Monday, 9 December 2013

In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights

by Catriona Troth

A couple of years ago, the Human Rights Consortium – part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, came up with the unusual idea of using poetry to promote awareness of Human Rights issues.

In October 2012, on the last day of the Bloomsbury Festival, they hosted a Human Rights Poetry Slam. The response was so good they thought they might take the idea further and publish a few poems. They put out a call for submission, and were overwhelmed by the response. Between February and May, they received a total of 640 entries, from which a panel of judges chose 150 poems from 18 countries, representing a total 38 different heritages.

The result is something unique. Established poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Ruth Padel appear alongside those who had never written a poem before – human rights lawyers, workers from NGOs and those for whom the issues raised are all too personal. It covers issues from the past – like the slave trade – and those – like the war in Syria – that are unfolding under our eyes today. The breadth of scope in its thirteen thematic chapters reminds us that Human Rights issues can touch every aspect of our lives.

The anthology was launched with a second Human Rights Poetry Slam at the Bloomsbury Festival on 20th October. A few days later, when I talked to Laila Sumpton, one of the driving forces behind the project, she was still buzzing with enthusiasm.

“The first Human Rights Poetry Slam, at the end of the Bloomsbury Festival 2012 really inspired the academic staff,” she tells me. “It brought home to them what an amazing way it was to reach a new audience and highlight key human rights issues in a really understandable and immediate way.

“After that, we decided we could publish a few poems.  We thought we might get enough for a small pamphlet, but it took off in a way we could never have anticipated.

“This was something that has never been done before – an anthology with open submission, covering the whole spectrum of human rights, and repeated annually. Pen International produce regular anthologies focused on freedom of speech, but they tend to work with established writers. Amnesty International have had open submissions for their anthologies, but their last one, Fire in the Soul, was published in 2009.

“We thought it would be amazing if people would take part who worked in the field but who would never normally think to enter a poetry competition. So we used all sorts of channels to spread the word.  The Institute of English Studies and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies were able to put the call out through academic and poetry circles, while organisations like Peace Brigades International were able to reach those actually experiencing these issues at first hand.”

It was through Peace Brigades International that they were able to contact David Ravelo, a human rights activist sentenced to eighteen years in La Picota prison in Colombia on a trumped up murder charge.  Ravelo turned to poetry as a way of coping with his imprisonment, and his poem, ‘The Firmament’ is published in the section, ‘Sentenced.’

Ruth Padel, who wrote the foreword to the anthology, first connected with Sumpton through Exiled Writers Ink at the Poetry Cafe.  “She had been involved with Human Rights struggles in South America.  She recognised this project was unique and said she would like to be involved.”

Judging the hundreds of entries took place over “three gruelling weeks of reading anonymised submissions,” (as it says in the introduction to the anthology). In order to be selected, a poem had to show poetic merit, but also clearly portray a human rights issue. “We wanted poems that looked at things from a fresh angle, but whose message was accessible and supported by accurate facts,” says Sumpton.

To reflect that, the judging panel included poets, human rights experts and an academic from the Institute of English Studies.

Poems were submitted in multiple languages with translations into English. They received poems the posed different point of view on the same issue. Poems that used humour and poems that were heart-breakingly sad. There were some surprises when the names of the selected poets were revealed – a poem that they had assumed must be by a woman, for instance, would turn out to be by a man.

The beautiful cover design by Stephanie Mill takes its imagery from the peaceful revolution that ended decades of fascist dictatorship in Portugal.  It shows a spray of carnations in a slender vase that, on closer inspection, reveals itself as the barrel of a gun.

If this is an unusual project for an academic department to undertake – especially one not part of an Arts Faculty – then some of the motivation must come from the fact that two of the prime movers who worked with the Human Rights Consortium to realise this project – Laila Sumpton and Anthony Hett – are also members of Keats House Poets. Set up as part of the Cultural Olympiad, Keats House Poets is a poetry collective whose brief is to use creative activities to draw a younger audience into a place they might otherwise never visit – in this case, the house on Hamstead Heath where John Keats wrote some of his best poetry. 

“This was a young poet who was basically sofa surfing, who found a place where he was free to write.  So it’s an ideal space to develop young poets, but people like that had never been able to perform their before.”

They now run monthly workshops in Keats House, as well as supporting one another’s writing.

So which came first, I ask Sumpton – poetry or her interest in Human Rights?

“I studied English,” she tells me. “And while I was doing that, I ran some poetry events and published some anthologies of student poetry. But much of the poetry I wrote had a Human Rights theme, and when I finished my degree, I knew I wanted to work with NGOs.”

After a year of working, she started a part-time Masters degree with the Human Rights Consortium.

“I don’t think I actually managed to submit any poems as course work,” she jokes. “But as long as I can, I am going to try and keep them both going.  And this project has been the perfect way to bring them both together.”

The anthology is not a money raising venture.

“We made it a principle that no one who contributed should have to pay for the anthology, so just the postage to 18 different countries ate up a lot of money.  But the aim was always to raise awareness, not funds. As well as developing research, the Human Rights Consortium has a mandate to promote Human Rights research through the wider community and to make it accessible.  So we are treating this as a type of creative campaigning – ‘poetry activism,’ if you like.”

And it doesn’t stop with there.  As well as planning next year’s anthology, Sumpton and her colleagues are lining up a series of events using the poems as a springboard.  Some of these will have a broad theme and others will have a specific focus.

“We are trying to connect with appropriate venues and festivals, and bring in experts and support groups with a specific, relevant focus.  For instance, on International Women’s Day next year (8th March 2014) we will be holding a workshop at Keats House on Women’s Rights.”

If you are interested in hosting one of these events, you can contact Laila Sumpton via the Human Rights Consortium:

In Protest, 150 Poems for Human Rights, is published by the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2013. Its editors were Helle Abelvik-Lawson, Anthony Hett and Laila Sumpton

Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at, or on Facebook at Books by Catriona Troth.


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