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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.

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Picture 1I love Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon. It was given to me by a friend in Singapore, shortly after we had a discussion about the problems of queerness and cinema: Hollywood dramas such as The Kids Are All Right sit strangely because there’s an instinctive aesthetic discomfort with seeing queer characters in a form / genre defined by heterosexual characters. Mysterious Object shows the possibilities of a nationalist cinema and in doing so hints at what is possible for queer cinema. This was on my mind this afternoon when I attended a BBC Writers Room session – a very thoughtful date my housemate took me on – and heard the northern director of the programme, Henry Swindell, speak.

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“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?

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I’m a bit of a dinosaur. The fact that I am posting this video six months after it was shot proves this. My discomfort with social media means that for the last eight years I have avoided doing much online beyond reading email, blogging in spurts, wasting time on YouTube and scrolling through The Guardian. I have never understood how the internet aids what I do as a writer. It’s an obvious promotion tool, but, so far, it has had little impact on what I actually write. It has been noted that we writers of literary fiction and poetry act as though the internet did not exist, and I think it’s because the   model/medium – pen and paper – is still the same, as is the aim – publication. I am aware that this is evidence of a chronic lack of imagination.

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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)

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In two days I will don my sub-fusc and jump through the biggest hoop of my academic career: I’ll spend a week writing exams in the morning, then revising in the afternoon, all the time wondering what impact it will have on my life and what will happen when it ends. I know what will happen, of course.

First, I will write up a very long Letter to Potential Applicants, a piece I’ve been thinking about for some time and which will (hopefully) be a useful addition to all the stuff written about Oxford. I am both fascinated and repulsed by my education, unlike Zadie Smith who managed to get over any issues of entitlement / inferiority very quickly. I suspect there are others who have not yet arrived who will be especially prone to this dilemma, so I’m writing for them. Second, I will devote all my time and energy to re-discovering why, exactly, I picked English.

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