[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Miriam Ruff, and it is the second installment in what will be a series of interviews about the different approaches people take to discover and learn new topics. It was lightly edited for clarity.]
MR: We’re talking today with Sam Adams, a reader, writer, poet, and co-founder of PoetsIN, a UK-based charity that uses words to help inmates and those with mental illness communicate their thoughts and feelings. Welcome to the AceReader blog, it’s good to have you here.
SA: Thank you. Good to be here.
MR: Let’s start at the beginning, with your introduction to reading itself. Did your parents read to you when you were little? Did you have a regular “storytime?”
SA: I don’t remember my parents reading to me when I was little. What I do remember is my Grandad (Gramps, sometimes Grumps) reading to me. Listen with Mother published a book of all the stories that were read on the radio, it had a yellow cover, and had some beautiful stories that captured my imagination. I can vividly remember stories with my Gramps; he didn’t just read the story, he told the story – voices, pauses, different paces – you name it, he gave it to me. He often deviated from the book too. The Three Bears became the Six Bears, they didn’t eat Porridge, they ate Coco Pops; we had a lot of fun with traditional tales in Gramps’ witty style.
MR: At what age did you start reading by yourself?
SA: I remember reading from the point I can first remember. Books were, and still are, my life. I was lucky that reading and comprehension of the tales I read came easily to me. Reading often gave me a distraction from things I wanted to escape from in life.
MR: What were your favorite things to read as a child? Has that changed much since you’ve grown up?
SA: I’d read anything as a child. Enid Blyton captured my imagination, but so did a book of ‘naughty verse’ I found in my grandparents’ bookshelves one day; they were obviously not suitable for my age-range, but I learned a lot from them. I was a curious kid. I wanted to learn and so I loved Encyclopedias (oh, the days without Google), I loved fiction, equally, for the escape from life it granted me, and I loved poetry, even at the age of four.
Nowadays, my reading habits are similar. I’ll read anything, although with the dawn of the internet, my research and learning reading has changed. Still, nothing beats a good work of fiction or a beautifully written piece of poetry.
The biggest thing that has changed is my awareness of how important reading and writing is to one’s mental wellness. I am aware now that those times as a child I used literature to escape, I was building a very healthy coping mechanism for some unhealthy emotions. I then furthered that with writing my own literature and poetry, which helps me to release those pent-up emotions.
MR: Did you go to the library regularly? If so, what was your experience like there and with books in general?
SA: I did. My grandparents often took me to the library. I’d have happily stayed there for hours and hours. I’m the same now in a bookshop. The feel of a book, the smell of a book, the solitude of the library – it was comforting.
I loved taking my books back, choosing new ones, sitting with a book on one of the beanbags and beginning the book before I’d even left the library. It’s an excitement I wish I could have captured and kept.
MR: At what point did you become involved in poetry? Which poets were the most influential for you when you got started, and how has that changed over the years?
SA: I don’t ever remember not loving poetry. I loved the fact that so much can be said in so few words. The first time I really started appreciating the craft of poetry and the messages it portrayed was when I read Shakespeare. I fell in love with meter, I fell in love with words all over again. From there, I found Poe, Blake, Frost, Whitman, and Keats; and that was it. I was a poetry fan.
As an adult, I still adore the classical poets, but have developed a new-found love for poetry used purely for emotional and observational expression – the free-verse poets, the micropoets, the poets that don’t pay too much attention to form, but the power they yield with their poetry can often incite emotions from within me that stay with me long after the poem has been read.
MR: So your initial foray into poetry came pre-internet? How did you research poets and their works? What is a particularly memorable experience you had researching something?
SA: My foray into poetry came from within the walls of the library. My Gramps bumped into an old work colleague of his and whilst he stood talking, I went in search of something to read. I found William Shakespeare. I was young, too young to truly understand the meaning behind his sonnets, but I appreciated the rhythm and beauty of the words he chose.
From there, at least one of the books I checked out of the library each week was a non-fiction book on poetry or a specific poet. I remember the first book I read was about Shakespeare, Iambic Pentameter, and the stresses in words. I ended up emphasizing the stresses in words for weeks after that. I’m sure I sounded like a robot.
MR: When did you decide to make poetry more than a personal endeavor and share it with others? Can you give us a brief outline of what you did? How has that experience paid off?
SA: I was working for a social network for writers, where over half were writing poetry every day. I had many conversations with individuals who shared the reason they began writing poetry. It was a form of therapy for them; a way to purge pain. I realized it mirrored my own personal journey.
I discussed this with a colleague of mine who also valued poetry for similar reasons, and we decided that it would be a good use of our time to educate others in poetry, creative writing in general, and how to use it to help the mind.
We started off in a UK prison, tailoring writing groups once per week, with homework. We’d collect the homework from the prisoner, type it up, and post it online. We shared their words with people who regularly write and allowed those writers to comment on the pieces. We’d then take those comments back in to prison and share them with the rightful owners.
Over time, we collected data to prove our theory that writing can aid mental wellness. We were astounded by the results. 99% of the people we worked with saw a marked improvement in a number of areas of their mental health and well-being. We’d even ceased self-harm in someone who previous to working with us self-harmed daily. From there, we decided to form a charity, so we could extend this to other prisons and the communities outside the prison walls – and thus, PoetsIN was born.
MR: Of course, we now live in the Internet Age – how would you suggest people interested in reading about poets and studying their works do their research? Would you still recommend printed books, is the online arena a better option, or should there be some kind of compromise between the two?
SA: I definitely think the internet has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to reading and researching poetry. Nothing beats a good book. The weight, the feel, the smell – it adds to the whole reading experience. Call me weird, but it does.
I’d suggest using libraries, checking out books that you won’t find on the internet – especially if you want to research the classical poets.
The advantage of the internet era is that there are many undiscovered (non-mainstream) poets who are certainly deserving of that all-elusive publishing deal. Traditional publishers do not publish modern poetry often, and thus the internet is an amazing tool to find undiscovered talent, along with it being a place that you can also share your poetry, express yourself, and find friendships with like-minded people.
Thirty percent of people with mental illness are socially isolated. When you think of that figure, I think the internet age, and the social sites designed for poetry reading and writing can be used in a positive way to reduce social isolation and the symptoms of that isolation.
MR: What is the best way for people interested in finding out more about you and what you do to get in touch?
SA: People wanting to know more and get in touch can find us across the interwebs.
@poets_in (Twitter and Instagram)
Facebook.com/poetsin (Facebook Page)
Facebook.com/groups/poetsin (A safe Facebook group to share your words)