Time for a catch up about what I’ve been up to during the last month. In the middle of June I went off to leafy St John’s Wood and the Liberal Jewish Synagogue for ‘The Poet’s Quest for Peace’, a one day festival of poetry and conversation. I’d volunteered to help with the English PEN stand which gave me the chance to engage with the invaluable work that they do as well as hearing some of the talks and readings.
The event was like an Aldeburgh festival in miniature. The emphasis was on how contemporary poetry can perhaps help people to understand each other better. It came at the end of an appalling week with the killings in Orlando and the murder of a British member of parliament so I found that sitting and listening to poetry like a small oasis of calm and a chance to draw breath. The PEN stand was alongside the stall for Modern Poetry in Translation and the evening became about how writers can speak up for those who are silenced, oppressed, in prison and facing death sentences. I really enjoyed hearing Sasha Dugdale’s close reading of Anna Akhmatova’s July 1914, written as Russia was mobilising and on the brink of being engulfed by the First World War. Two million Russians were killed and in the poem is a prophecy uttered by a one-legged man
“Terrible times are coming. Soon
The graves will crowd out the living
Famine, pestilence, cowardice
And the lights of heaven will grow dim.”
Through English PEN I’ve been introduced to the work of poet Mahvash Sabet, who is in prison in Iran and one of PEN’s writers at risk. She began writing poetry after her arrest in 2008 and a collection of her Prison Poemswas published in 2013. Part of the campaign to support her includes writing postcards with messages of hope which are taken to Evin prison and showed to her through the glass. I don’t know how I would keep going if I was locked up and subject to solitary confinement but she does so with great faith in the human spirit.