The 3rd English PEN Modern Literature Festival : March 2018
From SJ Fowler "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/
They event featured MONA ARSHI FOR ZEHRA DOGAN / TONY WHITE FOR AHMED NAJI / HELEN PALMER FOR ME NAM / SARA UPSTONEFOR DAWIT ISAAK / ADAM BARON FOR CAN DÜNDAR & ERDEM GÜL / PRUDENCE CHAMBERLAIN FOR PATIWAT SARAIYAEM & PORNTHIP MUNKHONG / ELEY WILLIAMS FOR TSERING WOESER / DAVID SPITTLE FOR AHMEDUR RASHID CHOWDHURY
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.
The 2nd English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017 : April Saturday 1st 2017
The second English PEN Modern Literature Festival saw 30 contemporary UK-based writers present new works in tribute to writers at risk around the world at Rich Mix, London, on April 1st 2017. #penfestuk Visit www.englishpen.org.
An extraordinary day, you can watch videos of the performances below and blogs contextualising the festival further down.
Luke Kennard - Raif Badawi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGbNd4HrRT0
Nisha Ramayya – Aseem Trivedi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QXaQ830cSk&t=10s
Susie Campbell – Tsering Woeser https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7zhtY9Y-7Y
Lavinia Singer - Zhu Yufu https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmw1m0yAm60
SJ Fowler - Waleed Abu Al Khair https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sv409oKeWcM
Mischa Foster Poole - Alaa Abd El Fattah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9SpmpR5h_I&t=7s
Chloe Spicer - Dina Meza https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W277zBmcgAU&t=8s
Kate Wakeling - Nurmuhemmet Yasin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX_sGqa8B4g
Hannah Silva - Narges Mohammadi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jijkBzOH780&t=13s
Zoë Skoulding - Sanjuana Martinez Montemayor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aCgi498Alk&t=3s
matt martin - Amanuel Asrat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6TbGZi7FNA&t=4s
John Hall - Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmJkTJPIIss&t=17s
Rebecca Tamas - Ashraf Fayadh https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piH1NY29bMY&t=5s
Carol Watts - Aslı Erdoğan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8WYlZOblLk&t=1s
Tom Jenks - Nabeel Rajab https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AFitv2NF0U&t=8s
Peter Philpott - Dawit Isaak https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PiBXS-7TFs
Rod Mengham - Mahvash Sabet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CceBrb6nRY
Camilla Nelson – Dareen Tatour https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJ8jzHEXy8k
Sasha Dugdale - Ahmet and Mehmet Altan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9a08fD3sAhY
Simon Pomery - Nguyen Van Dai https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKkOBY1R_3I&t=14s
Sandeep Parmar - Lydia Cacho https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRjZs18_XCA
Jeremy Noel-Tod - Nelson Aguilera https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVFzaAkB2yg
Chrissy Williams - The Al-Khawaja family https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-Rltve9gkA
Tony White - Ahmed Naji https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GiFqAw5sgdQ
Matthew Welton - Tutul https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehAsDHkjK-w
Elizabeth-Jane Burnett - Liu Xia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcGvt--tkf4
Vahni Capildeo - The Douma 4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSnJu5-vUZA
A blog by SJ Fowler on curating The 2nd English PEN Modern Literature Festival: March 2017
uch 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.
A blog by SJ Fowler after the Festival - April 8th 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.
The first English PEN Modern Literature Festival - April 2nd 2016
The first ever English PEN Modern Literature Festival saw 30 contemporary UK-based writers present new works in tribute to writers at risk around the world at Rich Mix, London, on April 2nd 2016. #penfestuk Visit www.englishpen.org.
Writers poets, novelists, playwrights and artists came together to continue English Pen's relationship with innovative contemporary literature over an extraordinary day where each of the writers presented brand new poetry, text, reportage & performance on a day that celebrated and evidenced the struggle of fellow writers around the world, in solidarity. A full list of performances available below
Introduction by Jo Glanville https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0conMcRrKw
Harry Man on Maung Saung Kha https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKBFA9TMpkI
David Berridge on Dawit Isaak https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzolTKbjlRw
Kirsten Irving on Nurmuhemmet Yasin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZlOgwlx7cs
Jen Calleja on Gao Yu https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKo0ylG4gXs
SJ Fowler on Khadija Ismayilova https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lROYXjvM0gI
Dave Spittle on Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz5rN5T4AKM
Prudence Chamberlain on Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkhong https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERU4P2g8R_4
Robert Hampson on Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yATmgGgL4x4
Adam Baron on Can Dündar and Erdem Gül https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQHy2F75twM
Andrew McMillan on Ashraf Fayadh https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qa7wCYfi1WI
Eley Williams on Tsering Woeser https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zZidUyQrPw
Sam Winston (with Jamie Perera) on Zunar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXVSkx6J59c
Lucy Harvest Clarke on Liu Xia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6nEfNZ-hOk
Stephen Emmerson on Dina Meza https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQa3fc7BiCA
Alex MacDonald on Alaa Abd El Fattah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsolYlKIoU8
Drew Milne on Omar Hazek https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zn-v7FT4IxE
Caleb Klaces on Jorge Olivera Castillo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsEIfd9t-qg
Tim Atkins on Liu Xiaobo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLYJctN7WU0
Caroline Bergvall on Sanjuana Martínez https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVuIwj1pulM
Emily Critchley on Mahvash Sabet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn3FlMW11kY
Sarah Kelly on Nelson Aguilera https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A8OIGlKBaY
Allen Fisher on Mamadali Makhmudov https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4mLkkGAB6A
Nathan Walker on Mohammed al-‘Ajami https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fapKsXQWy9c
Michael Zand on U Zeya https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_PRnfOx_1w
Mark Waldron on Zhu Yufu https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezl3j2M-UP0
Mark Ravenhill on Mazen Darwish and Yara Bader https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtjLl55OJ6M
Emily Berry on Raif Badawi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjvz0dWw_2Q
The festival was 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 at least 30 new members of PEN, begins involvements and connections which will have exponential resonance for decades to come.
Please join English PEN
You can join English PEN here 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.
A blog by SJ Fowler on curating The English PEN Modern Literature Festival: February 27th 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
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.