(or trifecta, as some of my friends are calling it!)
I invited local award-winning poet and educator Sarah Temporal, the convenor of the very successful Poets Out Loud performances, to launch the books. I was thrilled with the things she said!
Here she is making the speech:
And here is what she said:
My name is Sarah Temporal. I’m thrilled to be with you today to launch this wonderful trilogy from Rosemary Nissen-Wade. When Rosemary invited me, I had no idea how profound this work would be. As she declares: it’s a pilgrimage. And, what a privilege it is as a reader to walk that pilgrimage with her.
'What is the story you have never told?' she ponders. 'The one that will free you to tell all the rest'.
In the heyday of Melbourne's notorious Pentridge Prison in the 80s, Rosemary Nissen (as she was known then) introduced a series of poetry workshops for the inmates, including those in the high security division. She did not know that there she would encounter both love and tragedy.
This extraordinary trilogy comprises: the memoir of her life-changing experiences there, Breaking Into Pentridge Prison: Memories of Darkness and Light; the re-released anthology of prisoners' poetry created in those workshops, Blood From Stone; and a chapbook of Rosemary's own poems and prose-poems, revealing for the first time the most personal aspect of that story, Letters to a Dead Man.
One of my catch-cries is: poetry is for everyone. As a poetry educator and community arts producer I know that the most incredible poetry does not belong to universities or libraries, that it flourishes anywhere there is a willing listener and permission to share what's most important. And when I first met Rosemary to chat about starting a poetry night here in Murwillumbah, I was thrilled to learn that she had been a key player in the Melbourne-based poetry movement that inscribed those values on Australian poetry. The Poets Union / 'rat bag school of poetry' as they called themselves insisted that poetry should reflect and be represented in the reality of people's lives, wherever that was. Behind the bluestone walls of Pentridge there were poets… Rosemary went in at their request.
And yet I was not prepared for this book. Breaking Into Pentridge Prison recounts with compelling honesty and stark precision the experiences of those workshops. The electric atmosphere of free expression, deepening conversation in an environment that prohibited any kind of vulnerability. Friendships developing with men she calls 'Youngest,' 'Tallest,' 'Sweet-face.' Navigating mind games, threats, stresses and strains; and the toxic atmosphere leaking into life outside. 'Pentridge would warp anyone.'
Yet, most surprising, the central personal thread is a love story. Which I can't spoil for you now – I can tell you that I found it affirming and heartbreaking all at once. I was so invested I couldn't put it down. I don't think it could have been handled by any other writer.
One of the remarkable achievements of this memoir is that Rosemary fastidiously avoids any sensationalism in her descriptions of the prison and its horror. It makes the work all the more impactful, I feel, to follow an author who deals in the utmost integrity with her subjects: placing humanity at the centre, even in a setting that denied these men humanity in some cases their entire adult lives.
Although each of these works stands alone, they will make you hungry for more: dip into any one and you’ll start seeking and gathering threads of the other two.
The prisoners' own works are anthologised in Blood from Stone, capturing the reality of life behind prison walls as only they can. These poems are a cry from the deepest parts of human experience; a cry to he heard. Included alongside the workshop participants' poetry, at their insistence, are also pieces from visiting poets who tutored there: Myron Lysenko, Linda Stevenson, Nicholas G Coleman, and Rosemary herself.
Letters to a Dead Man, I read breathlessly. I have never before understood how vital the link between poetry and memory is: here is a whole personal history that is so alive and immediate, as if it happened yesterday. These poems vibrate, a mark of having been carried for half a lifetime. As poet Chris Mansell says, Rosemary has been able to make love walk through time although it cannot walk through walls.
This is a body of work that gives voice to the most pivotal and profound experiences. Tenderly, poetically, and with unflinching directness, Rosemary brings to light an important social history that might otherwise lie forgotten. More importantly though, she shares with us the most intimate of human stories; one that, I hope, sets her free to tell all the rest.
I am excited for all of you to delve into reading these books, to enjoy, discover, to witness and treasure these remarkable stories and poems. It is my pleasure to declare the Pentridge trilogy launched.