Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.
The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy: Continue reading “Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda”
In March, I was honoured and delighted to be asked to give the keynote speech at the University of Roehampton’s Creative Writing Soiree, an annual evening of fiction, memoir and poetry readings done by the English and Creative Writing students. The suggested title of my talk was ‘The Writer in the World’ which gave me the chance to speak about creativity, literature and the work of English PEN in broader and grander terms than the speeches I am usually asked to give.
I confess to being quite pleased with the end result. Not, I must stress, in the delivery, which comes across as extemporised rather than pre-planned. But rather, the broad idea of what it means to be a ‘writer in the world’ and the pragmatic suggestions for how one might go about living as such a writer.
The speech included a potted history of English PEN, some thoughts on the moral obligations of free speech, my earliest memories of learning to read, and the grind and grit required to be ‘creative’. Its a good statement of what I believe. Continue reading “The Writer in the World”
My colleague Cat Lucas and I sat down with Paul McMenemy, editor of the Lunar Poetry Magazine, to tell their podcast listeners about the work of English PEN. We discussed imprisoned Saudi poet Ashraf Fayad, how blogging is the 21st century version of pamphleteering, and how British poets might show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice at the same time.
You can listen on the Lunar Poetry website, via YouTube or judt hit the play button on the embedded podcast below. Continue reading “Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry”
During my time working for English PEN I’ve often used the phrase ‘literary campaigning’ to describe our particular style of activism. Its a term that probably seems self evident: we use literature to draw attention to the situation of writers at risk. For example, we might read the writing of an imprisoned poet outside an embassy, or stage a world-wide reading at multiple locations around the world.
Its an approach that has value for several reasons. Not only is it non-violent, but it is also not particularly hostile or antagonistic to those who have imprisoned the writer or who are responsible for their persecution. So it has a diplomatic quality.
It also a fantastic act of solidarity for the embattled writer. Where they have been entirely censored through imprisonment (or even death) it is a way to give them a voice and restore to them some sort of expression. Continue reading “Literary Campaigning at its Best”
Meanwhile, in Qatar, this free speech outrage:
A Qatari poet has been sentenced to life in prison for inciting the overthrow of the government of Qatar and insulting the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his son, the crown prince, reports say.
The verdict is likely to prove an embarrassment for Qatar which has worked hard to cultivate a progressive, modern image, and is currently playing host to a major international climate change conference.
The charges relate to a poem that 37-year-old Mohammed al-Ajami, a father of four, recited in 2010 before a small, private audience in his flat in Egypt. One audience member subsequently posted the poem online.
Al-Jazeera (a channel that yrstrly appeared on earlier this year) is funded by the same Emir Sheikh Hamad and has not yet covered the story, which is a glaring omission that undermines its otherwise growing reputation.
I think Al-Jazeera English (based in London) should take a leaf out of the BBC handbook, and start scrutinising this journalistic omission on the part of its head office in Doha. That would be very much in the spirit of the current media moment.