English PEN

I've been a proud member of English PEN for a number of years, and in 2016 I have the privilege of curating the English PEN Modern Literature Festival, where 30 English writers celebrate 30 writers at risk, currently supported by English PEN.

For all the information on that event, visit  www.theenemiesproject.com/englishpen


The Club : a poem for Khadija Ismayilova

To be too loud like a bulletclub that cannot touch us. Keep quiet.

They are like snakes, beasts, gorillas – masters. 
Very brave, at the top of the trees, but a matter of death and life on the jungle floor.

That is just how it is – surround, surrender, our family - livers swelled, keeping us afloat.

Where we sleep, we’re the same. Where we sleep, you may sleep too,
benefiting the world, a world war bonus. Secret trade of arms, you will receive what is given.

There is light beyond the end of tunnel. That is the soundtrack of cloth burning,
but the light that creates, but the smell it causes,
           one fades quietly, the other stays in the curtains,
but the letters that stand, that will stay
but the fear, but the fog, solid
but the washing of resources, people, stamps, houses in Hampstead,
            which is bearable, is possible, to know
something more than nothing, spraying on the free.

I need not money, but people.
Knowing, the young, hungry hanging, I want you to return here
to see you come back, without the top of boots and bottom of swords.

A low level pedestal,
towering above us, sleeping through.

Something in sense has happened. Give us papers, allow her in.
I can’t imagine the place, and it being strange as storage,
             as a future contribution against nations doing terrible things.

Always later than is thought, food as manners, love as club,
parents as the waiting good, courage as the hospitality
to further good that deserves gratitude
                 and means something.


On Khadija Ismayilova

An extraordinarily brave journalist, Khadija ismayilova was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in September 2015. I'll be writing a new series of poems about her situation and the courage she's shown throughout her career, and I'll be collaborating with the video artist Joshua Alexander to produce a short new piece celebrating Khadija.

Below are multiple resources for more information about Khadija, but none express her resilience and bravery better than her own Letter from Azerbaijani prison, available to read in full on the PEN America site http://www.pen.org/advocacy/letter-azerbaijani-prison#overlay-context=2015-pen-goodale-freedom-expression-courage-award

"We also constantly ask ourselves where are we going, and what will we get in the end? In Kurdakhani prison, where I am now, the usual answer is three to five or five to twelve years in jail. But my answer is that there is no end. The fight between good and evil goes on, and the most important thing is that this fight should not end. If we can continue to reject the thinking that is imposed on us and believe that human dignity is not for sale, then we are the winners, and they, our jailers both inside and outside prison, are the losers. Prison is not frightening for those trying to right a twisted scale, or for those who are subject to threats for doing the right thing. We see clearly what we must fight for."

The Khadija Project - An amazing resource detailing, and continuing, Khadija's work has been set up https://www.occrp.org/freekhadijaismayilova/ which includes this article on Khadija herself https://www.occrp.org/freekhadijaismayilova/ Khadija Ismayilova knew she didn’t have to go to prison. But in her mind, her only other option was to exile herself from her native Azerbaijan.

From PEN America  http://www.pen.org/defending-writers/khadija-ismayilova

On September 1, 2015, Khadija Ismayilova was convicted on charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power in a closed-door trial and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. Her lawyers are expected to appeal the decision. On November 25, an Azerbaijani appellate court upheld the guilty verdict against Ismayilova, confirming her sentence. Ismayilova was acquitted on a previous charge of inciting a colleague to suicide after the accuser recanted his allegation. Khadija Ismayilova is the winner of the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

Case History - Khadija Ismayilova, 38, is an award-winning freelance reporter who has worked for various Azeri-, Russian-, and English-language news outlets. She is an outspoken advocate for press freedom and human rights in Azerbaijan and has repeatedly called for the release of dozens of detained and imprisoned Azeri journalists . Her most high-profile journalism work has been with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), where she worked from 2008 to 2010 as bureau chief and later as a staff reporter. Despite the highly oppressive and government-controlled media environment in Azerbaijan, Ismayilova published several investigative pieces in international outlets exposing official corruption—including reports on alleged embezzlement, secret mining interests, and illegal business ownership by President Ilham Aliyev and his family...


On curating English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2016

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.

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