British Writers In Support of Palestine

October 28, 2018

Autumn Update: A Blade of Grass + Judith Kazantzis

 

As BWISP followers will know, the dynamic growth of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement has led to the formation of Artists for Palestine UK, a highly organised collective representing writers, artists, filmmakers, dancers, musicians and other cultural workers united in their support of the cultural and academic boycott of Israel. BWISP remains present on the scene, ready when needed, and has been focused lately on promoting Palestinian literature in the form of A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry, a bilingual anthology that I, BWISP co-founder Naomi Foyle, edited last year for Smokestack Books.

Since our last post, readings featuring poets Farid Bitar, Maya Abu Alhayyat, Marwan Makhoul and Mustafa Abu Sneineh have taken place in East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman and New York, and in the UK at BlakeFest (Bognor Regis) and the Ripon Poetry Festival, the latter at a City of Sanctuary event reflecting on the refugee experience and, in the words of poet Mustafa Abu Sneineh, challenging nostalgia in favour of resistance and reinvention.  All of these events have been well-attended by informed and concerned audiences with many questions to ask, building a sense of friendship and community around the anthology. A Blade of Grass also continues to provoke thoughtful and appreciative reviews in journals from Poetry Review to Sofia, the literary journal of the Sea of Faith Network, where Nora Parr declares that the book ‘doesn’t deliver in the way you’d expect, but deliver it does.’  Finally, we have celebrated the release of Dareen Tatour from jail this autumn, after she was convicted of incitement on the basis of a poem, and served a five month sentence. A world tour surely beckons, and we look forward to hopefully welcoming Dareen in the UK in the future.

To follow the book’s journey, please join us on its Facebook page. And if you don’t have it yet, A Blade of Grass can be ordered at any UK or American bookshop, or direct from the publisher. As of mid-October, it had sold 627 copies – which, considering most UK poetry books sell about 400 in total is pretty encouraging for our first year in print!

photo of Farid Bitar, Naomi Foyle, Marwan Makhoul & Maya Abu Alhayyat reading in East Jerusalem at the Al Ma’mal Foundation, photo by Al Ma’mal Foundation. 

 

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Sadly, I also have to report the death of BWISP co-founder Judith Kazantzis (1940-2018). The loss of Judith, three years after the death of her second husband and fellow BWISP initiator Irving Weinman, deprives British letters of one of its most incisive and lyrical voices. Poet, novelist, artist and human rights activist, author of twelve poetry collections, Judith’s life has been well-remembered in obituaries in the Daily Telegraph , the Independent, and the Guardian, the latter an eloquent tribute to Judith’s poetry from novelist Michèle Roberts, reprinted in the Irish Times.   All the obituaries honour Judith’s activism, it is a tribute to the creative power of Judith’s convictions that the Telegraph obituary not only mentioned BWISP, but quoted from her poem ‘Song of the Bulldozers’, written in response to the 2002 invasion of Jenin:

We are the diggers of Jenin,
we dig and then we bury things.
Like sofas, fridges, golden rings
terrorists and little girls.

Judith was a pioneer of third wave feminism, understanding from the start that the movement must include all women, and involve itself in decolonialist struggles, fighting against race, class, ableist and all other forms of oppression.  In her work with Spare Rib and the migrant solidarity campaigning group Kalayaan, and in her writing about Latin America, Judith was involved from early days in internationalist and intersectionalist activism.

As a human rights activist for Palestine Judith worked on many fronts. She wrote poems about Palestine, published in her last collection, Sister Invention, the Morning Star, and on her blog, where she also published political analysis and reflections. She was an active member of Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign, attending demonstrations, planning meetings, talks, fundraisers and supermarket protests. In 2009 she helped send a violin to Gaza, an instrument which, due to the blockade, was eventually donated to a music school in the West Bank. In 2010 she acted as co-consultant on the South Bank’s ‘Why Boycott Culture?’ debate. That Christmas she participated in Brighton’s annual Beach Hut Advent Calendar, helping to make the tenth night a vigil for a just peace in the holy land; footage of Judith in her big red woolly coat reading her poem ‘The Second Journey of the Three Wise Men’ was featured on the local BBC news. She also participated in BHPSC’s weekly demonstrations against the Brighton branch of Sodastream; as a chain with a factory in the occupied West Bank, the shop was subject to boycott and after a year of sustained protest, eventually the branch shut down.

As a BWISP co-founder, Judith helped enlist signatories, plan strategy, and draft campaign letters. In 2011 she contributed to a prominent exchange with Ian McEwan in the Guardian, requesting that he decline the Jerusalem Prize. She wrote a personal response to Howard Jacobson’s criticism of Alice Walker’s participation in the Freedom Flotilla II.  She encouraged me hugely as I took on my first real public engagement in national and international protest, and it was at the launch of her twelfth collection, Sister Invention, that her publisher, Andy Croft, invited me to edit A Blade of Grass for Smokestack Books. Of her role in building BWISP, Judith said:

I am thrilled and actually quite surprised so many serious and good writers have responded so quickly. . . .  the seriousness of the issue coming home to roost. It’s like it takes one person to say Come out and Stand up!

To come full circle in this post, it is no longer surprising to see Artists for Palestine UK attracting long roll calls of artists and writers willing to take a stand against the apartheid Israeli regime. As the IDF continues to murder Gazan civilians in cold blood, simply for participating on the Great March of Return, the seriousness of Israel’s crimes is crystal clear to anyone with a vision of a world that respects human rights.  Though Judith’s voice has been stilled, it is not silenced, but lives on in her work, lamenting, demanding and, always, loving.

 

 

Photo of Judith Kazantzis by Sarah Redin

‘Child in Gaza’ by Judith Kazantzis, published in Sister Invention (Smokestack Books, 2014)

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April 30, 2018

Crowdfunding Appeal: Help A Poet Return to Palestine!

Greetings to all BWISP supporters and welcome to all our new followers. Recent weeks have seen a spike of interest in the blog, which I take to be a response to the brutal Israeli response to the Great March of Return. Certainly when peaceful protesters, including children and journalists, are being massacred with impunity in full view of the world, many people wish to take action.

Only sustained international pressure and effective internal leadership will create a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moral leadership in Palestine is coming from the grassroots and, taking our cue from Palestinian activists, BWISP was formed to support the flourishing Palestinian cultural resistance.  We do this by promoting the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and by supporting Palestinian literature. This latter is vital because it asserts Palestinian existence against Israeli efforts to deny it, and helps to sustain Palestinian identity across the diaspora.

As BWISP co-ordinator, I am therefore currently seeking support from members and followers for a crowdfunding campaign in aid of the Palestinian launches of A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry. This bilingual anthology, which I edited last year for Smokestack Books, was launched to a standing-room only crowd at London’s P21 Gallery, and has since been praised in Poetry ReviewLondon Grip and Write Out Loud. Now it’s time to take the poems home – to Palestine. This summer the book will be launched at the Al Ma’mal Foundation in Jerusalem on July 27th, and at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah on July 28th. The events will feature locally-based contributors Maya Abu Alhayyat and Marwan Makhoul, Jerusalemite-Londoner Mustafa Abu Sneineh and Brighton-based editor (me!) Naomi Foyle. We will hopefully also hear readings from Dareen Tatour, who is currently under house arrest in Israel and awaiting a verdict this week on charges related to her poetry, and New York City-based spoken word poet and calligraphy artist Farid Bitar, who is seeking help with his airfare.

There’s more on the crowdfunding campaign here. We are also seeking help with associated venue costs of the Ramallah launch, while any extra funds raised will go to Dareen Tatour’s legal fund. Rewards include calligraphy drawings, CDs, and the anthology itself – which is also for sale here. Best of all, against the violent repression of the Great March of Return, you will carry in your heart the knowledge that you have helped one Palestinian set foot again in his beloved homeland. Thank you from Farid and myself for any and all contributions – and for helping to spread the word!

 

Farid Bitar and Naomi Foyle at the London launch of A Blade of Grass, held at P21 Gallery and featuring a pop-up exhibition of Farid’s calligraphy drawings.

 

PS: for those of you in New York, there’s a fundraiser in Harlem this week for Dareen. RSVP here for exact venue details.


March 1, 2018

A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry [Chichester Launch]

 

Following November’s sell-out launch at London’s P21 Gallery, celebrations of the new bilingual anthology A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry (Smokestack Books) continue.  The first review has appeared – and is glowing! – while February saw editor Naomi Foyle in discussion with Sarah Irving, editor of the landmark Scottish-Palestinian anthology A Bird is Not a Stone (Freight Books, 2015), an event chaired by Farah Aridi for Hibr: A Festival of Arab Poetry (Goldsmiths English PEN). Next up is a launch at Chichester University, where on Monday March 12th poet Mustafa Abu Sneineh and translator Waleed Al-Bazoon will join Naomi Foyle, also a Senior Lecturer at the University, for a reading of poems and translations from the book, followed by discussion and Q&A.

Monday March 12
4 – 5 pm
Academic Block 1.01
Bishop Otter Campus
College Lane
Chichester
P019 6PE
All welcome.  Free.

Should a trip to Chichester seem a daunting prospect, rest assured that the book can be ordered at any UK bookshop, or direct from the publisher.

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A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry brings together, in English and Arabic, new work by poets from the Palestinian territories, from the diaspora, and from within the disputed borders of Israel. Presenting work by Marwan Makhoul, Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, Fatena Al-Ghorra, Dareen Tatour, Ashraf Fayadh, Fady Joudah, Naomi Shihab Nye, Deema K. Shehabi, Mustafa Abu Sneineh, Farid Bitar, Sara Saleh and Mahmoud Darwish, and featuring an introduction by the book’s editor, poet and activist Naomi Foyle, the anthology celebrates the flourishing cultural resistance of the Palestinian people to decades of displacement, occupation, exile and bombardment. Voices fresh and seasoned converse with history, sing to the land, and courageously nurture an attachment to human fragility. Written in free verse and innovative forms, hip hop rhythms and the Arabic lyric tradition, these poems bear witness both to catastrophe, and to the powerful determination to survive it.

Smokestack Books is a small independent press based in Yorkshire. Smokestack champions poets who are unfashionable, radical, left-field and working a long way from the metropolitan centres of cultural authority. Smokestack is interested in the World as well as the Word; believes that poetry is a part of and not apart from society; argues that if poetry does not belong to everyone it is not poetry.

A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry was part-funded by a University of Chichester Research Development Award, granted to the editor. A portion of proceeds from the book will be donated toward the legal fees of Ashraf Fayadh and Dareen Tatour, both currently imprisoned, respectively in Saudi Arabia and Israel, on charges related to their poetry.

Mustafa Abu Sneineh is a poet and writer from Jerusalem. His first poetry collection A Black Cloud at The End of The Line was published in 2016. He holds a degree in Law from Birzeit University, Palestine and an MA in Postcolonial Studies from Goldsmiths College, London.

Waleed Al-Bazoon is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Basra in Iraq. He holds a PhD in Contemporary Fiction from the University of Chichester, where he has taught in the Department of English and Creative Writing, and is currently a Fellow. His poetry collection The War on Idigna appeared in 2011.

Naomi Foyle is an award-winning poet, novelist, verse dramatist, and essayist. Her books include The Night Pavilion, an Autumn 2008 Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and The Gaia Chronicles, a science fantasy quartet. In 2017 she co-translated the poetry collection Wounds of the Cloud by Yasser Khanger (Al Ma’mal Foundation, Jerusalem).

 

 

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