Throughout the next few weeks Free Word are running a series of events on the theme of This Is Private, including a special evening called Our Bodies Will Not Be Policed. It is curated by Young People’s Laureate Momtaza Mehri, which sees Amaal Said and Eleanor Penny join Momtaza for poetry and discussion about the way that women’s bodies have been policed.
We caught up with Benedict Lombe, Communications Manager at Free Word, to found out more about the programme.
Where did the idea of ‘This Is Private’ come from?
Free Word Seasons will explore urgent contemporary issues in accessible ways. Privacy is a massive contemporary issue.
Our residents English PEN, who are experts in freedom of expression and do amazing work defending writers around the world, first talked to us about just how important the issue of privacy is. They were clear that although we might think about a lack of privacy as a problem for people living in other parts of the world and working under autocratic regimes, it is actually an urgent issue in our own back yard too and that our rights are being eroded. The UK passed laws in 2016 which mean that the UK government’s surveillance powers are now some of the most draconian in the free world. We are also increasingly seeing, for example through stories of Cambridge Analytica, how technology has started to invade our personal space as well.
Discussions about privacy often miss out other narratives though; from invasions of physical space (such as the Stop and Search policy) to the shameful narratives that nations keep private, to the censorship of women’s bodies, to who faces the brunt of mass surveillance laws in Britain (for example through the PREVENT programme). And – of course – there’s a fun side to this too, and we also wanted to explore the personal and playful sides of our private lives through the lens of online histories, relationships and identities.
The programme features a lot of female and BAME voices – was this important to you in relation to the theme?
It was incredibly important. We’re aware that in an era of social media, surveillance and censorship, there are groups within society whose rights are taken away disproportionately. That’s something we wanted to examine not just in our Seasons but also in our wider work at Free Word. There is a structural problem in that very few, privileged people are defining the terms of public opinion. We are told a ‘marketplace of ideas’ exists but who holds the key to this marketplace? And on what terms can it be accessed? Can migrant women say #MeToo or will they fear deportation? How easy is it for a working class person to appear on Question Time? Who defines the terms of public debates?
These are some of the things we’ve been thinking about at Free Word and we hope to interrogate them in more depth through our programme in collaboration with writers, artists and activists from the so-called ‘margins’ whose voices are redefining mainstream discourse.
What role do you think poetry has to play when it comes to political and social themes?
Poetry is rooted in both the political and social; you can find solace & strength in the words of poets past and present. Audre Lorde said it best when she described poetry as something which ‘forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.’