The seed for Full Circle Projects was planted in the summer of 2014 while I was running a series of workshops at HMPYOI Isis on behalf of English PEN. When I shared that I was reading from PEN’s anthology of writing from prisons Running to Stand Still at the London Short Story Festival that weekend, a participant asked if I could also read some of the work that had been created during our sessions. I told him I would, and I did. When I returned the following week he not only checked that I had kept my word, he asked if I had recorded my performance so he could see his work being read. I had to disappoint him. That moment really stuck with me; how powerful would it have been for him to see the impact of his work on the general public?
Full Circle Projects runs multi-stage initiatives that start in, leave, and return to, the same space. It is my goal to harness the creative spirit of people from marginalised and forgotten communities, including those in prison, and provide them with a dynamic space in which their voices can be heard. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England, the first Full Circle Projects initiative, My Search for Meaning, launched in December 2015. My Search for Meaning takes its name and inspiration from the Viktor E. Frankl book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in the nine days following his liberation after three years in Auschwitz.
I first read Man’s Search for Meaning in 2010. I was struggling with my chronic health condition, achalasia, at the time and Frankl’s book helped to revolutionise my perspective. Frankl’s belief that meaning gives life purpose, and that meaning can even be found in suffering, forced me to ask questions about what my life meant in that very moment, unwell but alive. These thoughts were a significant part of my decision to pursue a career as a writer; to feel that I must do it. This concept of finding meaning in your life not just in spite of, but because of your circumstances, made Frankl’s book the perfect text to build the first Full Circle Projects initiative around.
During stage one of the My Search for Meaning project I ran creative writing sessions in HMPYOI Isis, HMP Belmarsh, HMP Wandsworth, HMP Brixton and HMP Pentonville. Participants wrote stories, poems, and autobiographical essays around the theme of finding meaning in their lives. Each participant also received a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning at the end of the session; theirs to keep.
Today, the My Search for Meaning project will be at Goldsmiths for stage two: a spoken word event. Five incredible wordsmiths will perform selected work from the aforementioned prisons, and will also share how they find meaning in their own lives. I am honoured to partner with English PEN on this event, and when looking at the genesis of Full Circle Projects it is also incredibly fitting. The event this evening will be recorded and stage three of the project will see me return to the prisons to screen the live event for those who participated in the workshops, and others who would like to see a spoken word show.
I am passionate about the work I do in prisons. I have witnessed so many powerful moments during creative writing sessions, and none more so than on the My Search for Meaning project. I wholeheartedly believe that when we provide people with the space to explore their own humanity, we very often see them rise to the occasion. It is transformative work. Research suggests a very strong link between having access to the arts while in prison and a reduction in reoffending; those who work in prisons know this first-hand. We also cannot underestimate the power of reconnecting those who are serving time, particularly longer sentences, with wider society before their release. What I did underestimate, is how much interest there would be from the general public to engage with prisoners in this way. Demand for My Search for Meaning: An Evening of Spoken Word in Prisons was so great we had to change venues, and sold out within an hour of releasing additional tickets.
Selling out the live event is encouraging, but for me the success of the project will be measured during stage three, when I return to the prisons and once again spend time with those who took part in the workshops. It is when I see them enjoying the live event, when they tell me what it was like to see their work performed, when I get their thoughts on the book, when I hear how the project has affected them; that is when the project’s success will be determined, and the project will be complete.
There are many organisations who have been doing this vital work in prisons for many years, English PEN of course being one. Through the My Search for Meaning project I have joined an audacious community, achieving great things against the odds. The next Full Circle Projects initiative will be on its way (funding willing) in late 2016. I am so looking forward to doing it all again.
Find out more about English PEN’s work in UK prisons.
Listen to Femi Martin’s radio programme, The Achalasia Diaries, on BBC Radio 4.
Read English PEN’s Prison Writing Competition anthologies, including Running to Stand Still.
Meet the writers who lead creative reading and writing workshops for English PEN.