‘Poetry as Protest’ – LEDBURY POETRY FESTIVAL and English PEN
Throughout this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival (1-10 July), twenty-five poets will be taking part in ‘Poetry as Protest’, a joint initiative to highlight the many poets currently at risk around the world. Each of the poets will read a short poem or extract by the writer with whom they have been paired: through these pairings we seek to build solidarity for poets at risk around the world, and to give a voice to those whom others have sought to silence.
QUOTES FROM PARTICIPATING POETS:
I’m reading some words by Ashraf Fayadh at the festival. Ashraf Fayadh has drawn attention to the excesses of the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, and has been sentenced to 800 lashes and 8 years in gaol. He is also under a demand to publically renounce his poetry. His work looks for moments of beauty and freedom in the everyday. It needs to be heard.
I’m honoured to have been asked to read Mahvash Sabet’s ‘Hello Again’ at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival. Ahead of this, I’ve sent Mahvash a copy of the poems I’ll be reading alongside her work, as well as details of times and time differences. I’m hoping it’s possible that on Saturday 9 July at midday, we’ll be connecting with late afternoon in Evin prison, Tehran.
It is an honour to be representing at Ledbury the Egyptian poet Omar Hazek, who recently emerged from a traumatic period in prison and is now forbidden to travel. My own first collections were inspired by two years spent in Upper Egypt and I am pleased to continue the connection with this troubled country by making British poetry lovers aware of Hazek’s powerful work.
It is very humbling indeed to be representing the imprisoned Iranian poet, Mahvash Sabet at Ledbury. She, like so many prisoners in Iran, was arrested and imprisoned simply because of her religious belief – she is a follower of the Baha’i faith. Sabet writes in one of her Prison Poems, a collection written on scraps of paper which were smuggled out of prison:
“I write if only to stir faint memories of flight in these wing-bound birds, to open the cage of the heart for a moment trapped without words.”
As a writer myself, I have written a good deal about war (through my poetry as well as my plays), most recently in two radio dramas, commissioned by the BBC, about asylum seekers and refugees living in Scotland. My extensive research included interviewing Iranian and Syrian refugees – one who fled from her country due to religious persecution, undergoing an horrific journey in 5 lorries over 40 days, another who has lost seventeen close members of his family, all killed in conflict. We frequently had to stop the interviews, and resume at a later date, so hard was it for the subjects to tell their stories, much as they desperately wanted to. As writers, I believe we must be alert to the world around us. I believe that we bear a responsibility to hear and, if possible, reflect in some way, the stories of our fellow human beings. We must embrace our shared humanity.
I feel humbled and privileged to be reading a poem by Amanuel Asrat at Tongue Fu as part of Poetry as Protest at Ledbury Poetry Festival. To share my writing is a freedom I enjoy and take for granted. To read someone else’s work out loud, who has had that freedom taken from them feels both simple and terribly important. We can be voices for each other.
I’m not sure that I can say anything very helpful or original about what we’re trying to do for these poets, and in particular for Liu Xia.
I’ve seen a brief online video of her reading two of her poems, secretly filmed by American PEN. I found it very moving to hear her voice and see her speaking.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in her situation, under house arrest with her husband in prison, but one of the most painfully affecting aspects of it is her inability to communicate; according to the last information I’ve seen, she’s not even permitted to read letters from her husband or he to read hers. So all we can do is try to speak for her.
I know the value of freedom, the importance of having a voice.
It is crucial to hold in our hearts and minds the voices of those whom are being hurt, incarcerated or otherwise oppressed as a result of their words, their expression.
I feel honoured to be paired with the poet Liu Xia at Ledbury Poetry Festival and given the opportunity to share her voice and her story.
I am grateful to English PEN for their crucial work to defend and promote freedom of expression and highlight cases such as that of Liu Xia.
The English PEN and Ledbury ‘Poetry as Protest’ initiative – to show solidarity with writers at risk and raise public awareness of persecuted poets around the world – is vital. If poets don’t speak out for other poets who speak truth to power, who will? I am honoured to read at Ledbury a poem by Liu Xia, a founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre. She has been under extra-legal house arrest since her husband, imprisoned poet Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. As she says in one of her poems, “Gunfire of twenty years ago decided your life…/ You are in a closed room while your voice breaks out.. /You are… accompanying the souls of the dead,/ You have made a promise to seek the truth with them.” We should all support her in that promise to seek the truth.
Hearing of our fellow poet’s tragedy is a wake up call for us as privileged poets in the West to see beyond our own work and appreciate the terror that the work of our peers can cause.
The world is so much smaller than we imagine it to be, and we can’t ignore the plight of those suffering for simply using their voice or their pen- to write or tell stories is the very bedrock of a civilisation; civilisation itself cannot be imprisoned , we must keep saying their names aloud.
I’ve been having a conversation while tending my herbs. The conversation is with Liu Xia, with whom I’ve been partnered by English Pen. I speak with her as I carry out to the garden outside the back door bowls of water saved from going down the kitchen drain, something my mother taught me in Cape Town. Though I now live where there’s plenty of rain, it seems everywhere is Cape Town, so the water from rinsing oranges and rice runs into large and small bowls. Look, I say, the chives have sent out purple flowers, and the mint in the pot has come back after all. Water darkens the soil next to them, around them. Moss and lavender are fanning out despite the winter’s drought, the rhododendron flowers are shrinking into the buds of next year’s flowers, and the chillies and tomatoes have green shoots so like each other. I laugh because I’m only seeing metaphors, my friend, but the small stones under our knees says that the world is not here to tell us things.
Gabeba Baderoon I have written one of Mahvash Sabet;s prison poems on a china plate, which I will display and read from during my 20 minute slot at Ledbury. China is given as a traditional gift for a 20-year anniversary, and is a symbol of many things including sustenance, class and smashing in celebration. Mahvash’s poem plate will symbolise celebration for Ledbury’s 20th anniversary, the courage of Mahvash’s spirit, and the fragility of humanity.