25/10/2017
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How to write poems that change the world

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Top poets from the Words that Burn project, including Keith Jarrett, talk to Writing Magazine about protest poems and using your words to make a difference

Words that Burn is a national poetry and human rights project, from Amnesty International in partnership with Cheltenham Literature Festival, supported by leading poets and spoken word artists including Keith Jarrett, Inja, Amy Leon and Sabrina Mahfouz. The project was developed with the support of Lord Saatchi and The Poetry Hour, and in partnership with Cheltenham Festivals, to teach young people about the power of poetry as protest art and help them discover that their voice can make a difference.

Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett is a performance poet, fiction writer and former London and UK Poetry Slam! Champion. Performances of both short stories and poetry have included: Soho Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall, Warsaw's Spoke'n'Word Festival, the World Cup Poetry Slam, the Rio International Poetry Slam and Bilbao's International 3,2,1 Festival. Keith has set up poetry workshops for schools and was one of six initial Spoken Word Educator trainees teaching at a secondary school in East London while researching Creative Education for an MA at Goldsmiths; the project is the first of its kind in Europe.


1. Why is poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out or protesting injustice?
First and foremost, poems are usually short. We often don't have time to take in everything and a poem condenses ideas and appeals to the imagination. A good poem (in my opinion) is more accessible and memorable than a speech or a piece of legislation. The elements of language that you might find in a poem - be it metaphor, rhyme, meter etc. - capture ideas more effectively than other forms of writing. Poetry is a versatile form that's able to reach hearts more easily, whether through physical protest - over a loudspeaker or the back of a placard - or through publishing and media. Also, since the popularity of poetry film - especially in the spoken word community - has increased, it's easy to share across social media too.   

2. What is your top piece of advice for any poet wanting to write their own poem that engages with human rights or social justice?
It's difficult to strike a balance between having a basic respect of the topic you're dealing with and becoming overwhelmed by all the complexities. At the basic level, avoid patronising generalisms and clichés; we all know war is bad and freedom is desirable etc. What I find helps is to start with something small that you know, that connects with your experience. Question yourself too: e.g. why exactly has that particular asylum case held your attention? How does seeing that child's smile in that photo make you feel? Use that feeling as an entry point into writing an honest poem. It's not the poem's job to preach but to share, to scrutinise. Don't write with pre-planned answers in mind; I always think it's the poet's job to ask the questions.  

Sabrina Mahfouz

Sabrina Mahfouz was raised in London and Cairo. Named as a 'modern Renaissance woman' by The Scotsman; 'a 2017 Wonder Woman' by Marie Claire and 'one of the rising stars of new British playwrighting' by The Herald, her work includes plays, anthologies and the poetry collection How You Might Know Me (Out-Spoken Press). She works with a number of international charities and received a Fringe First Award for her play Chef and a Sky Arts Academy Award for poetry.  She is currently working with Cambridge University Philosophy Department to write poetry around consent and is the librettist for an opera adaptation of Woman at Point Zero (Royal Opera House/Shubbak/Aldeburgh).


1. Why is poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out or protesting injustice?
Poetry has the capacity to disrupt linear thought processes through rhythm and imagery, which makes it a very powerful way of challenging the default, mainstream narrative. It gives listeners and readers the opportunity to think about often statistic-saturated issues in a slightly different way.
2. What is your top piece of advice for any poet wanting to write their own poem that engages with human rights or social justice?
The most important factor here is that it is something which you care deeply about and feel you have something to say about it that you haven't heard said before, in the particular way you want to say it. And then remember that it is a poem rather than a speech, so try to write more imaginatively than you would if you were just talking about the issue.


Inja

Inja, who appeared on BBC Introducing in 2014, provides the Page to a Rave show where anything goes from poetry, reggae, hiphop, grime, drum and bass and anything that brings vibes. He has worked with education groups such as History Works, running creative writing workshops and appearing at poetry events around the UK.


1. Why is poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out or protesting injustice?
Words are power and poetry can be so powerful, it can embody, enable and be the seed of inspiration. I believe so many people across the world use this art form and don't even realise it. The way it can captivate is almost hypnotic and when powered from page to the voice to a crowd is where the real beauty is found. I've seen the hard most stubborn people brought to tears and the weakest empowered to full strength. It's part of human nature and the power of sound that connects words to the souls of many.

2. What is your top piece of advice for any poet wanting to write their own poem that engages with human rights or social justice?
Just to say my advice is solely based on my opinion and whatever you want to do in life you should follow you own instincts they will not misguide you. I'd say read as much as you can and write until you can't write anymore. Share your work with people who are not yes women / men. Find people that never read, write or listen to poetry and see what they think. If you can touch the heart of someone that knows or cares not for the art form you'll know you have something special to offer the world. I always feel it's better to speak to the unconverted than the standard converted.

 

Amy Leon

Amy Leon is a performer known for speaking out – for reminding people of forgotten atrocities, of starting conversations many avoid, and for championing the power of spoken word. She performs frequently all over New York and the UK and, an alumna of the Nuyorican Slam Team, she fuses music and poetry through powerfully transparent performances focusing on social inequalities and celebrating love, blackness, and what it means to be woman. She is the author of two collections of poetry: the water under the bridge and Mouth Full of Concrete and just released her debut album Something Melancholy, which toured the UK earlier this year.

1. Why is poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out or protesting injustice?
When those in power are no longer a reliable source – the people have always turned to art. Art has historically been at the core of every revolution. Poetry is incredibly special because it can manifest in countless forms, it’s malleability allows it to serve as an accessible form of expression for all those who encounter it. It is the echo of thought, an invitation to disrupt and engage.
2. What is your top piece of advice for any poet wanting to write their own poem that engages with human rights or social justice?
Begin with you. Acknowledge your privilege and your thirst. We all lead different lives and have access to different resources – when tackling human rights in art it is important to remain the mouthpiece of your perspective while continuing to educate yourself about the communities around you and the world so you can respectfully engage in conversations about the experience of others.

For more information about Words that Burn, see the website.

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