Tuesday 22 April 2014

Exploring Human Rights Through Poetry

I first met Laila Sumpton at a poetry slam that took place in one of the oldest pubs in Buckinghamshire. In the course of the evening, we discovered a mutual interest in Human Rights issues, and in particular in the use of creative writing both therapeutically, to help those who have suffered trauma, and as a means of raising awareness of Human Rights issues.

After that slam, we kept in touch, and last year I interviewed Laila about the launch of In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights.

This unique anthology, rooted in an open call for submissions brings together poets from 18 countries, representing a total 38 different heritages. They range from established poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Ruth Padel to those who had never written a poem before – human rights lawyers, workers from NGOs and those for whom the issues raised are all too personal. It covers issues from the past – like the slave trade – and those – like the war in Syria – that are unfolding under our eyes today.

When I learnt that Laila was running Human Rights themed poetry workshops, I knew it was a perfect for my Quaker writer’s group – Q Writers, which meets once a month at High Wycombe Meeting House. Thus, last Tuesday, a dozen of us sat down, not knowing quite what to expect, to a workshop on the theme of Censorship and Freedom of Speech.

After introductions, we began in groups of four, brainstorming words and ideas we associated with censorship. We then each had ten minutes to produce a haiku (three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively.)
Censorship makes us
Watch the words that pass our lips,
Stifling what offends.

Our second exercise was a look at a selection of definitions of Censorship, together with articles 18 and 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Laila asked us to highlight words and phrases that  struck us and then use them to create a ‘found poem.’

The words I underlined suggested to me the way that, in a repressive society, ordinary people may become complicit with the censors.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought,
But do not threaten my security by expressing your opinions,
Do not disturb me with your obscenities.
Suppress your ideas lest they emerge in my consciousness

Next, after a break for coffee, we divided a piece of paper into four columns.  Three were headed 
Silence is...               Censorship is...               Freedom is...

In the fourth column, we were given a list of descriptors: a place, a material, a type of weather, an object, a bird etc. For each of them, we had to create an association. We then chose one column that appealed to us and used our list of associations to create another poem.  

The words I found myself associating with ‘censorship’ conjured images of places such as Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
Censorship is...
A prison cell.
Arms wrapped round my body,
Hemp smothering mouth and nose,
The taste of dust choking me.
The sound of a key turning in a lock
A guard, black as a raven in his dirty uniform,
Returning to reinforce my silence.

Lastly, Laila read a poem from ‘In Protest’ written by David Ravello, a human rights lawyer imprisoned in La Picota prison in South America on trumped up murder charges. In the poem, Firmament, Ravello’s sense of isolation is distilled in the idea that, for long periods, he cannot even see the sky.

We were asked to write a poem in the form of a letter replying to Ravello.
Censorship has locked a ceiling
Over your head
Blocking out the sky.
Together, we will smash that ceiling with our protests.
The sun, the moon and the stars
Will shine again,
Warming your skin,
Lighting your way.

Right from the start, it was fascinating what a range of material came out of these exercises. From a shared starting point, we branched out in an entirely different direction.  We had poems that were written from the point of view of the censors, poems that looked at historic instances of censorship (such as the Welsh Not, forbidding children to speak in their mother tongue at school), beautiful poems that reflected on freedom and the positive aspects of silence and others that plunged right into the darkest sides of censorship.

Laila’s workshops usually run a little longer than the two and a half hours we have for Q Writers, so the time we had to work on each poem was compressed. Some people found this challenging, but for me it was liberating.  I have never been a poet, and never will be (as you can probably tell).  But with no time for the dreaded editor in my head to kick in, I surprised myself with what I managed to produce. 

If you would like to book a workshop with Laila for your own group, you can contact her via the Human Rights Consortium at London University:  hrc@sas.ac.uk

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