Poets for PEN

Posted: March 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

On Saturday 8 March we welcomed three poets to read for us in the latest of our Poets for PEN nights. The award-winning Jamie McKendrick last joined us in June 2012 at the official launch of OxforJamieMcK2d Student PEN (pictured left) and it was a pleasure to hear him read from his work as poet and translator again. We were very happy also to hear readings from Jane Griffiths, poet and Fellow in English at Wadham College, and Caroline Ashley, who is active on the Oxford poetry scene.

All poets read beautifully and there were many correspondences between their work which none of us had planned for. They were also kind enough to participate in conversation afterwards with a characteristically curious PEN audience, who had questions about poetry’s power and function to represent and express the world in relation to other forms and disciplines, from the visual arts to physics to philosophy.



Spotlight on Sochi

Posted: February 16, 2014 in 2013-14, Campaigns, Letter writing, News

PEN’s international campaign to highlight Russia’s deplorable policies on freedom of expression during the Sochi Winter Olympics has hit the headlines over the past week, and you can read a selection of the coverage below. Closer to home, Oxford Student PEN committee member Nico Hobhouse raised the debate with a brilliant comment piece in the Oxford Student, which you can read here.

PEN’s campaign was also discussed in the Guardian, which featured an open letter organised by PEN International and signed by more than 200 writers – a galaxy of literary stars, including Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Carol Ann Duffy, Wole Soyinka, Paul Auster, and Margaret Atwood – against Putin’s ‘chokehold’ on freedom of expression. The leading Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya wrote, again in the Guardian, about the problems faced by the media in Russia as they seek to question the way the state is working, likening contemporary Russia to something Orwell might have imagined.

PEN’s letter also earned notice from the BBC, the Telegraph and the Moscow Times, among others.


Mandela 1

On Friday 7 February we were delighted to welcome two senior Oxford professors to discuss the achievements and enduring significance of Nelson Mandela. Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature, and William Beinart, Rhodes Professor of Race Relations, brought distinct perspectives to a conversation which touched on the iconicity of Mandela – brilliantly exemplified for us by Professor Boehmer’s props, which included Mandela coasters and a Mandela apron – coverage of his death and funeral, and the likely prospects for South African politics in the future.


With the official opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi tomorrow, Friday 7 February, there is still time to support Out in the Cold, PEN’s international campaign which is highlighting three laws in Russia which seriously curtail freedom of expression.  The laws which PEN would like to see repealed are:

1. The now-infamous gay ‘propaganda’ law which prohibits the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors,’ meaning that any activity that can be construed as promoting the non-heterosexual lifestyle, including the holding of LGBT rallies, or the ‘promotion of denial of traditional family values among minors,’ is now banned. Russian citizens violating this law face being fined; foreigners face deportation.

2. The ‘blasphemy’ law which criminalises ‘religious insult’ and provides punishments of up to three years’ imprisonment or a maximum fine of 500,000 RUB. The law is widely seen as a heavy-handed attempt to deter stunts similar to the one carried out by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot, who performed their ‘punk prayer’ inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February 2012.

3. Defamation, which was re-criminalised in July 2012. Having previously been de-criminalised in 2011 under former President Dmitry Medvedev, it was made a crime once again when Putin returned to the presidency. This law provides cripplingly harsh fines of up to US$153,000 for violations and threatens to push small media outlets into self-censorship for fear of risking financial ruin.

We’ve been writing letters to President Putin and others in our Wednesday campaigning sessions to put pressure on the Russian administration in the run-up to the games, when the world’s attention will be fixed on Sochi. Visit PEN’s website for details of how to write to the Russian authorities yourself. You can also download the striking campaign image and share that on social media to help raise awareness. Crucially, too, you can sign up to PEN’s Thunderclap, which will release all our calls on social media for greater freedom at the very same moment. And let us know what you’re doing! Remember you can contact us any time on Facebook: just search Oxford Student PEN.

From Nico Hobhouse

It is Wednesday lunchtime. Lattés tottering precariously on saucers, distracted students ascend the stairs of the TSK in a steady trickle, searching for a quiet corner. Not this room. How about that one, through the purple door?

‘I’m afraid we’re having a meeting here… But you’re welcome to join us if you want?!’

Such was the greeting for many a flustered student who stumbled into PEN’s weekly letter-writing sessions. We were there every week, sending letters of appeal to what felt like half of London’s embassies.

Early in the term we focussed on cases in the Arab world, including that of Zaki Cordillo, a Syrian playwright who has been held incommunicado since the summer of 2012, and of Mohammed Al-Ajami, who received a lengthy sentence earlier this year for criticising the Qatari government.

Here we are, writing away...

Here we are, ready to write…

The next couple of weeks saw us shift our focus to China. We protested against the ongoing detention of the dissident poet Zhu Yufu, and also translated It’s Time, the very poem that got him into trouble. Following on from this we took up the case of Tashi Rabten, a Tibetan student who was jailed for his role in editing a controversial magazine, Eastern Snow Mountain, which recorded Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet in 2008.

Towards the end of term we turned our attention to Turkey, where the authorities have in the last year shown a worrying disdain for freedom of expression. In particular we appealed against the continuing imprisonment of the human rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey, who worked for many years compiling reports on disappearances and extra-judicial killings among the Kurdish population in eastern Turkey, and also voiced our concerns about the suspended sentence recently handed to the outspoken conductor, pianist and composer, Fazil Say.

A message with season's greetings from Oxford Student PEN, bound for China.

A message with season’s greetings from Oxford Student PEN, bound for China.

Doubtless many of our appeal letters are wilfully ignored, and even when they are not it is hard to quantify what effect they have. But we also write directly to the imprisoned writers, and in PEN’s long experience these letters of solidarity can greatly improve their morale. With that in mind, we made a special effort as the festive season approached to send messages of goodwill to those individuals whose cases we had supported.

Helena and Kevin, PEN president and treasurer, deliver a week's worth of appeals.

Helena and Kevin, PEN president and treasurer, deliver a week’s worth of appeals.

We will back in the New Year, on Wednesdays 12-1pm on the top floor of the TSK. If you’re interested to learn more, here’s a link to the International PEN website, where all of PEN’s cases are listed:


Poets for PEN IV

Posted: December 12, 2013 in 2013-14, Events, Writers

Saturday 30 November saw the return of Poets for PEN. Our fourth poetry night, held at Queen’s College, featured readings from Simon Altmann, David Constantine, and Hannah Sullivan – three very brilliant, very different writers, who were all kind enough to participate in a full and wide-ranging conversation after the reading about the purpose and politics of poetry. Can poetry be a free space, a playing space, where we are not obliged to confront the world we live in? Or should it do precisely that – should it face up to the modern world, be it through registering political injustice or the altogether more banal preoccupations of the Facebook generation? Can we trust words like “beauty” and “truth” when we talk about poetry, or should we be sceptical of those Keatsian virtues? These were but a few of the big and difficult questions which the poets addressed in their discussion, and as they’re the kind of questions we’ve set out to ask ourselves in the past – at our Defence of Poetry event in May 2013, for example – we were delighted that three great minds were willing to share their perspectives with the PEN audience. It was a special night too for our own translation project: during our campaigning sessions every Wednesday lunchtime Oxford Student PEN members have been translating poetry, and at Poets for PEN IV Jennifer Chan and Anna Tankel each read, beautifully, some examples of this work.

Oxford Launch: The Sky Wept Fire

Posted: December 12, 2013 in 2013-14, Events, Writers

On Friday 29 November we were honoured to welcome the author Mikail Eldin and translator Anna Gunin for the Oxford launch of The Sky Wept Fire, Eldin’s powerful first-hand account of the Chechen resistance. Gunin’s English translation earned the book an English PEN Writers in Translation award. Gunin read extracts from the book, and then she and Eldin participated in a discussion brilliantly chaired by Professor Catriona Kelly, Fellow of New College, Oxford, and co-director of the European Humanities Research Centre. Both were extremely generous in conversation, answering questions on subjects as varied as world literature, the process of translation, Eldin’s decision to write in Russian, and his own personal experiences growing up in Chechnya and during the conflict. It was a very moving event, and we are extremely grateful to Portobello Books, publisher of The  Sky Wept Fire, and English PEN, for helping us to arrange it.


You can read more about the book here: