The imprisonment of Mohammad Al-Ajami – sentenced to life imprisonment for writing a poem that insults Qatar’s emir – brings up two things for me. First, it raises the ever-ugly head of media hypocrisy: Qatar based Al Jazeera, which I watch often, did not report on the case despite reporting on human rights violations elsewhere. Second, it raises the issues I felt when I was in Singapore – and continue to feel – about writing truthfully and critically. Realistically, nothing as bad as what has happened to Al-Ajami is going to happen to me, but then I suppose Al-Ajami did not believe such a thing would happen to him.
Yesterday Radio 4 broadcast a Women’s Hour special called “the state of welfare” which discussed the current benefits system. I was very disappointed with the terms of the debate because the focus, as ever, is on those who abuse the system and outmoded ideas of how people live their lives.
The Omnivore just posted a blog about the lack of female reviewers writing about big, important, scholarly books. The reasons for this are as mystifying as the reasons we have social imbalances in any area of the arts. I know that there is a tendency for directors / CEOs / editors (largely male) to work within their familiar (largely male) circles, and that this can lead to the exclusion of women (and by extension black, gay, trans, disabled, poor people – you name it.) For example, I very, very rarely see editors/representatives from top (or even middling) publishing houses at small, raucous events with hot new voices, but I see them in abundance at readings by Russell Group alumni, the already famous and the nearly-dead. If you are clever, you will attend these champagne and nic-nac events because said editors are usually very friendly. Nobody denies inequality, however when it comes to redressing the balance those with power prefer you to come to them. I wonder if the same thing applies when it comes to reviews?
“What Brecht asserts is that in idealist works the emotion acts by and for itself, producing what he calls “emotional orgies”, while a materialist poetics – whose objective is not only that of interpreting the world but also of transforming it and making this world finally habitable – has the obligation of showing how the world can be transformed.” – Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed.
Depending on how you look at it, it’s both unfortunate and fortunate that the debate about activism with Richard Stallman and Louis Ng is happening at this time; equally, that my doubts and thoughts about what activism means have coincided with a not-so-covert global campaign against Joseph Kony. Indeed, I was just as jostled by Millbank in 2010, the student protests and riots in 2011 and the Occupy movement. My doubts have also coincided with International Women’s Day, and an event run by Etiquette in celebration. A Malay aunty spoke about the magnetism of facebook – a massive vehicle for the campaign – which she has noticed in her grandchildren. Puzzled, she asked “what is this never-ending conversation? If someone would teach me maybe I would want to join Facebook too!”
So here’s my beef. I believe that the people who have come out with “critiques” about activists, and sudden popular activist movements, are not applying their critical thinking to some of their own positions. I think there’s a tendency, which is just as lazy, to say that the people who are getting involved are being coerced by a slick, well-produced video. Here’s a mandarin proverb which seems so obvious as to be axiomatic: “the participant’s view is distorted; the bystander’s view is correct”. But surely active, thoughtful participation is what we’re aiming for?
Last week I asked everyone to bring a poem they thought needed a lot of work. They swapped among themselves, spent the week writing feedback, and then, yesterday, presented their thoughts and improvements to the rest of the group. Almost everything I do is coloured by a book I fell in love with over the summer, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Friere, specifically the sections about giving up power. A zine I was reading put it especially well: in a piece entitled “Queers Kissing and Accountability” Shannon Perez-Derby states:
“Often we get power without asking for it and giving away power can feel counter intuitive because it’s something we’re not taught to do, and have almost no models for.”
I’m working on a piece for a new anthology set to come out mid-2012. It’s called In Their Own Voicesand will be edited by Helen Ivory and George Szirtes. Fifty or so authors will each talk about their “poetics”. I’m having trouble working out what that means. I understand that “poetics” refers to discourse around the theory of poetry (thank you wikipedia), but every attempt I’ve made to apply the term to my work seems false. So I’ve been concentrating on the tension between my self-identification as a writer and my tendency to perform rather than publish. In doing so, I’ve been reading lots of fascinating essays and article, including a piece by Peter Middleton called “The Contemporary Poetry Reading.” It was written in 1998, so a lot has changed since then, but I love that he begins with a description of a reader on stage and then this:
“This ritual is an ordinary poetry reading of the kind that has become widespread in the past forty years, and is therefore so familiar to most readers of contemporary poetry that its strangeness requires an alienating description to be visible at all. Listeners and poets have had almost nothing to say about this phenomenon despite its importance for financing and fostering their careers, assisting the distribution of their poetry, and even shaping its very forms.” (p.262)
Really interesting discussion with Zoe Margolis, author of ‘Girl with a One Track Mind’ and the identically named blog. The thing I found most interesting during the discussion was how different her actual voice sounded to the one in my head.
I intended to write an entry about the fact that I haven’t updated since Nov 2009. Then I wondered if that mattered at all, since the central argument of the entry was how I didn’t think ‘resolving’ to do things was a good idea when the length of my to-do list is an Andrex Puppy’s wet dream. So I’ll scrap that, and make it quick: in the last seven days I have been oogling at the London Word Festival; checking out the Robin Hood Tax; salivating over Jinoos Taghizadeh’s Rock, Paper, Scissors (2009); using various Giacomo Brunelli wildlife photographs as my desktop background; organising LadyFest Oxford 2010; and, finally, wondering what current topics relevant to women and literature, I could use as the basis for a comic. I’d really like to return to the idea of women and YouTube – how creative ladies vlog about themselves and their work, and whether this could actually be an advantageous move given the impending doom that is the Kindle / ipad…
I have also learned a lot about the Howard League through the good work of WomCam… One of the speakers said she’d yet to see an accurate portrayal of prison (besides the structure of the buildings), but I wondered if she’d seen Stranger Inside (Dunye, 2001) or Scum (Clarke, 1979). The issue of voyeurism came up when she mentioned the fact that the National Association of Official Prison Visitors really does exist. It claims to be about ‘friendship’, which is an idea I can support… I left the meeting wondering whether the impulse to observe could become less voyeuristic if used to the end of creating art. How could a film like Scum have been made if someone didn’t think that what they’d seen inside was important enough to be shown to the rest of us? Of course, there is the added problem of a bunch of Oxford students – 99% of whom lead very nice lives – descending upon Pentonville and reaching out with our pudgy little hands. But then I am also bored with the implication that your actions are somehow tainted if you’ve had a nice life. It often amounts to saying you ought to shut up and do nothing because you’re middle classed.
Tonight I saw ‘Hunger’ by Steve McQueen. It charts the imprisonment and eventual death of Bobby Sands, an IRA member (and MP) who died after sixty-six days on hunger strike in 1981.
Steve McQueen won the Turner Prize in 1997 for his video art installation ‘deadpan’. This is the looping of a deserted barn, the front of which looks as though it will fall on to a man standing below – but he’s missed because he’s standing where a window should be.
‘Hunger’ is disturbing because the make-up is subtle and well done, because the camera is stark, because there is a 22 minute shot of a prisoner and a priest discussing suicide, because we hear the rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher who says ‘They are appealing to your most basic human emotion: pity’, because rather than falling neatly to one side, the film simply says ‘This Happened.’