News and Interviews

Bradley Peters' Debut Poetry Collection Takes Readers into the Prison Experience & the Systemic Problems Within

Orange and black banner image with the cover of Bradley Peters' poetry collection Sonnets from a Cell. Text reads excerpt Sonnets from a Cell by Bradley Peter. I'm still here, gripping my pen like a shiv. Open Book logo bottom left.

One of the poems in Bradley Peters' Sonnets from a Cell (Brick Books) closes with the musing "A sonnet is not memory. More so/ It is a room the shape of my own face." This lyrical creativity and exploration of where art can take us when we cannot move is woven throughout the collection. 

Presented as "poems for and about the incarcerated", Sonnets from a Cell draws on Peters' time in and out of the Canadian prison system as a teen and young adult, ruminating on the power structures and dehumanizing conditions that he experienced. 

Poet Bradley Peters

Poet Bradley Peters

Stripped down and powerful, the poems are quietly damning of the problematic systems that lead to incarceration while celebrating the desire for forward movement, individuality, and, in all its forms, freedom.

A startling, timely, and immensely readable debut, it's an important addition to the conversation about the capitalistic and systemic inequalities underpinning our prison system and the damage they have wrought on both personal and cultural levels. 

We're sharing an excerpt from Peters' haunting and powerful collection here today courtesy of Brick Books

Excerpt from Sonnets from a Cell by Bradley Peters:

Daydreaming in The Shower Before Lights-Out 

            Ten more minutes, okay? A poem is

            a way of dreaming after what 

            I want and can’t have I don’t even

            know how this thing got here we inherited

            — Sheryda Warrener, Floating is everything


On all damn night. I need to get this out.
In White Rock after the divorce. Smoking
Again. A woman laughs in a sage dress.
Wind holds the drapes out like a dream and sounds
Wash themselves down with lime wedge and more sound.
Why do I return to these same four walls?
To feel free, to let loose. Moonwalk, high kick.
Now who’s on all damn night! Not lost, but twice
I appear on wet sideroads smiling up—
A seagull arcs overhead like floating
is everything—I jog the tide to sea,
I stand drenched from the bath in cool static.
A sonnet is not memory. More so
It is a room the shape of my own face.


Learning to Live

            Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears

            Disappears as if returning somewhere.

            — Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars


The surf, the pier, the river darkening.
Red bell-buoys lashed to timber pilings
Chime softly. Rain hung up like a lost thought.
A fisherman hoses down his boat deck 
With a smoke in his mouth. The tiny flame
Of a beach fire dissolves across the mist. 
I want to learn to live. Seagulls gust up
Like paper scraps alongside Mission Bridge
Long before I am born then long after,
Storm light glinting off wings and everything
Made up of water and stardust. I want
While the cottonwoods laugh into the wind.
A car starts. Cicadas vibrate themselves.
I stand there in the humid air and breathe.



Red Birds

            Perhaps prison itself is seen as a dehumanizing institution, meaning that the longer one serves,
            the more one is seen as lacking humanlike capacities, becoming more like an animal over the course of a prison sentence.19


Red birds staring out, plucking themselves bald.
Red birds on a spiritual retreat.
Red birds tear bibles in half then eat lunch.
Red birds huddle and laugh with hooch-red tongues.
Red birds whiff the singe of mace on raw skin.
Red birds push all-in with twelve ramen packs.
Red birds, barred meds, heed the voice of madness. 
Red birds strut past cell doors, wordless and slow.
Red birds, once freed, fly off into nothing.
Red birds rust-toned with false teeth and moth breath.
Red birds still wince at key chains and flashlights.
Red birds steal steaks to return each winter.
At night they dream. They clack their beaks and flap.
In the hush all their hearts patter like rain. 


Fighting The Hills Have Eyes 

            I remember how the darkness of the blood

            relinquished the darkness of my hands

            and snaked into the darkness of the lake.

            — Rob Taylor, The Other Side of Ourselves


To learn my lesson. I’m here to excel,
I tell myself and step into his room
Ten minutes till lockdown. The blue night-light
Obscures him there like blood in a dark lake.
To stand up tall. To move like fire. I’m here,
Hands held high, red head buzzed. He clips a jab
Off my ear. I whiff a left hook, clinch, slip
Back, huff into his chest, half off the bunk
As each second breaks out in warm fistfuls
Across my skull across rage across fear.
I’m here with his belly between my teeth.
To kick at the darkness. To not get pinned
In these cycles of breathe and just write it.
I’m still here, gripping my pen like a shiv.



A Charm Against Backsliding

            In the criminal justice field, the raw material is prisoners, and industry

            will do what is necessary to guarantee a steady supply.

            — Steven Donzinger, The Real War on Crime


Everything is going to be okay.
Whenever the cell opens and its groan
Hinges on each new mistake recorded,
Stay calm and follow the revolving door.
The terms and conditions of a live wire
Include shame and hard labour for shit pay,
Bad dates, a halfway house with a dirt yard
Where bikes get matte spray paint and come and go.
Everything depends on a tin of butts,
God, kids, or who you ask. Some say structure.
Some, luck. Sometimes a white T and blue jeans
Makes me dance. Sometimes I stay in my room.
The low ceiling, same slow breath, same stillness.
It was the same time last year, the same place.


19 Deska, J.C., Almaraz, S.M., and Hugenberg, K. (2020). “Dehumanizing Prisoners: Remaining Sentence Duration Predicts the Ascription of Mind to Prisoners.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(11), 1614–1627.


Bradley Peters is a poet, actor, and carpenter from Mission, BC. His poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines, has been shortlisted for The Fiddlehead‘s Ralph Gustafson Award, has twice been the runner-up for Subterrain‘s Lush Triumphant Award, and in 2019 placed first in Grain Magazine‘s Short Grain contest. Sonnets from a Cell is his first book.

Buy the Book

Sonnets from a Cell

Moving from riots to mall parkades to church, the poems in Bradley Peters’ debut Sonnets from a Cell mix inmate speech, prison psychology, skateboard slang and contemporary lyricism in a way that is tough and tender, that is accountable both to Peters’ own days “caught between the past and nothing” and to the structures that sentence so many “to lose.” Written behind doors our culture too often keeps closed, this is poetry reaching out for moments of longing, wild joy and grace.

Drawing on his own experiences as a teenager and young adult in and out of the Canadian prison system, Peters has written both a personal reckoning and a damning and eloquent account of our violence- and enforcement-obsessed capitalist and patriarchal cultures.