Change of Perspective

Laurel Bastian proves the power of poetry

Ask Laurel Bastian where to find great poets, and her answer may surprise you.

“There are probably more writers in prison than any other space in the world,” she says.

Bastian, one of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing’s emerging artist fellows this year and a faculty member at Madison College, teaches at the Oak Hill men’s correctional institution. She began while earning an MFA at UW–Madison and found ready students in the inmates.

“The arts is something that does not occur in correctional facilities,” she says. “But it’s really integral.”

Bastian allows her students to share their work and offers feedback if they request it. Yet the most dramatic benefit of the
program is something she didn’t predict.

“When it feels most successful for me is when we’re not talking about craft,” she says. “This is the only space that’s safe for them that they don’t have to keep up a front.”

Bastian has brought in other writers to teach, and this fall they plan to offer five classes ranging from advanced poetry to Afro American studies to playwriting. And she recently started a monthly reading series, Crosshatxh, to bring together different groups within Madison’s writing community.

Both projects emphasize the impact writing can have on changing perspectives.

“You can see them in a different way and they can see each other in different ways,” she says. “It’s absolutely incredible what can come out of that.”

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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