Poetry in Motion: Hidden City @ Barlinnie

Poetry in Motion: Hidden City @ Barlinnie

By Robert McC

Most of us pass by buildings, parks and alleyways almost every day of our lives, yet our familiar habitats are so often taken for granted. We don’t actually see what is there, right in front of our eyes, so consumed are we by the vagaries of our humdrum existence. Locations can be filled with sights, smells, atmospheres, abandoned artefacts, fragments of discarded rubbish (or treasure), memories, histories, traces of past events and long-forgotten people who don’t even brush past our consciousness. A group of twelve inmates at HMP Barlinnie were tasked, in February of this year, with writing some site-specific poetry referring to a location hidden deep within the heart of Glasgow’s City centre that is usually passed by, ignored and unnoticed. They would then create a digital animation that would accompany this verse. This would be the Hidden City Project.

So what is site-specific poetry, you may ask? Well, it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. The director of the project chooses a location and using this space as a creative partner the poets compose verse that is inspired in some way by that specific site. The five previous Hidden City Projects have featured the work of many of Scotland and the UK’s leading contemporary poets and were all very successful. Firstly the poets involved would visit the site, which had been chosen for them, in order to get their creative juices flowing. They would then take the time to compose their poetry, before finally presenting it to an invited audience in situ.

Obviously this just wasn’t practical with our group, with us being incarcerated in one of Scotland’s highest security prisons, so some novel solutions had to be dreamt up for the problem of our inability to visit the site, either for inspiration or in order to perform our completed masterpieces. The first problem was addressed by delivering a kind of study pack, which contained a variety of photographs and a synopsis of the history of the location, the surrounding buildings and the general area. All of this pertained to the site that was chosen: 45 John Street. The second, probably more significant problem was how we would perform our work at the location, which required some blue-sky thinking – enter Lorna Callery (Barlinnie’s creative writing tutor), whose baby this project was. She came up with the novel idea of having us produce the digital animation, which would accompany an audio recording of us performing our work. Both of these would then be played at the site. The invited audience would comprise of a group of our family and friends, as well as a couple of the guys who took part and had since been released.

The project ran for two weeks beginning in early February and the first week was given over to writing the poetry. This may seem like quite a long time to write a poem but as many of us had never written poetry before there were times when we feared it might not be long enough! On the first morning we met up in order to get to know each other, gain an introduction to Lorna and establish some group dynamics. In the afternoon we found out the history of the project and were given our packs in order to begin the research process. Day two began with a workshop led by Tawona Sitole, a Zimbabwean poet, playwright and musician now living in Scotland, who showed us the similarities between poetry and song. He also introduced us to the nuances of rhythm, which is crucial in both. The guys really enjoyed this session and had a lot of fun. The afternoon was spent on final research before we used the entirety of the third day to work on the initial drafts of our own poetry.

The fourth day commenced with another writing workshop, this time led by Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers who write graphic novels under the name Metaphrog. They took us through their entire creative process: the initial idea, the composition of the text and the illustrations that accompanied the text. Before the end of this session we had a chance to pick their brains, which proved invaluable when it came time to choose the themes for our animations. Again the afternoon was spent working on our own poetry. On the final day of the writing phase we had one last workshop, this time with well-known children’s author Nick Hesketh who had travelled to the prison from Dundee. For this session we were joined by another group from the education department; Storybook Dad’s are a group who are writing illustrated children’s books for their kids. Both groups thoroughly appreciated the time Nick spent with us, providing excellent advice and answering a wide range of questions. We dedicated the last afternoon of this first week to polishing the final drafts of our poetry and helping those who were struggling slightly.

Week two was an entirely different affair. On Monday morning we were introduced to Inigo Garrido, a Spanish animator currently living and working in Glasgow, who had previously worked on providing animation for an opera production within HMP Shotts. We were shown samples of this work to give us a basic idea of what we should be aiming towards. Over the next couple of sessions Inigo helped us to look through our poems in order to find some images that we felt stood out and could be animated to accompany the poetry. Some of the guys used the theme of their poem to inspire one continuous animation, some did a couple and others did an animation to accompany each verse. Over the final two sessions we worked on a title animation and produced some background music, which would accompany our completed work when presented to the public.

The animation process itself was fascinating. A digital camera was linked to a laptop computer using an animation programme, and for each second of animation we had to record twelve separate frames (‘still shots’). This ensured the animations looked seamless. It meant that for a poem like mine, which lasted 56 seconds, I had to record around 700 frames. As you can imagine, this was quite a time-consuming process and required a fair degree of patience. After the final session, Inigo took all of our work so that he could edit everything. None of us have seen the completed pieces yet, but on March 20th we are having and official launch day within the prison, when those of us who want to will have an extra visit and we will be presented with a copy of the book containing all our work and a DVD featuring the finished poems, animations and feedback from the invited audience who had a chance to attend an advanced screening on March 7th in Glasgow City Centre. Everyone is looking forward to the launch.

On a purely personal level, this project has opened up a creative view within me that I had no idea even existed. I’ve found myself writing poetry and short stories during my spare time, something I would never have previously considered. It’s a fantastic form of escapism. Finally, on behalf of all the guys who took part I’d just like to thank the staff at Barlinnie Learning Centre and those who facilitated the workshops and made the project possible.