12-01-10 Keats

Protest and Poetry

Poetry is an incredible campaigning tool and I would love to see more activists and artists working closely together – sharing their unique skills and perspectives to highlight human rights issues.

When the Keats House Poets and the University of London’s Human Rights Consortium opened a call for submission of human rights poetry, we were struck by the quality and variety of themes in the 640 entries we received. We saw that the best human rights poetry employs wit, clarity, a unique personal insight and, crucially, leaves the reader space to contemplate the issue themselves. Political poetry that rants and seeks to convert is often discarded as propaganda – even by those who are of the same view point. Condensing complex, urgent and sometimes distressing messages with sensitivity and respect for the subject matter is a real art and the three following poems published in In Protest – 150 poems for Human Rights are great examples.

Kate Firth, a voice therapist and poet from Bristol, narrates a story of a triumphant community protest in Karnataka lead by 50, 000 Indian farmers, who use laughter to oust a corrupt official. Continuing the theme of how humour can be used by protesters to rise above their adversaries, award-winning Scottish poet Douglas Dunn paints an almost comedic student protest where the riot police are outwitted. Finally, Kit Fan presents a poem about his return to his primary school in Hong Kong, reflecting on how teachers managed the student’s response to Tiananmen Square.

The poems were originally published in In Protest: 150 poems for human rights, edited by Helle Abelvik Lawson, Anthony Hett and Laila Sumpton, (Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2013)

The laughing farmers by Kate Firth

Because they had no power

they had no words that anyone would hear,

so they laughed.

This was their protest

                                      their power

                                                          and their weapon.

Some would call it madness:

to march for miles

to simply sit on the lawn

of the Chief Minister

and laugh.

Was this a laughter of hysteria?

Or vision

of a genius

who knew

that when your rights are stolen

laughter is a choice

between survival

or defeat?

They could not be moved,

laughing for hours in the sun

to laugh the government out,

for laughter is the greatest triumph

and the greatest humiliation.

Drowning in the unrelenting echo

of hearts that couldn’t be bought,

the Chief Minister

became ridiculous.

And for fifty thousand laughing farmers

come election time,

the name of the Chief Minister

remained a joke.

The demonstration by Douglas Dunn

It looked as if about to become very nasty.

Helmeted, holding shields and truncheons, in riot gear,

The whole, extremely uncomfortable wardrobe,

The police squared up to the students

Who waved their banners and bottles of mineral water.

Some were outrageously got up as fairies,

Not a few in kilts, others like undertakers –

Top hats, tail coats, carrying the coffin of their cause.

Young women flaunted legs and behinds,

Many of them singing ‘The Beaux Gendarmes’.

‘Bugger this,’ said the officer in charge.

‘We’ll beat them at their own game.’

He passed the word to his second-in-command,

Who passed it on the third, who passed it on

Along the incredulous, obedient ranks.

Then the policemen lay down and the students carried them away.

Among school teachers by Kit Fan

The gate closed, bell unanswered, basketball court

stripped bare to lines and sparrows.

July is never the month for learning.

A school on Clear Water Bay Road, yet no water

bay, nor road. A bridge, along the scar of a hill

through the Lotus-flowered Magnolias I used to cross over

to the clamour of books.

A month of no children, but the translucent playground

after rain recalls the aftermath of hide-and-seek:

What’s the time, Mr Wolf?

The tick-tocking knees,

the run for life. A boy under a tree

restless for the world to spin in ten seconds.

That summer day, among school teachers

we stood and sang.

Not of psalms and gospels but farewell and falling men:

How bodies became mountains.

How the wind knew of sadness, the soil

of love. The colour of blood was the colour of our flag.

In the assembly hall children who knew little of death

had seen images of guns and wounds, a speck

of a person stopping a column of tanks.

It was a clear day but we were all shut in.

The ground deserted to the democracy

of the sun.

The cicadas buzzing their way

to the dead of summer. The world waiting

under some tree.

A thousand souls still singing

in a dark assembly hall on Clear Water Bay Road.

Photo by Bethan AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works 

Laila Sumpton

Laila's poetry uses imagery and lyricism to tell stories about identity and human rights. She studied English literature at the University of St Andrews and Human Rights at the University of London. She is a member of the Keats House Poetry Forum, a collective of London based poets supported by Keats House in Hampstead who work on poetry projects. She co-edited 'In Protest- 150 poems for human rights', a unique anthology of global poetry collated by the Keats House Poets and the University of London's Human Rights Consortium.

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