and listening to people who have been incarcerated, speaking about what poets like Mary Oliver and Gwendolyn Brooks mean to them, has shown me that poetry has the ability to heal in ways I never understood before.

To be a poet is to take a chance on a different kind of life, where you constantly allow the world to astonish you – this is what I understood before. But being inside a prison showed me how poetry and language is also about community. It is about finding yourself in language and sharing something beautiful and full of awe with another by reading it out loud.

Any place that has a lot of books feels warm, and the prison library was full of powerful books including Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. We sat in a circle which made it easier to look at each person who was speaking. The conversation was deeply enlightening, we shared the books we loved, and some of the questions were what any living poet gets asked, “When did you decide to be a poet” (When I was 12.) and “How do you make a living writing poetry?” (I sell books, perform at events and facilitate workshops.) and “How do you protect your work and your creativity?” (It’s hard. I rely on organisations like ALCS to help protect my work.)

I think in every single person there is an artistic spirit that needs to be reassured that, yes, they are allowed to speak, to sing, to make art, to write poetry.

However, there was one question that was repeatedly asked, a question I return to over and over again: “Am I allowed to write poetry?” This is an heartbreaking question because of the genesis. There is a belief I’ve heard repeated a few times now from so many people who really want to write poems, that to write poetry, one must study it in university or have some kind of academic success to be able to craft a good poem. This is not true. You do not have to be a scholar or an academic to write poetry because it already belongs to you. I always respond to this question with “Yes, of course you are, because only you can give voice to the poems that live inside you.”

In this moment, a young man shared one of his poems with me, and it was deeply moving to see how he had turned the tiny window in his cell into a magical place to find some solace within those four small walls. The poem was generous with its vulnerability as much as it covered the harsh realities of being a person who has been incarcerated. All through the language, a powerful and unique voice shone through.

I think in every single person there is an artistic spirit that needs to be reassured that, yes, they are allowed to speak, to sing, to make art, to write poetry. At some point between childhood and adulthood, we forget that art is for everyone and language belongs to us all, that you do not need to be an expert to make art or practice with language. This is the reassurance we must give all people who wish to create.

In that prison library, I was humbled to meet poems written with such hope which highlighted the complexity of the human experience. From within the confines of cells, while looking out through windows, questions were posed about redemption, little kindnesses, and answered with such deep consideration and care.

In the kindness of the poems I read there, I found something I had been looking for myself. 'And that is the answer to the question about whether poetry has the power to change the world.' The answer is yes. One life at a time. Yes.


Nikita Gill

Nikita Gill

Nikita Gill is a British-Indian poet, playwright, writer and illustrator living in the south of England. She has published eight collections of poetry: Your Soul Is A River (Thought Catalog), Your Heart is the Sea (Thought Catalog), Wild Embers (Trapeze), Fierce Fairytales (Trapeze), Great Goddesses (Ebury), The Girl and the Goddess (Ebury), Where Hope Comes From: Poems of Resilience, Healing, and Light (Trapeze), and These Are the Words: fearless verse to find your voice (Macmillan Children's Books). She is also the editor of the poetry anthology SLAM! (Macmillan’s Children’s Books).