It rarely happens that what we have planned works exactly as it we would wish or hope, simply because there are too many other factors involved which we need to take into account, which we need to weigh up as best we can and which, often, we have no notion of whatsoever. When it comes to raising children, those who have been around us from their birth onwards and who we think we know inside out, this is especially true. They grow, they mature, they begin to have secrets from us and, hopefully, friends who, of course, bring all of their ideas and upbringing into the equation. I suspect, looking back on things, none of us can really be the parent we wanted to be no matter what we do. But is that such a bad thing? I mean, a child must be able to find its own way in the world against all adversity, as well as when things work out for them, and if we plan and ensure that all is fine and dandy, they will never learn how to stand up for themselves, how to be independent, how to plan and adapt in good and bad times. And sometimes we are more present in a child’s mind, in their actions and thoughts, as we imagine; exerting influence without physically being there. I don’t mean on the level of a mother shouting ‘just wait until your father gets home’, but on a better level, the one of good influences and example.

That last may seem strange, but you have to see it from the other perspective: a youngster knows when someone has done something wrong and can see the result of such an action. If we, as adults, do something wrong and are punished for it, that serves as much as an example to a child as when we do something right and get rewarded. And when we are not there, when we only hear about what has happened, is happening, and know that there is little or nothing we do can to improve matters, to change a course of events, to comfort or reassure, we feel something quite different. This feeling is both an emotion and a desire for action, coupled with realisation. The realisation is that we, being where we are, cannot help, cannot intervene, cannot comfort. This does not bring an immediate desire for violence, as in the case of the temporarily lost cell phone, but one of intense frustration at not being capable of helping, of not being there; and this feeling of impotence and frustration is often misinterpreted as a desire for violent action.

I daresay your reaction, over the cell phone, would have been slightly different had you been there to help: perhaps you’d have searched the rooms where the children had been playing; perhaps, as I have done, you’d have telephoned the missing instrument – assuming that it had not been set to vibrate, or turned off in the meantime – so that it would give its own hiding place away. These are things you cannot do when you’re not there, perhaps things you assume someone else would have done. You also cannot speak direct to the people involved, see their faces, assess whether they are telling the truth or not, and this all leads to a massive build-up in frustration, especially when we’re talking about such an expensive item. It is, I suspect, this frustration at not being able to react and bring about a solution which you were feeling, and not a desire to be violent. Frustration often brings out a need to hit something, to vent our frustration on an inanimate object, to let the build-up of energy fly out through destructive action. This is a reaction, through, the violence tendency or desire is not the initial feeling. And, of course, being frustrated in your position is hardly something which would come as a surprise. There is no waiting until later to sort out a problem, there are no chances to talk things over. You have a very limited time to listen to one side of a story and draw your own conclusions, and that one side is automatically biased, whether intentionally or not.

What is needed here is not personal feelings of failure: you haven’t failed to keep violent tendencies in check; you haven’t failed your child or yourself. You are in a position where you can do nothing but offer advice, supposing g that there is enough time allotted for advice to be given and, of course, supposing that you are given unbiased facts and information. What is needed here is the realisation that you cannot change events, and should leave it to someone else. This is difficult, it takes time, but it is possible. The knowledge that you cannot be personally involved is already there. The knowledge that not every possible avenue to a resolution has been explored is also there. What is needed is trust, that the other people involved will do the right thing, and patience. And, naturally, the knowledge that other people will take their responsibilities seriously and so what you cannot do at the moment: raising a child is more for those who are present, and not something that they can just push onto the back burner because it doesn’t suit them at any given moment.

I have no idea what the regulations on earning are in your facility, I know that most other States forbid an inmate from earning anything other than what they are paid for work within a prison complex. That said, it isn’t always necessary to earn money from a talent or similar personally. I know that the British Poetry Society lists upward of two thousand small presses which publish works of short fiction and poetry within a very specialised marketplace, and I am sure there must be something similar in the United States, either the American Poetry Society or the Academy of American Poets would have a listing. I know that the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) is constantly looking for submissions for their online magazine Margins, which does not pay for publication as far as I know, but which can also be formal style. There are both poetry publishers, for individual works, and chapbook publishers, for collections, but some of these will require financial support from the author – which is not the same as vanity publishing, in this case, since most poets of great note paid for their original works to be published, from Goethe and Browning through Dickinson and Tennyson down to more modern-day writers. The only drawback I can see with the AAWW is that you need to have internet access in order to open an account and submit works, but there are many others out there.

Yes, publication can depend on relatability for both the reader and those marketing a work, but that doesn’t mean a work specific to your own situation wouldn’t work. It is fair to say – despite all the statistics we see – most people in the United States, and possibly a higher fraction of poetry readers, would not have any experience similar to those you have. Poetry should be able to create an image in the reader’s mind just as a good novel or short story should, but in a much shorter space, in a more compact format. Being specific can also be a very good thing, if it draws the reader into the work, creates this image in their mind, opens up their thoughts to something they have never experienced before. Changing something because of the possibility other people might not understand through a lack of experience is like telling a child they don’t need to eat their greens because, not having tried them before, the child claims not to like them. A work should entice the reader to step outside of their own comfort zone, to experience something they have never thought of before, something they have never personally seen at first hand, and show them through their own imagination what you wish to say. Remember, if we did not have such works, movements such as the Impressionists and Dada wouldn’t exist simply because they were different, specific, and no one had experienced them before.

I could take it to another more personal level and point you in the direction of my own letter writing: do you think I’d have started writing such letters, in my position back in the Eighties as a serving soldier, in my normal style and with my normal quotations and references if I’d thought about what normal means for everyone else? The idea of poetry, exactly as with letter writing, is to challenge people into a reaction. Fair enough, my challenge is that they reply and that doesn’t apply to poetry. However, poetry should make people think, should throw them out of the ordinary and into something else, specific or otherwise. The challenge is different, unless you take it down to the very basic level: letter writing and poetry when done properly should force people to think. If they don’t, then we might just as well consider them to be limericks and paste them on the side of cornflake boxes.

The idea of these ‘I am…’ signs interests me, but I have long since put a very different slant to their meaning. Initially they were supposed to show support, even when some of those supported hardly deserved it, or turned against their supporters later and made matters even worse. Now I suspect that we can leave the empathy to one side, the idea that ‘I am…’ is a relationship between an incident and a person  or group of people. Today I see it more as a ‘there but for the grace of God…’. These are incidents which could have happened to anyone at any time: Las Vegas, between your letter and mine, is the perfect example. Tens of thousands of people together, and the (almost) unthinkable happens. What I would much prefer to see is a little bit of honesty and clear thinking, and some positive action against a system which not only allows such a monstrosity, but almost seems to demand it as justification for its own existence.

And I write that it is (almost) unthinkable because, for me, it is just a matter of time before the next one crops up, before another maniac opens fire somewhere, or explodes a bomb in a crowded area, and we reach triple figures for dead and I fear – which is perhaps wrong since I am almost certain – that still, no matter how many fall, nothing will be done. If the deaths of twenty children in Sandy Hook Elementary School isn’t enough to wake people up and get the government to take some positive action, the fifty-nine in Las Vegas, or hundreds elsewhere, won’t be enough either.

But this is another example of something specific which many wish to overlook, especially the elected officials who have the power to make a change. No matter who you approach, they will have an answer to questions which does not answer the question, which avoids it, which attempts to move the game play elsewhere and divert attention to some other fact or incident. And here, certainly from my point of view, is another example of how frustration builds up and why, eventually, so many turn away from convincing, fact-based and sensible argument, to violence.

Both kings and philosophers defecate, and ladies too.

So writes Michel de Montaigne, and then:

And yet in the dirtiest functions is it not somewhat excusable to require more care and cleanliness?

Some people seem to feel they are above everyone else and try to hide their true natures but, as de Montaigne says, we are all the same underneath, and we should all require the same cleanliness, the same diligence and honourable actions, whether a person is a street cleaner or king. None of us should need to have to hold up an ‘I am…’ sign, if only those in a position to change would take the appropriate action and do the job they were elected to.

My own personal recommendation would be to remain true to yourself, to keep your own writing style and, if that is what you wish to do, if that is the form of your writing, keep being specific. There have been far too many writers in the past who have tried to change to meet market forces, or what they are told are market forces, and either make as better living or tap into a better niche, and lost out as a result. Which, clearly, is why some people write under more than one name.