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Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

Imprisoned Poets, Dangerous Witnesses

By December 13, 2012

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Way too many recent news stories have featured poets being thrown into jail in government attempts to suppress their poems, or to punish the authors for speaking out:

from The Los Angeles Times:
Qatar poet gets life in prison after ‘insulting’ emir, by Emily Alpert
“A poet will face life in prison in Qatar after penning verses that state officials deemed insulting to the nation’s emir and an incitement to topple the government.... Rights activists say Mohammed Ajami was arrested over his ‘Jasmine Poem,’ which skewered governments across the region, at one point declaring, ‘We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.’”

There is not always a straight line from poem to prison—in the most recent case we’ve seen in China, the charges apparently had nothing to do with the poet’s writings or with his friendship with another “dangerous” (=dissident) poet who happens to have fled to Western Europe:

from Associated Press in The Guardian (UK):
Chinese poet Li Bifeng jailed for 12 years
“A dissident Chinese poet whose detention has sparked an international appeal for his release has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for contract fraud.... Li Bifeng—formerly imprisoned for five years for involvement in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement—was sentenced at Shehong county court in Sichuan province, south-west China.... The exiled dissident Liao Yiwu, a friend of Li, said the 48-year-old was targeted because he was suspected of financing Liao’s escape from the country last year. Liao said those suspicions were false.”

And the punishment extends to the friends and family of the poet, heartbreakingly:

from The Washington Post:
Liu Xiaobo’s wife describes his imprisonment, by William Wan
“After more than two years of house arrest and government-imposed silence, the wife of China’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo spoke Thursday to reporters who had sneaked in to see her during an apparent lunch break by the guards watching her apartment.... Kafkaesque.... ‘I really never imagined that after he won I would not be able to leave my home,’ she said, describing her new life as restricted to an apartment with no Internet, phone or trips outside, except to buy groceries and visit her parents. ‘This is too absurd.’”

To anyone who wants to believe prison can diminish the power of a poet’s words, we’d suggest reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Wilde never regained his fame, his fortune, or his creative spark as a playwright after he served two years at hard labor, and he left England as soon as he was released from prison, never to return—but the poem he wrote about life and death in a Victorian prison is very powerful indeed.

More Notes on Activist Poets and Poets in Prison:
Poetry Speaks To Politics (October 2012)
Tibetan Poet Imprisoned in Her Beijing Home: Tsering Woeser (March 2012)
Another Poet Imprisoned for His Poem (January 2012)
From One Laureate to the Next: Who Do the Public Poets Speak For? (2011)
Outspoken Poets in the Old and New Chinas (2011)
Liu Xiaobo—The Nobel Peace Prize Winner is a Poet in Prison (2010)
W.S. Merwin the New American Poet Laureate (2010)
Prison Poets (2009)
Poems of Provocation and Witness in a D.C. Festival (2008)
Ginsberg & Whitman: America’s rebel poets a century apart (2006)
A Morning for Prisoners, Edwin Torres on bringing poetry into St. Thomas Prison (1997)


December 13, 2012 at 10:01 am
(1) david eberhardt says:

After Release From Prison

Where are you?
At home.
Still unaccustomed-
awake or sleeping-
to being in your own home.
This is just one more of the stupefactions
of spending thirteen years in a prison.
Who’s lying at your side?
Not loneliness, but your wife,
in the peaceful sleep of an angel.
Pregnancy looks good on a woman.
What time is it?
That means you’re safe until evening.
Because it’s the practice of police
Never to raid homes in broad daylight.
Nazim Hikmet

much more in my bks- re 21 month stay at lewisburg (viet war protest) fite thuh powa yall

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