SJ Fowler on curating this year's English PEN Modern Literature Festival
Such was the resonance and enthusiasm around the first, the second had to come. It feels as though this is the beginning of a tradition. I hope so. There isn’t another curatorial activity that has proved to be this engaged and purposeful for me. Once again my role really is to liaise between the brilliant, principled, pragmatic work of those at English PEN, again working closely with the inspiring Cat Lucas, and the thirty writers who have agreed, all of them with great willingness and humble trepidation, to write or perform a new work on April 1st, in service of another author.
Once again my experience was to spend time with authors around the world whose deliberate acts of decency, whose ethical drive, whose fundamental character, has led them directly into the kind of psychological and physical harm that leaves one weaker for knowing of it. To spend such brief time with these people, these peers, and to know in that trifling moment how little I can know of what they and their families are experiencing because of their writing, their journalism, their poetry. And so the English writers have expressed again this feeling of overwhelming responsibility. One so overwhelmingly as to be perhaps prohibitive. And for all its remarkable energy and galvanising intensity this is the one thing I have learnt from last year and that I have tried to pass on to this year. This magnitude is implicit. The authors from England should not apologise for their own fortune and comfort while celebrating the courage of another. They should celebrate them, write for them, to them, with them. They should be as modern, as experimental, as humorous as they are grave. They should take their responsibility to be in the investment aesthetically as well as emotionally. This is not a small detail. It is vital. Because by doing the day itself, by making something where perhaps there would be no connection between two writers across the world, that sense of shame, in a small way is being acknowledged. From that moment on, we must just have them in our minds, spread the word of their work and their actions, keep things alive.
Some extraordinary writers are involved this year, you can see the full list below. The event is free, in three parts. What I hope happens is what I hoped for when we initially hatched the idea. Nothing impossible, nothing utopian. The aim is simply to create more members of English PEN, so that the political will of this time is directly forcefully behind the writers charity, who have the expertise, who are on the front lines of absolutely vital battlegrounds in our time, from surveillance to free speech, while also being a light in the dark for many writers abroad, thirty of whom we will celebrate on April 1st.
SJ Fowler is a poet and artist. He works in the modernist and avant-garde traditions, across poetry, fiction, theatre, sonic art, visual art, installation and performance. He has published various collections of poetry and text, and been commissioned by Tate Modern, BBC Radio 3, The British Council, Tate Britain, Liverpool Biennial and Wellcome Collection. He has been translated into 21 languages and performed at venues across the world, from Mexico City to Erbil, Beijing to Tbilisi. He is the poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lecturer at Kingston University, teaches at Tate Modern and is the curator of the Enemies project. http://www.stevenjfowler.com/
On 1 April 2017, 30 UK-based writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists will join English PEN and the Enemies Project for the second English PEN Modern Literature Festival. Each of the writers will perform new works created in solidarity with some of the incredible individuals we support throughout the year through our Writers at Risk Programme.
2pm to 3.30pm
Luke Kennard – Raif Badawi
Nisha Ramayya – Aseem Trivedi
Susie Campbell – Tsering Woeser
Lavinia Singer – Zhu Yufu
SJ Fowler – Waleed Abu Al Khair
Mischa Foster Poole – Alaa Abd El Fattah
Chloe Spicer – Dina Meza
Kate Wakeling – Nurmuhemmet Yasin
Denise Riley – Necmiye Alpay
4pm to 5.30pm
Hannah Silva – Narges Mohammadi
Rebecca Tamas – Ashraf Fayadh
matt martin – Amanuel Asrat
John Hall – Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace
Carol Watts – Aslı Erdoğan
Peter Philpott – Dawit Isaak
Camilla Nelson – Dareen Tatour
Rod Mengham – Mahvash Sabet
Zoë Skoulding – Sanjuana Martinez Montemayor
7.30pm to 9.30pm
Sasha Dugdale – Ahmet and Mehmet Altan
Simon Pomery – Nguyen Van Dai
Sandeep Parmar – Lydia Cacho
Tom Jenks – Nabeel Rajab
Nathan Jones – Zunar
Jeremy Noel-Tod – Nelson Aguilera
Chrissy Williams – The Al-Khawaja family
Tony White – Ahmed Naji
Larry Lynch – Oleg Sentsov
Matthew Welton – Tutul
Elizabeth-Jane Burnett – Liu Xia
Vahni Capildeo – The Douma 4
We look forward to seeing you in April. In the meantime, follow #penfestuk for regular updates, and watch last year’s performances here.