Imprisoned poets: how Scottish PEN seeks to help persecuted writers around the world

Stanza 2017: Patience Agbabi and Jim Carruth lead readings by Turkish poets to highlight the work of the organisation

It's Saturday night at the Byre Theatre, and StAnza 2017 is in full flow. Poets, readers and writers are talking, drinking and enjoying the full programme of poetry on offer. But upstairs in the theatre's studio, the room is quiet. Scottish PEN is holding its Imprisoned Poets event, and despite the majority of seats being filled, the room's silence is palpable.

On stage, there's an empty chair. It symbolises the poets and writers who cannot be at events such as this, because they are being persecuted because of their work. Though physically small (it's only a model, embellished with the phrase 'because writers speak their mind'), it's a big reminder that across the world, people lose their freedom whilst fighting for freedom of speech. PEN seeks to support those writers, with a view to ultimately effecting change.

The organisation describes itself as 'a not-for-profit organisation that champions freedom of speech and literature across borders.' Writers around the world are censored, imprisoned, even sentenced to death for their work, whether due to their country's political climate, or simply because of censorship.

PEN seeks to challenge efforts made to silence writers. It does so by writing letters of support to imprisoned poets, in a way reminiscent of the work of Amnesty International. It encourages volunteers to write too, or even to send imprisoned writers a poem, to let them know they are in the thoughts of the Scottish public. It also champions translation and minority languages, in particular Gaelic writing, and supports writers in exile who are resident in Scotland.

At StAnza, the organisation was there to affect change in a different way: through poetry. Two renowned British poets, Patience Agbabi and Jim Carruth, took to the stage to read from the work of four Turkish writers - Fazil Husnu Daglarca, Cevat Capan, Orhan Veli and Nazim Hikmet. The featured poets, PEN's Brian Johnstone said, were not necessarily the ones who were imprisoned. In fact, many of them were deceased. The point of this exercise was to demonstrate the significance of Turkish literature, and to connect with the country's writing during this time of unrest that it is experiencing.

During Agbabi's reading of 'Winter is Over' by Capan, two lines in particular punctured the tension in the room:

'For years I lived on letters, lived
on smuggled tobacco, banned
publications. I've not forgotten a thing.
Nothing. Ever.'

Fittingly, this poem echoes the message Scottish PEN was there to send. Imprisoned poets around the world are living on letters, sent from writers, campaigners and general supporters, Publications are being banned, in this world where censorship can still win out over freedom of speech. The takeaway is simple: PEN is here to make sure none of us forget.

StAnza 2017 took place from Wed 1–Sun 5 Mar.

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