This event, organised by Letters With Wings, was dedicated to the women artists Chimengul Awut (award-winning Uyghur poet) and Nûdem Durak (a folk-musician of Kurdish origin who is a political prisoner in Turkey).
Participants included: Lia Mills (Chair of Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann), Catherine Dunne, Celia de Fréine, Kate Ennals, Moyra Donaldson, Evgeny Shtorn, Gianluca Costantini (activist, cartoonist and visual artist), Antje Stehn (Rucksack, A Global Poetry Patchwork), Simone Theiss (Westminster and Bayswater Amnesty International Group) and Letters with wings’ poet members Nandi Jola, Csilla Toldy and Viviana Fiorentino. It was a powerful, inspirational evening and a great privilege to be involved at all.
(With thanks to the Imagine! Belfast Festival & its production staff: Richard, Emma, Gillian)
First, I want to acknowledge the horrific circumstances and the courage of the two women who this event has been set up to honour, Chimengul Awut and Nudem Durak. I also want to acknowledge what’s happening in Myanmar, where poets and artists are included among the hundreds of people imprisoned and killed during unarmed protests. Other readers will read the work of Burmese poets tonight, I leave that to them.
We take so much for granted, including the simple ability to dial into an event like this and speak freely, without fear of detention, or torture, or the fear of losing everything, our jobs, our homes, our lives.
You might ask, what difference can an event like this make? What is their point? If we are free to speak and other people aren’t, how does one of those facts meet the other?
At its most basic level, an event such as this introduces us to people we might otherwise never hear about – people just like us, except that they live in more oppressive, authoritarian states; people whose freedom can be taken away because they write or say or paint what they think.
What you do with the knowledge you gain here is up to you. The problem might seem too big for ordinary individuals to solve. But one positive step you can take is to decide to write to someone who is in prison, tonight. Maybe someone whose words you will meet for the first time in the next hour.
You may never know the difference your letter makes, but the testimonies of prisoners whose cases are monitored by PEN International tell us that a note or a card from a complete stranger can make the difference between light and darkness in a prison cell, just as art and literature can.
PEN International was founded on the principle of goodwill and fellowship among people who care about literature and the freedom of expression on which democracy depends. One of the things PEN has become known for is that its members write letters to writers and artists who have been imprisoned because of their work. The same principle is behind Letters With Wings, who have organised this event. (You might consider joining either or both of us.)
So one thing an event like this can do is to tell you – who are listening – about some of these courageous writers and activists and, importantly, encourage you to reach out and support someone who has been deprived of the kind of freedom we take for granted.
Prisoners report that such letters make all the difference to them during the unending, worrying days when they are cut off from family, friends, their future. It helps to know that people in the wider world know where they are and pay attention to what happens to them. It helps to remember that there is a wider world, waiting for their return.
One question we have been asked to address here is: Why do some governments fear the arts?
I think it’s because the arts nurture and express human faculties that can’t be obliterated by any external force or authoritarian regime: the imagination, the ability to empathise with other people; the capacities for love, hope, faith, idealism. The arts express what it is to be human in our time and place, and that brings news not everyone wants to hear, news that certain governments in particular want to suppress. So they bring in censorship, intimidation, vexatious lawsuits, punitive laws.
They can try to suppress artistic freedom along with every other kind, but with art that’s harder to do – because the work art does is not always out in the open. Art doesn’t just live in the moment when an image is seen, understood and felt, or when a poem is read. Much of it happens in our minds and hearts, in our imaginations. It takes root in us. It lives on when the moment has passed. You can’t imprison a story, or kill a song.
I’m going to read some examples that demonstrate the extraordinary resilience and power that prisoners find in literature. The writing they continue to do against overwhelming odds is not bitter, or negative; it’s not about recrimination or hatred. These voices soar, they are free. They rise far above their immediate circumstance and call us to join them, if we dare.
To illustrate the principle, here is a poem by Eva Gore Booth, a passionate advocate of the principles of non-violence, written in 1918 to her sister Constance (Markievicz) who was in prison. The sisters had an arrangement that they would think about each other at the same time every day. The poem says that even when we are separated by prison walls, we can reach each other.
The peaceful night that round me flows,
Breaks through your iron prison doors,
Free through the world your spirit goes,
Forbidden hands are clasping yours.
The wind is our confederate,
The night has left her doors ajar,
We meet beyond earth’s barred gate,
Where all the world’s wild Rebels are Eva Gore-Booth, Broken Glory 1918
Next I’ll read a poem by Ilhan Sami Çomak. Imprisoned in Turkey at the age of 22, 27 years ago. Ilhan is held in solitary confinement.
27 years. Alone in a cell.
What could he possibly write about? Life, love, light and colour. His mind, his imagination, his words are free. PEN Norway/Norsk PEN are running a brilliant campaign for Ilhan, which includes people writing poems for him, to which he responds with poems of his own. I urge you to visit the website and learn more (details in the chat).
What Good is Reading Poetry?
It’s good for making hands fine enough to touch silk
And for feeling the moment that stone turns impatient
It’s good for looking in the eyes of hungry cats
And extending curiosity out among all animals
It is the darkness that makes my night voice heard
And makes it easier to say ‘the moon will come up late’
For years my feet have been cold, so cold
When I say this, it helps me compare winter to snow
Spring will begin today, I know
Reading poetry helps me believe that feeling
It reminds me I don’t miss the Istanbul bustle
Lets me know things to tell my love in a letter
When I’m tired, to stop and rest, not to drink water when I sweat,
It helps me to cry and fret over wildfires, over death
To know anger’s reserved just for evil
To stop and ask forgiveness of women
To feel youth when young, to understand it later on,
It’s good for helping me to sit and write new poems
Good for helping me seduce and flatter
Then to kiss my love when the leaves turn yellow
Ilhan Sami Çomak
Translated by Caroline Stockford (reproduced with permission)
And finally, from writer and journalist Ahmet Altan, currently serving a 10 ½ year sentence in Turkey after being in pre-trial detention for over 3 years (he is 71 years old)
From I Will Never See the World Again
‘I am a writer.
I am neither where I am nor where I am not
Wherever you lock me up I will travel the world with the wings of my infinite mind.
Besides, I have friends all around the world who help me travel, most of whom I have never met.
Each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets. They host me quietly in their houses, in their halls, in their rooms.
I travel the whole world in a prison cell.
I am writing this in a prison cell.
But I am not in prison.
I am a writer.
I am neither where I am nor where I am not.
You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here.
Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.’
(Granta. pp. 211-2)
And that, I think, is exactly why certain governments fear the arts.
Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann: www.irishpen.com (Website under revision, please be patient. Current campaigns are listed under “News”)
PEN International: https://pen-international.org/
Free the Poet (Ilhan Sami Çomak) https://ilhancomak.com/
Ahmet Altan I Will Never See the World Again (Granta, 2019)
Eva Gore Booth poem: “Comrades” from Broken Glory. Maunsel, 1918.