English PEN Modern Literature Festival

I've been a proud member of English PEN for a number of years, and in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 I've the privilege of curating the English PEN Modern Literature Fest, 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 / Please join English PEN You can join English PEN http://www.englishpen.org/membership/join/ and if you are a writer, poet, artist, scholar, academic, reader or someone who is passionate about defending our fundamental freedom of expression in the UK and around the world, please take the time to do so and become a part of the future of this extraordinary organisation.

The English PEN Fest V at Greenwich Book Festival - June 15th 2019

Sara Upstone nearly made me cry. I felt my voice quivver a tiny bit as I wrapped up this event, giving props to the remarkable Cat Lucas, whom everyday sees, hears and gets emailed about writers suffering for principle and freedom across the world everyday. I said I felt we were all visitors in her world, and she was a visitor in theirs. But Sara, her piece for Dawit Isaak, it did exactly what I hoped this mini-fest event would do when I conceived of it a few years back. It neither collapsed on itself with self-referential guilt nor swung past the truth of Dawit’s life and struggle. It was something entirely new, complex, dense, celebratory and powerful sad. It was poignant and beautiful but in no way sentimental (the thing I dislike the most in these contexts, just after the endless apologies people make for their own lack of suffering, a kind of ungratefulness to my ears).

The whole event was like this. It was considered and serious, and yet playful and mindful. The environment, thanks to Sam Jordison, whose own piece was powerful and personal and brilliant, was a busy literary festival on a warm summer saturday, and we were in a lecture theatre. But all the context drifted away for an hour as Ellen Wiles, James Miller, Paul Ewen, Sam himself and Sara read pieces for authors around the world.

You can find more about the fest and all the videos from the event (https://greenwichbookfest.com/event/english-pen-writers-at-risk/ ) here on the Enemies Project website www.theenemiesproject.com/englishpen

For my own performance I nailed fruit and then ate it nailed with a black bag on my head while improvising some words about what Oleg Sentsov’s gesture of resistance, and life in general means to me. The principle that we might not be brave when called, and that even if, at first flush we may feel courage, it normally dissipates as reality sets in. This is an idea I have thought about my whole life. That it is easy to be what you hope to be when the weather is fair, but character is what happens when you realise days in you will be forgotten and your suffering, no matter how representative, symbolic or important, if yours alone. The man, Oleg Sentsov, is a giant. He has a giant soul. He embarrasses me into gratitude for my life, and that there seems no question on the horizon for my own principles like the one he has quite unbelievably answered.

Hello! - A note by Sam Jordison on the 4th English PEN ModLitFest : Jan 2019

Not long ago, I attended an event held to raise awareness of English Pen and writers who are currently being held in prisons around the world. I had been asked to speak about a woman calledNarges Mohammadi, a woman who was sent to jail for being a member of an organisation called “Step by  Step to Stop the Death Penalty” and for  “committing propaganda against the state.” One of the main focusses of that propaganda campaign was to stop the state killing juvenile offenders. Kids, in other words. She wanted to protect children. 

I could talk about this case for a long time, as well as the trials this woman  has undergone in jail - but it's probably more productive if you have a look for yourself at theweb pagesher supporters have set up for her - and also if you have a look on theEnglish Pen website. If you like, you can also look at the talk I gave byclicking on this link. There you'll also see several other videos, each one of them moving and important. I'd especially urge you to look at the talk by Steven Fowler, who asked the troubling question of what it is about these writers that makes them speak out? Why don't they stay at home, have an easy life, protect themselves and their families? Why can't they shrug off injustice and oppression like most other people tend to do? Could we really blame them if they opted instead for safety? Could we even blame them, instead, for being so bloody difficult?

There's clearly something about some writers, isn't there? They can't shut up. They won't shut up. If you're doing something wrong, they'll tell you - and if that rebounds on them, well, that's the price of truth. 

I realised when Steve was speaking that every single Galley Beggar writer would be in jail if faced with the right (actually, let's call it 'wrong') kind of oppression. I felt a faint flicker of amusement at the thought of trying to encourage Preti Taneja and Alex Pheby and Lucy Ellmann to keep quiet and do as they are told, but mostly, I felt pride and horror. Pride, for obvious reasons. Horror because of the realisation that those writers who are in jail probably have a great deal in common with our friends here, who have given us so much through their books and their lives. 

And I have to tell you that because you read this newsletter, and because you've read this far, you're probably in the awkward club too. So, I salute you, comrade! But I guess that my saying that you might also find yourself on the wrong end of the long stick of an absurd law is really another way of saying that English Pen is a fine organisation and it deserves our support. They're looking out for people like us, after all. Ijoined upafter speaking for Narges and it felt good. 

The third time I have curated this mini-fest alongside / for English PEN, whereby contemporary English writers present works written in tribute to a writer who is part of the Writer's at Risk programme, writers living under oppression around the world. http://www.englishpen.org/ This time we slightly scaled down the rather grand one day festivals of past years, bringing it to Kingston and the historic All Saints Church, as part of my Writers Centre Kingston programme.

8 authors presented pieces of writing, some new, some from past years. The spirit was one of considered celebration, of sadness, in places, of frustration, but moving beyond the somewhat stifling requirement at the heart of the event, asking authors who are generally safe and sound to speak about those who are not, and who are not because they chose, in most cases, to refuse silence. This contradiction has often led to overloading, with writers unable to express themselves, stopped up by a kind of shame. But in a more intimate setting, with a group students, volunteers and local people watching on, this felt more like a community taking note, making sure there was something, instead of nothing, to mark out those suffering were being thought of. All the videos are here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2LmXtC6HArB9k2QSLWQGJA/videos

A real highlight for me this year is that it spawned Kingston University's first Student PEN Centre, led by Alan Boyce. I'm happy to say this relationship will continue and next year's English PEN festival will be just as good I'm sure.

There's a nice report of the event here too, by Tice Cin https://www.englishpen.org/campaigns/english-pen-modern-literature-festival-2018/ 


Writers poets, novelists, playwrights and artists come together to continue English PEN's relationship with innovative contemporary literature. Each of the ten British writers will present poetry, text, reportage, performance on the day. The new works celebrate and evidence the struggle of fellow writers around the world, in solidarity.

The event is intended as a call to membership for writers, artists and readers in a time where we face perilous challenges to our freedom of expression and fundamental rights and hard fought liberties, both internationally and here in the UK. As the world changes so remarkably, and so rapidly, and on a global scale, it is vital the political will of our time and this generation of young, dynamic writers is directed purposefully to the work of English PEN, the writer's charity. The hope is this festival, away from creating new members of PEN, begins involvements and connections which will have exponential resonance for decades to come. www.theenemiesproject.com/englishpen  Curated by SJ Fowler and Cat Lucas.

Please join English PEN You can join English PEN here http://www.englishpen.org/membership/join/ and if you are a writer, poet, artist, or someone who is passionate about defending our fundamental freedom of expression in the UK and around the world, please take the time to do so and become a part of the future of this extraordinary organisation.

A note after the second English PEN Modern Literature Festival - April 8, 2017

An extraordinary day at Rich Mix, surrounded by around thirty poets and artists, the remarkable staff of English PEN, a handful of volunteers and all told, over a few hundred people watching on. I arrived around noon, to soundcheck and set up the theatre space where the performances would take place, and i left the building, conversations still beginning and growing behind me, around eleven hours later. Exhausting, physically, of course, but resonant in every way, from the originality and range of approaches to the deliberately overwhelming task facing the English writers, to the evocation of those we were celebrating, always somehow present, both comforting and confrontational to ourselves.

This last part cannot be escaped, and again, as last year, it did fold in on some of those presenting their work. More than once it was said into the microphone, 'I couldn't write poetry about this', or something to that effect. With this I respectfully take issue. Indelicacy, obstinacy, clumsiness - these are at work whenever some experience in the world is rendered in words, always failing to grasp the thing, always lessening. It is not true that someone's sacrifice or pain when reflected upon in text is made worse. It is true that bad poetry will perhaps, lightly, do this, seem insulting to the profundity of the thing it seeks to literally describe. But no one in this festival thinks with such formulaic reduction and for the most part the work that was shared was most powerful when oblique, evocative, strange, menacing and beautiful in its idiosyncrasy. We had Chloe Spicer for Dina Meza, with her imaginary cut out friends, bounding into the audience, Hannah Silva for Narges Mohammedi building a soundscape around her poem, Kate Wakeling knotting for Nurmuhemmet Yasin. We had Nelson Aguilera's son in the audience, approaching Jeremy Noel Tod just before he began to present a piece for his father. All the performances can be seen on the site here http://www.theenemiesproject.com/englishpen and I would urge a perusal of this resource, it carries some of the spirit of this very special, very intense day.

It almost goes without saying that I hope this happen again, the second festival becoming a tradition in the third. At times one feels hollow, that it is just this, a day of removed solidarity. But this doubt must be expected, embraced, pushed aside, and when Tony White presented his marvelous dialogue with Ahmed Naji, he said what I, deep down, had hoped to hear. He said though it might feel like what you are doing makes no difference, when the writer a continent or ocean away from you, facing censure, oppression and pain, hears of you mentioning them, celebrating them, thinking of them, it gives them great heart. I wish for no more, ever, from any work I should do. From giving another human, if only just one, if only for a moment, an inflection of solidarity, warmth, courage, I am myself encouraged to keep up the little this festival is. 

A note on: my performance at English PEN fest II for Waleed Abul Khair

I was able to achieve an almost complete blackout, and with a torch, usher latecomers into the space, after shining a light into the face of those watching, and read my poems for Waleed by torchlight. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waleed_Abulkhair

The Incident of Smood : a poem for Waleed Abulkhair : for #PENFest 2017

You do not know you have left the open country until unexpectedly, you hear loud speakers, and some dancing.
You are suddenly aware you're already at the centre of the damage.
The shadows behind you are the skeletons of the factories pushed backwards and aside by a giant hand.
What you had thought to be broken rocks is just a concrete house with a furnace.

Otherwise, nothing. A friendly room either just beyond your imagining, or where you actually are.
Feeling for desert poles and loops of wire and touching only sand, and not friends, close and far away,
nor family, a lineage of sorts, nor petitions, yet to be recognised, nor that familial salon, you realise neither will come true soon.

You have blundered into an empty landscape. There is a moment of recognition.
As though running at night, far from artificial light, in a woods. Or something that appears dense as a wood would be.
No trees close enough together in the desert. Wet trees though, climbing prison bars as just atoms, filaments, streaks of paint.

You awake, mouth some words to your bunkmate. Stay cold, sang froid pronounced Sang Froid.
You share tactics to defeat enemies. But lovingly. You share with the smaller, wealthy animals, that eat the smaller, poorer inmates,
a message of hope:

“The human hand is not designed to strike a thing, but pick it up. If something is bad then it must be lifted and removed.
This is a slow process. This is a new kind of human movement. If the bad thing is yours then it will be removed later,
but still, money cannot fix things to a moving rock. The hand can be used to break things, but eventually those pieces will be lifted,
and all the same, moved out of reach."

You wake up as I sleep. and ask, who opened the bloody gate? The king did, I say.

Younger people, with their stores, await you. Your walls are as present to me as these letters of apology.
And as I write, they are built. Their wealth is shape, keeping the meaningless at bay, but not you. 

For what you have done for others shifts solid into liquid.

A note on: curating the 2nd English PEN Modern Literature Festival - March 1, 2017

Such was the resonance and enthusiasm around the first, the second had to come. It feels as though this is the beginning of a tradition. I hope so. There isn't another curatorial activity that has proved to be this engaged and purposeful for me. Once again my role really is to liaise between the brilliant, principled, pragmatic work of those at English PEN, again working closely with the inspiring Cat Lucas, and the thirty writers who have agreed, all of them with great willingness and humble trepidation, to write or perform a new work on April 1st, in service of another author.

Once again my experience was to spend time with authors around the world whose deliberate acts of decency, whose ethical drive, whose fundamental character, has led them directly into the kind of psychological and physical harm that leaves one weaker for knowing of it. To spend such brief time with these people, these peers, and to know in that trifling moment how little I can know of what they and their families are experiencing because of their writing, their journalism, their poetry. And so the English writers have expressed again this feeling of overwhelming responsibility. One so overwhelmingly as to be perhaps prohibitive. And for all its remarkable energy and galvanising intensity this is the one thing I have learnt from last year and that I have tried to pass on to this year. This magnitude is implicit. The authors from England should not apologise for their own fortune and comfort while celebrating the courage of another. They should celebrate them, write for them, to them, with them. They should be as modern, as experimental, as humorous as they are grave. They should take their responsibility to be in the investment aesthetically as well as emotionally. This is not a small detail. It is vital. Because by doing the day itself, by making something where perhaps there would be no connection between two writers across the world, that sense of shame, in a small way is being acknowledged. From that moment on, we must just have them in our minds, spread the word of their work and their actions, keep things alive.

Some extraordinary writers are involved this year, you can see the full list below or on www.theenemiesproject.com/englishpen. The event is free, in three parts. What I hope happens is what I hoped for when we initially hatched the idea. Nothing impossible, nothing utopian. The create more members of English PEN, so that the political will of this time is directly forcefully behind the writers charity, who have the expertise, who are on the front lines of absolutely vital battlegrounds in our time, from surveillance to free speech, while also being a light in the dark for many writers abroad, thirty of whom we will celebrate on April 1st.

My performance for Khadija Ismayilova and my appearance on BBC Azeri World Service

İngilis şair: “Mən Xədicənin şəxsiyyətinə heyranam” 2 Aprel 2016

Yeni nəsil yazıçılara diqqət ayırmaq və eyni zamanda “risk altında olan yazıçılara” diqqəti cəlb etmək məqsədilə keçirilən festivalda çıxış edən şairlər, dünyanın müxtəlif yerlərində həbsdə olan şair və yazıçılara həsr etdikləri şeirlərini oxuyublar.
Çağdaş ingilis şairi olan Steven J. Fowler çıxışını Azərbaycanda həbsdə olan jurnalist Xədicə İsmayılovaya həsr edib.
Vüsal Həmzəyevin reportajı. http://www.bbc.com/azeri/multimedia/2016/04/160402_modern_literature_festival

A blog by SJ Fowler after the Festival - April 13th 2016

One of my proudest days as a curator. Not because I had achieved anything myself, but because, at the end of 25 performances, six hours of poetry & performance and a fair few hundred people coming and going, it was clear the simple act of organising something between people, a simple act of emails, could create a feeling of purpose exponentially larger than the sum of its parts. 

A huge gratefulness stays with me, for the wonderful, generous staff of English PEN, and for the many poets in the room at Rich Mix throughout April 2nd, and around the world, whom were being celebrated in absentia, for their courage and relentless strength of character and purpose.

The sense of responsibility each of the poets and writers felt to their respective charges, the writers at risk currently supported by English PEN whom they had been asked to write about, threatened to overwhelm each and every work. But it never did tip, never spilled into sentimentality or fragility. I truly believe that difficult, complex, intellectual artworks, poetry, maintains a necessary intensity of focus and agility of method to be created and understood, and this kind of work is then best suited to celebrate / evoke the same tragedy of injustice and overloading of guilt and pain we feel at the suffering of others. Fellow writers specifically here, but in general, beyond that. It is best suited to satirise, to send love, to call out - it is something ambiguous and terrifying we were all writing about, and none of us tried to escape our own place in that. We needed to be innovative to not simply condense these feelings into didactic speeches or calls to ethics we all knew we shared anyway. In that sense, for me, it was a comforting day. For others, perhaps challenging. But for me, it was comforting, for I was surrounded by great intelligence, great humility, a collective assuredness of purpose, without pretence and without self-deception. The ethics of such a day, of writing poetry at all, boils down to something (something wrong, something clumsy, something ineffectual?), or nothing, nothing against something, mute from fear of being ineffectual. This was a day of something real.

I'm so glad I could be at the centre of such a day, and I have great hope it'll happen again. Please visit www.englishpen.org/membership to join the amazing charity.

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