The English PEN Modern Literature Festival will take place over one day at Rich Mix Arts Centre, near Brick Lane, on April 2nd 2016. It will involve 30 English writers, primarily poets writing in the literary or modernist traditions, who will present new works each relating to a writer at risk from around the globe, whom English PEN is currently supporting. It will be a celebration of these writers, in new pieces of literature, a day to take stock of what we have, of what they’ve done, and the achievements of English PEN as an organisation. www.theenemiesproject.com/englishpen
My primary curatorial duty in this project has been to connect the 30 writers from England each to a writer at risk. For many months this process has been discussed with the brilliant people at PEN, and when I received the files on the writers at risk we were going to celebrate, I was just about to board a long flight and so had the chance to read them in one go, over about nine hours, in the strange environs of a plane. It’s hard to describe the feeling afterwards, certainly the sense of responsibility, that I had sought out this project, enthusiastic from the off, but perhaps not truly prepared for the reality of the writers we would be writing about. It’s mawkish to speak of admiration, but come face to face with such will, such commitment to principle, and for it to be so global, to be almost everywhere on our planet, through these 30 human beings who share with us a profession, it left me feeling as ashamed as I was inspired. Perhaps one can never really divorce oneself from the selfish question of whether I would continue to speak up in such circumstance, facing prison, torture, perhaps death. To risk my life and the lives of those I love. The festival will not be a maudlin affair, and no one is suggesting it will create powerful change, but it is important, to me and the other 59 writers connected, if nothing else.
I’m fortunate to have the infrastructure to organise an event like this, with The Enemies Project, having run quite large events which require new work or collaborations from the participating poets almost every time, and this feels, without a doubt, the best use for that infrastructure. I enjoy curating live literature, I think especially in the modernist or avant garde traditions, it’s maybe necessary, to share complex and challenging work with people, consistently, in a welcoming and generous context, and as a poet and artist, to take control of that space where the work is shared. I think it’s an act of community, though I don’t think it more than it is, it is antagonistic to the smallness that can come with writerly solitude or factionalism. The English PEN Modern Literature Festival feels like the most purposeful event I’ve ever put together, for it’s effects, already happening, will not just be to connect underappreciated writers from the UK to oppressed and unbelievably courageous writers in different places, to bring light to those writers, to celebrate them, in London, a global city, where we must always be mindful of the freedoms and luxuries we enjoy. But also because I hope it encourage others, writers and readers alike, of my generation, to join English PEN and to begin investments and connections that might have significant effects on the future of this extraordinary charity, the writers charity, as they battle to maintain our freedom of speech, as they do the job we need doing, long into the future www.stevenjfowler.com/englishpen