In the late 80s when I was on a scholarship in Warsaw meat and chocolate were still being rationed, censorship was rife, dissidents jailed. In Russia the poet Irina Ratushinskaya had been arrested in 1982, convicted the following year of “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” with a sentence of seven years in a labour camp and five years of internal exile.
In prison she wrote poems about love and Christian theology on soap, memorising them before they were washed away. She was released on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. Three years later the Berlin Wall came down and everything changed.
With artist friend Jola Scicińska we produced a book at that time called Postcards from Poland (Working Press). Travelling back and forth between Poland and England I felt a huge cultural gap and as usual found myself somewhere in the middle. I was writing about the euphoria of banned books being suddenly available as well as the (inevitable but depressing) influx of Western porn. Things aren’t simple but then they never were.
Over two decades later, this August, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot were accused of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in a labour camp for their oppositional punk prayer in the Temple of Christ Saint Saviour in Moscow.
“Absurdity’s on the increase/spirit wanes” writes the Slovenian poet Iztok Osojnik in Mister Today (Elsewhere by Iztok Osojnik translated by Ana Jelnikar and Maria Jastrzębska (Pighog Press). Clearly governments continue to feel threatened enough by musicians or writers self to respond viciously. Moscow has also banned Gay Pride for the next century, Warsaw banned it a few years ago but the ban has now been overturned.
Sitting comfortably in front of my PC at home it’s humbling to think of those behind bars for their words. English Pen has published an e-book anthology of poems for Pussy Riot CATECHISM: POEMS FOR PUSSY RIOT, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe & Sophie Mayer with an introduction by George Szirtes – a fitting title since the women are accused of being anti-Christian. I’m proud to have a poem in it.
On a smaller scale censorship succeeds when it gets inside our heads, whether in or outside the literary world. I like writing workshops (both teaching them and going myself) – they’re a chance to trick the internal censor, to bypass authorial intention and discover things we might otherwise not have said. Here in the Developed World it’s impossible to calculate the exact weight of social/media pressure, except to say how profoundly it influences our choices, whether as writers or not.
“ …it is a
can use the word free and have it mean anything at all to us. We stand still let the cold wind wrap round …”
says American poet Jorie Graham in Dialogue/(Of The Imagination’s Fear) in P L A C E (Carcanet).
And it is no wonder that back in the 1970s and 1980s (in the West) revolutionary or separatist movements sprang up in an attempt to escape and create alternatives. While in former Eastern Europe the concept of internal exile (self-created as opposed to state imposed) was developed. From the perspective of time we may see the task differently (apart from anything both literary and political styles change..) but having the word free mean something – that has got to be what do for ourselves.