Free the Word! Day at Poetry Parnassus

Yesterday’s Free the Word! Festival day at the Southbank Centre in partnership with English PEN and as part of the Poetry Parnassus was full of wonderful readings and spoken-word performances by poets from around the world. At the International Writers Breakfast we welcomed Zarganar, Burmese writer, comedian and poet – a previous PEN International main case for the Writers in Prison Committee. Released from imprisonment in late 2010 as part of a mass amnesty of political prisoners, Zarganar spoke movingly about his experiences under arrest and the importance of freedom of expression and the role of the writer.

There were four panel sessions following the Writers Breakfast – focusing on global conflict, exile and audience, minority languages and marginalized voices, and a robust discussion of questions of nationhood and poetry. Speakers during the day included Jack Mapanje from Malawi, David Shook from Mexico, Jo Shapcott from the UK, Sir Andrew Motion (Poet Laureate 1999 – 2009) who spoke of the importance of poetry in speaking truth to power. Rafeef Ziadeh, a Palestinian performance poet and activist, Shailja Patel from Kenya, Syl Cheney Coker from Sierra Leone and Kosal Khiev from Cambodia were also among the participants.

English PEN set up two special zones at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre – Freedom to write, where guests could take part in creative writing workshops, and Freedom to Read, where a range of PEN-related publications were on display – including the recently launched The World Record, an anthology featuring the work of hundreds of poets participating in the Poetry Parnassus in translation.

The day was a wonderful celebration of writing, of poetry and of freedom of expression.

We’ll be featuring videos of all of the sessions online later this week.

Laura McVeigh, Director of PEN International