I hope you enjoyed the meeting yesterday and that you found an element of PEN with which you’d like to get involved. I’m sorry for the change of room – I had hoped for somewhere more comfortable. Don’t worry if you didn’t make it, there will be a lot to talk about at the next meeting.
I feel that perhaps I ought to have been a little more explicit in explaining the kinds of work that PEN does as a society. The honest answer is that among the numerous PEN centres, the international society does a huge range of things. Most centrally comes writing letters to writers held as prisoners of conscience (PEN stands for ‘Poets, Essayists, Novelists’, though might also be interpreted as referring to penitentiaries), but with that has grown a culture of promotion and activism for literature and free speech issues in general, which each PEN centre tackles differently. In fact, just trying to write a small blog post summing up our talk from Baroness Jenny Tonge last year proved that even within York PEN the members had radically different focuses and priorities, and that the society could offer no coherent voice, which is the reason why we now publish all posts with a name or initials attached.
As a new branch of the PEN tree, we have autonomy over how we run ourselves, so long as we act responsibly under their name. And as a new society, I would encourage all of you feel open to running meetings however you think works best. Please feel comfortable, if you’d like to, in bringing poems that inspire you and bringing up cases that speak to you. Write to a local prisoner, or a prison warden, and set up a book donation service. Translate something, even badly in your opinion, and put it on the website. Write an article or response to a human rights violation, or a critique of libel law. Our website gets views from over 50 countries in every continent bar Antarctica, and we’ll publish it.
If you’re feeling lost as to where to start, sign up to English PEN’s mailing list (bottom of the page, in the middle) and have a read of Martha Spurrier’s excellent User’s Guide to Free Speech which will give you an over view to the legal stance of the UK in these matters – which is a benchmark, even if not yet the benchmark. They won’t spam you and you’ll find it extremely useful for staying in the loop with matters PEN. Have an explore of English PEN’s main page as well for the cases that have been most prevalent recently.
For the next meeting, please have a little think about how you’d like to get involved. Have a look back over our website for ideas – you could help run campaigns (as we did for Liu Xiaobo), fundraise for the charity (newly permitted by RAG), raise awareness on campus, talk to your colleagues about PEN, research or translate some poetry/prose/opinions, write an article about a country that interests you, respond to a post someone else wrote on the website, or simply come to the meetings and appreciate what we hope you’ll find interesting – that is in promoting literature as a means of communication between cultures and as a voice for those whose voice has been taken away. We want York PEN to be vibrant and teeming, with ideas and collaboration.
Under ‘Campaigns’ in the toolbar or in the three posts below are the three potential campaigns that we brought to the first meeting – the 21 year-old female Syrian poet Tal Al-Mallouhi, Colombian Surrealist poet and mother Angye Gaona, and 84 year-old Tibetan master printer Paljor Norbu. We’ll be holding a vote this week (facebook event here) for a main case, but it doesn’t mean we’ll be totally ignoring the other cases – please have a good look at each one, and we can start a campaign on campus as soon as possible. Because of issues with room booking, we’ll confirm the date and room on Facebook and by email.
Importantly, this list is not exclusive. If you’d like to recommend a case, please do so as soon as possible so that we can put a bio on the website and so everyone can see it.
Thanks again for signing up and coming to the meeting – we’ll do our best to keep you in the loop via email, and we’ll let you know which meetings are the most important. But do try to attend what you can, as we believe that it’s through physical presence and activity, and not simply ‘membership’, that the charity is going to flourish.
All the best,