May 12, 2022

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ Legacy Lives Through The Women’s Prison Poetry Project

August 30 is Mary Shelley’s 222nd birthday, a time to reflect on the lasting legacy of her 1818 novel, Frankenstein. It is also an opportunity to reflect on how the researchers celebrated the book on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of its publication.

In 2018, the novel’s main bicentennial celebrations included scholarly projects and events. These included worldwide readings of the full text of the novel, lectures and new editions.

However, some communities have traditionally been excluded from these knowledge creation and commemoration processes. For example, what role have incarcerated people played in the way our culture at large or our academics think about writing or important literature?

In the test Prison Writing / Writing Prison in Canada, Deena Rymhs and Roxanne Rimstead note that “… prisoners’ handwriting is almost entirely absent from the literary archives we are building. Rymhs is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia and Rimstead is Professor in the Department of Arts, Languages ​​and Literatures at the University of Sherbrooke.

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

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

Walls to Bridges Program

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

Walls to Bridges is an academic program that brings together students enrolled on campus (“outside”) and incarcerated students (“inside”) to study together in one-year courses. semester. Each student gets a course credit. (You might think of it as the Canadian equivalent of the American Inside / Out Prison Exchange Program).

In Canada, federal prisons only offer education up to high school. Opportunities for post-secondary and vocational education are scarce because they fall outside the mandate of the Correctional Service of Canada.

Walls to Bridges has offered courses at 10 different universities across Canada and has collected data, including student feedback, on the positive impact of these courses. I realized that most of the courses were in sociology, social work, and criminology. There was interest in the growth of arts-based programs.

Frankenstein in public

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

Why public humanities? By creating an original and collaborative artistic adaptation of Frankenstein, we engaged broad voices from the prison, campus and community. We also hoped to initiate an inclusive and creative corrective to the current exclusion, in both scholarship and literary culture, of the voices of incarcerated women. A definition of public humanities work is as follows:

“… Scholarly or creative activity forming an integral part of the academic domain of a faculty member. It encompasses different forms of knowledge creation about, for and with various audiences and communities. Through a coherent and focused sequence of activities, it contributes to the public good and produces artefacts of public and intellectual value.

It is 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.

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


The participants collectively created what we call the very first adaptation or translation of Frankenstein in a contemporary book-length erasure poem – a poem created based on existing text. Some words are erased or blackened, and only the poem remains.

Well-known examples of erasures include A humum by British artist Tom Phillips, A little white shadow by American author Mary Ruefle and The place of scrap by Nisga’a writer Jordan Abel. Abel’s book uses erasure to develop a new narrative based on the text of an early 20th century ethnographer.

Creating an erasable poem can be a way to approach and comment 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 used creatively to open up new possibilities.

The participants were each responsible for transforming Frankenstein page by page, to make only one and the same collective creation that we have linked. We created individual pages by blackening or coloring words with crayons, pastels, markers, crayons and white ribbon. We have denied all the unwanted words to form a new poem from the remaining words. Then the team selectively collected and rearranged the deleted pages.

To be accepted

Public exhibitions of the completed work were held at the Kitchener Public Library, the Fredericton Public Library and the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick. The project pages appear in The violin head.

Share Clear Frankenstein works of art to an even wider audience through publications, public lectures and exhibitions enabled participants to participate meaningfully in public life. It also allowed for critical engagement with the histories and current realities of the criminal justice system.

Page from ‘Erase Frankenstein.’
(Elisabeth Effinger)

This is particularly important for those in prison, many of whom will be released to our communities at the end of their sentence and will face the challenges of reintegration, such as acceptance, networking and job search.

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

Greater opportunities should exist for various audiences to experience positive and collaborative exchanges between the campus and the community.

I hope that projects like this will encourage the university to see itself as part of a larger community and to reflect on the meaningful connections and exchanges that can occur with community partners, including those in prison.

Showcasing the creative and collaborative work of incarcerated people publicly helps those on the outside hear these marginalized voices in our communities. Such projects are also a way to remedy the lack of attention to prison writing in literary culture.

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