“We know, for poets who are incarcerated, the sun is cold and there are months between months, days between days and hours between hours. Even in the months, days, and hours, which are not on the calendar, we are working for their freedom of expression and for their freedom. Everyday members of PEN think of these poets and their suffering”. Jennifer Clement, PEN International President.
March 21: Adopted in 1999 during the UNESCO’s 30th General Conference, World Poetry Day, is an opportunity to celebrate cultural and linguistic diversity through poetic expression, as well as an opportunity to honour poets, revive oral traditions of poetry recitals, promote the convergence between poetry and other forms of arts, and raise the visibility of poetry in the media.
While poetry has the power to bring people together across continents, many poets worldwide face threats, intimidation and violence for simply speaking up, for using their voice in a way that makes governments feel uncomfortable. On this year’s World Poetry Day, PEN International highlights the case of four poets who risks their life, daily, through their work: Maryja Martysievič (Belarus), Katherine Bisquet (Cuba), Varavara Rao (India) and Innocent Bahati (Rwanda). PEN International calls on its members to take action so that governments fulfil their duty to guarantee freedom of expression.
Today the world marks World Poetry Day, an opportunity to celebrate and promote poetry and the power and creativity of language. Each year on this day, PEN International highlights the case of poets who face great challenges across the globe simply for their work, and asks its members and supporters to take action on their behalf.
When I think of the poets incarcerated in the world and punished, I think of poetry. Poetry is almost the only thing that has no monetary value. You cannot sell a poem. Nobody wants to buy a poem. Poems are not for sale in the market by the apples and peaches, or in the auction houses by sculptures and paintings. I confess that it gives me a strange wonder and shock to think that a poem is so powerful and so dangerous that a poet can be locked up and sentenced to death for rhymes and couplets, for metaphors and symbols.
When contemplating how dangerous poems have become, I recall the words of British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy: ‘If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone’. In our times, if Galileo had inked his discoveries in free verse with stanza breaks, he might be looking at the sky- his round, telescope-shaped sky- from a prison cell.
Mahvash Sabet, imprisoned in Iran in 2008 and freed 10 years later in 2017, penned impassioned poems to Fariba with whom she shared a cell at the beginning of her incarceration. Sabet wrote: ‘O my companion in the cage! How many cruelties we saw together; how many favours too and blessings in our isolation. […] They tied your wings to mine, feather to feather, and you rested your head beside mine every night’.
The poet Li Bifeng, in China, continues to compose poems in prison where he has been since 1998. One stanza begins: ‘Over the high wall, we watch the sun from afar and the mountains from afar. In the dreams of nights, we see people from afar using the net of yearning we salvage those scattered memories and then we let the bones grow into the bones’.
In answer to these verses, we are not neutral. Everyday members of PEN think of these poets and their suffering. We know, for poets who are incarcerated, the sun is cold and there are months between months, days between days and hours between hours. Even in the months, days, and hours, which are not on the calendar, we are working for their freedom of expression and their freedom.
When I visited Dareen Tatour, the Palestinian poet who was under house arrest and awaiting sentencing, she gave me a cloth she’d embroidered in red thread with the words: ‘Poetry is not a crime!’.
In 2020, PEN International defended writers from across the globe, including poets who have been harassed, threatened with death, detained, imprisoned, and tortured for their poetry and for their activism. Just this month, two poets were killed in Myanmar as they took part in the pro-democracy protests. This World Poetry Day, we highlight the case of poets Maryja Martysievič (Belarus), Katherine Bisquet (Cuba), Varavara Rao (India) and Innocent Bahati (Rwanda).
In honouring all PEN’s poets who are in peril, I think of how, in my fidelity to empirical knowledge, poetry is my secular faith and where I find revelation. Poetry is the search for truth and solace before the invisible. And every poet knows this: although stars may have different names in all the world’s languages, they cast the same light.
Jennifer Clement, President PEN International
Maryja Martysievič, © Ivan Besser
Maryja Martysievič is a Belarusian poet, writer, and literary translator, who for years has been facing repression for speaking out. She is amongst the many cultural figures in Belarus who have publicly expressed their dissent following the widely disputed presidential election of August 2020, which saw tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in peaceful protests. Since then, the Belarusian authorities have unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on human rights. Many writers and artists have been targeted, suffering arrests, beatings, destruction of instruments, and loss of jobs. As a member of the cultural resistance movement, Martysievič uses her creativity to resist oppression, by writing poetry and holding public readings and performances.
PEN International calls on the Belarusian authorities to immediately end attacks against writers, artists, and cultural workers in retaliation for their attempts to raise their concerns and combat injustice.
Support Belarusian poets by organising poetry readings and celebrating their work on your social media channels.
Watch: Maryja Martysievič performing alongside fellow writers here
Katherine Bisquet, © Héctor Trujillo
Katherine Bisquet is one of the most prominent young Cuban writers, as well as a poet, editor and activist.
She writes for El Estornudo, among other media outlets, and has recently won the Antonia Eiriz 2021 scholarship, awarded by the Instituto Internacional de Artivismo Hannna Arendt. Bisquet was harassed, detained and placed house arrest for her ideas. In November 2020, alongside other artists and activists, she gathered at the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement (MSI) to protest the arbitrary detention of musician Denís Solís. The MSI is a group of Cuban artists that has fought for freedom of expression and artistic freedom since 2018, when the Cuban government introduced Decree 349 which penalizes artists who work without approval by the Ministry of Culture. Bisquet is the author of books such as Something Here is Out-of-Order and Depleted Uranium.
Support Cuban writers, journalists and artists asking authorities to stop harassment against them and San Isidro Movement, and to repeal the Decree 349, sending letters of concern to the Cuban embassies.
Varavara Rao, image courtesy of Wikipedia (Creative Commons License)
Varavara Rao is a celebrated writer, poet, and Marxist activist who has been detained without trial in India since 2018. An important figure in Telugu literature, Rao is a founder of the Virasam – the Revolutionary Writers Association. Rao was among five activists who were arrested in August 2018 for their alleged role in inciting violent unrest. He has completely rejected all charges, with many viewing his detention as being politically motivated and part of a wider crackdown on activists across India. Despite falling gravely ill with COVID-19 and other health complications while detained in abhorrent conditions, Indian authorities have repeatedly denied his requests for medical bail throughout 2020. On 22 January 2021, the Bombay High Court finally granted Rao six months’ medical bail. While PEN International welcomes the court's ruling, we remain deeply concerned over the strict conditions imposed on Rao’s temporary release, which includes prohibiting him from speaking with media and restricting his location to Mumbai despite his home being in Telangana, located over 750 kilometres away.
Ask the Indian authorities to nullify the punitive conditions attached to Varavara Rao’s temporary medical bail, and to grant Rao indefinite compassionate release.
Role: Union Home Minister of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India
Address: Ministry of Home Affairs, North Block, New Delhi 110001, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Innocent Bahati © Andrea Grieder
Innocent Bahati is a popular Rwandan poet known for his open and critical expression on social issues.
He publishes his poetry on YouTube and Facebook and regularly performs at poetry events. Bahati has been missing since 07 February 2021. After two days of trying to establish his whereabouts, his friends reported Bahati’s disappearance to the Rwanda Investigation Bureau who said Bahati was not in their custody and that they were investigating the matter. Friends and associates of Bahati believe that his disappearance is in relation to his critical poetry, particularly his recent poems: ‘Hunger’; ‘Poverty’; and ‘Long Regulations’. It is reported that before Bahati went missing, a prominent pro-government public figure had posted a comment on Facebook linking Bahati’s views to President Paul Kagame’s critics who continue to face repression for their dissenting voices.
In 2017, Bahati had similarly disappeared after he posted a poem on Facebook only to reappear in police custody. PEN is investigating what appears to be Bahati’s enforced disappearance. A video of ‘Rubebe’, one of Innocent Bahati’s poems, is available here.
Ask the Rwandan authorities to disclose the whereabouts of Innocent Bahati and to guarantee his safety, wellbeing and right to life. Send a message to President Paul Kagame and to the Secretary General of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau, Jeannot K. Ruhunga.
Jeannot K. Ruhunga
The images used for this campaign can be re-used and shared by PEN Centres.
PEN International activities to celebrate World Poetry Day, are part of a series of events planned throughout 2021 to mark PEN International’s Centenary. Founded in 1921 by English writer Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, PEN International has spent 100 years celebrating literature and protecting freedom of expression. You can stand up for persecuted writers by making a donation today.
For further information, please contact Sabrina Tucci, Communications and Campaigns Manager, Sabrina.Tucci@pen-international.org t. +44 (0)20 7405 0338 |Twitter: @pen_int | Facebook: www.facebook.com/peninternatio... | www.pen-international.org
This month, two poets were killed in Myanmar. Their stories reflect a much wider, shocking picture of too many writers with unjust situations around the world, including a number of poets featured on PEN’s 2020 Case List. We need your help to ensure poets are no longer harassed, threatened with death, imprisoned, or tortured for their poetry. Please donate today.Donate to PEN International