Carolyn Forché in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti

At this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival, poet and human rights activist Carolyn Forché talked to Shami Chakrabarti, human rights campaigner and former Director of Liberty about writing, politics, and the ‘poetry of witness’.

Here at Young Poets Network, we’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role poetry has to play on a global stage. The results of our our Even It Up Poetry Challenge show plainly that poetry’s social and political conscience is something which preoccupies young writers more than ever. With this in mind, we wanted to share Carolyn and Shami’s illuminating discussion with you.

Our friends at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts tell us a little more about the context for their conversation.

“It changed what I thought poetry could be and do in the world”

Carolyn’s Forché’s ‘poetry of witness’ has never been more pertinent or more necessary. The filmed discussion between Carolyn Forché and Shami Chakrabarti gives you the opportunity to think about the relevance of poetry to questions of witness, human rights and politics, and to think about how poetry can best be written and can best offer a response to war, torture, imprisonment and other human rights abuses. How and why do we read this poetry? And what is the relationship between being a reader and being a witness?

Poetry of Witness

‘Poetry of Witness’, a term developed by Carolyn Forché, emerges from a tradition of 20th century poetry where political circumstances pervade the poem, as they pervade the life of the poet. In situations of war, imprisonment, torture or forced exile – the circumstances endured by many people in this century and the last – suffering, or the will to survive it, impresses itself on the poetic imagination.

“One thing that I think poetry does is extend and sustain the empathetic imagination”

The poetry of witness is not exclusively political, nor is it personal, but explores how both spheres interact with each other.  Carolyn Forché has written about how it may be wrong simply to abandon the idea of the ‘personal’ in poetry, because this can also be a powerful site of resistance. Simply celebrating the personal, however – for instance, in lyrics of love and loss –may be too narrow, and fail to recognise how larger structures surround or impact upon “the fragile realm of the individual”. Poetry, thought about in this way, has an important role to play: it can express the survival of our humanity, and sometimes is the only witness to it.

Carolyn Forché  in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti. Photo: Jeff Wilson
Carolyn Forché  in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti. Photo: Jeff Wilson

Carolyn Forché

Currently Visiting Professor at Newcastle University, Carolyn Forché is a renowned American poet, human rights activist, teacher and translator. Her poetry collections include The Country Between Us (1981), The Angel of History (1994) and Blue Hour (2003). She has also edited the ground-breaking anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993). She is Director of the Lannan Centre for Poetics and Social Practice at the University of Georgetown, Washington DC.

Shami Chakrabarti

Director of British civil liberties organisation, Liberty, until March 2016, Shami Chakrabarti has written, spoken and broadcast widely on the importance of the post-Second World War human rights framework as an essential component of democratic society. She is currently Chancellor of the University of Essex, a master of the Bench of Middle Temple and was made CBE in 2007. She is the author of On Liberty (2014).

Our thanks go to the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts at Newcastle University for their kind permission to use this recording, and for their support with this feature. 

What does the poetry of witness mean to you? Have you ever enacted it in your own writing? We’d love to hear your responses – please post them in the comments below, or email us at [email protected]

Published June, 2016

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