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Look Up! Creative Writing at HMP Northumberland

"We saw to the edge of all there is - so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back" - Tracy K Smith, My God It's Full of Stars

In spring 2023, I was commissioned by Kielder Observatory (funded by the Joicey Trust) to run a six-week creative writing programme at HMP Northumberland, a category C prison with 1500 male inmates located near Amble on the North East coast. The astronomy team from Kielder had already visited the prison to deliver some lectures on the night sky and the work the observatory does, and these writing workshops were designed to encourage a creative response to the topics the learners had been introduced to.

At this prison, an education provider called Novus runs daily sessions in core subjects like maths and English as well as things like creative enterprise, catering, and barbering. It was during these education slots - one in the morning and one in the afternoon - that I came in and ran my weekly sessions. There were approximately 12 participants across the two groups.

Vision, clarity and discovery

Astronomy might not seem like the most obvious topic for a prison writing programme at first, but when you dig a little deeper and consider the wider themes - such as light and dark, vision, discovery, journey, the past and the future - it becomes something that people in the criminal justice system can bring a lot of their own experiences to. In some of the workshops, we used poems like 'Human Knowledge' by Robert Wrigley to consider how our beliefs about the solar system have evolved over time and how we can relate that to what we have learnt about ourselves over the course of our lives. In another session, we designed our own constellations and wrote mythical origin stories about how those shapes came to be. Constellations such as a book, a barbell and a castle turret reflected the learners' desires for knowledge, strength and protection.

The final output of this programme will be a 36-page anthology called 'Look Up' which has just gone to print. We are taking copies into HMP Northumberland for the learners to receive in early August and their work will also be going up on a dedicated webpage on the Kielder Observatory website.

I had never set foot inside a prison until starting this project and what was even more nerve wracking than the process of getting in and out was designing a programme of workshops that I thought the learners would actually find interesting. To my huge relief, their feedback took my breath away:

"This has been a fantastic opportunity to be creative and to listen to others"

"Bridget was amazing and took time to help everyone and was understanding of everyone's needs"

"I have thoroughly enjoyed the sessions. Very insightful and knowledgeable"

"Gave me something to look forward to weekly"

A big thank you to all of the learners that I met during my time 'inside', as well as to Heather Woodfine and Hannah Matterson from Kielder Observatory, John Turnbull, Sarah Hartley and all the Novus staff who took care of me, and the wider prison staff too. I was also lucky enough to go out to Kielder for one of their evening stargazing sessions which was absolutely incredible - they are open to the public and I would 100% recommend!


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