‘Frankenstein’ is traditionally read as a critique of science — but also portrays many forms of imprisonment. (Shutterstock)

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ legacy lives through women’s prison poetry project

August 30th is Mary Shelley’s 222nd birthday, an occasion on which to reflect upon the enduring legacy of her 1818 novel, Frankenstein. It’s also a chance to reflect on the ways that scholars feted the book for the 200th anniversary of its publication.

In 2018, major celebrations for the novel’s bicentennial anniversary included scholarly projects and events. These included worldwide readings of the full text of the novel, conferences and new editions.

However, some communities have traditionally been excluded from such processes of knowledge creation and commemoration. For example, what role have incarcerated people had in shaping how our broader culture or scholars think about important writing or literature?

In the essay Prison Writing/Writing Prison in Canada, Deena Rymhs and Roxanne Rimstead note that “… the writing of prisoners is almost entirely absent from the literary archives that we construct.” Rymhs is a professor in the department of English language and literatures at University of British Columbia and Rimstead is a professor in the department of arts, languages and literatures at Sherbrooke University.

The omission finds an uncanny parallel in Shelley’s novel, which is traditionally read as a critique of science — but also portrays many forms of imprisonment, a theme often overlooked.

These oversights became a pressing concern for me on several accounts. I’m both a literature professor at the University of New Brunswick, and Frankenstein is a beloved novel I regularly teach. I am also involved in education and critically rethinking our society’s engagement with people impacted by the criminal justice system with federally incarcerated women at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.

Walls to Bridges program

Since 2016, I have facilitated a number of small, in-prison poetry workshops at the Grand Valley Institution with the Walls to Bridges Collective. This network of incarcerated and non-incarcerated women serves as a think tank for the the national Walls to Bridges program based at Laurier University’s Faculty of Social Work.

Walls to Bridges is a university-based program that brings together campus-enrolled students (on the “outside”) with incarcerated ones (on the “inside”) to study together in term-length courses. Every student gets course credit. (You might think of it as the Canadian equivalent of the American Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program).

In Canada, federal prisons only provide up to high-school education. Post-secondary and vocational educational opportunities are rare because they fall outside of Correctional Service Canada’s mandate.

Walls to Bridges has offered courses at 10 different universities across Canada, and has gathered data, including student feedback, on the positive impact of these courses. I became aware that most courses fell under sociology, social work and criminology. There was an interest in growing arts-based programming.

Frankenstein in public

I teamed up with colleagues Sue Sinclair, a poet and professor of literature at University of New Brunswick, Shoshana Pollack, professor of social work at Laurier University and the director of Walls to Bridges, and the Walls to Bridges Collective. We developed and directed a public humanities project titled Erasing Frankenstein.

Why public humanities? In creating an original, collaborative artistic adaptation of Frankenstein, we involved broad prison, campus and community voices. We also hoped to launch an inclusive and creative corrective to the ongoing exclusion in both scholarship and literary culture of the voices of women who are incarcerated. One definition of public humanities work is the following:

“ … scholarly or creative activity integral to a faculty member’s academic area. It encompasses different forms of making knowledge about, for, and with diverse publics and communities. Through a coherent and purposeful sequence of activities, it contributes to the public good and yields artifacts of public and intellectual value.”

That’s as defined by a network of American academics who champion the role of public research in the arts and humanities through their Imagining America Tenure Team Initiative.

Erasing Frankenstein involved a unique exchange between University of New Brunswick university students, federally incarcerated women and non-incarcerated members from the Walls to Bridges Collective.

Erasing

Participants collectively created what we know as first-ever adaptation or translation of Frankenstein into a contemporary book-length erasure poem — a poem created by piggybacking on an existing text. Some words are erased or blacked out, and what’s left is the poem.

Well-known examples of erasures include A Humument by British artist Tom Phillips, A Little White Shadow by American author Mary Ruefle and The Place of Scraps by Nisga'a writer Jordan Abel. Abel’s book uses erasure to develop a new narrative out of an early 20th century ethnographer’s text.

Creating an erasure poem can be a way of engaging with and commenting on the themes of the source text. Erasure-as-art questions what or who is allowed to be in the foreground, what or who is reduced to the background and why — and explores how negation can be creatively used to open new possibilities.

Participants were each responsible for transforming Frankenstein page-by-page, to make a single collective creation we bound together. We made individual pages by blacking out or colouring over words with crayons, pastels, markers, pencil crayons and whiteout tape. We negated any unwanted words to form a new poem from the remaining words. Then, the team collected and reordered the selectively-erased pages.

Being accepted

Public exhibitions of the completed work took place at the Kitchener Public Library, the Fredericton Public Library and University of New Brunswick Harriet Irving Library. Pages from the project appear in The Fiddlehead.

Sharing Erasing Frankenstein artwork with an even greater public through publications, public talks and exhibitions allowed participants meaningful participation in public life. It also allowed for a critical engagement with the histories and present realities of the criminal justice system.

Page from ‘Erasing Frankenstein.’ (Elizabeth Effinger)

This is especially important to those incarcerated, many of whom will be released into our communities at the end of their sentences and face the challenges of reintegration, such as being accepted, building networks and finding employment.

In the end, to use Shelley’s famous words, we made our own wonderful “hideous progeny” out of hers.

Greater opportunities should exist for diverse audiences to experience positive, collaborative campus-to-community exchanges.

I hope projects like this encourage the university to see itself as part of a larger community, and to think about the meaningful connections and exchanges that can occur with community partners, including people who are imprisoned.

Publicly showcasing the creative, collaborative work of incarcerated people helps those on the outside hear these marginalized voices in our communities. Such projects are also one way we can redress the lack of attention to prison writing in literary culture.

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