Reviews of the Ephemeral

An Interview with the Editors of ‘Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot’. Part 1.

In Conversation on October 10, 2012 at 9:54 pm

-In Virtual Conversation with Claire Trévien

A three way interview with the editors of the print and ebook anthology Catechism: Poem for Pussy Riot: Sophie Mayer, Sarah Crewe and Mark Burnhope. The poems, were translated into Russian in collaboration with PEN and sent to the band. All funds raised by the anthology go towards Pussy Riot’s legal fund and PEN’s Writers at Risk programme. This is part 1 of our interview with them (part 2 will follow shortly).

1) First things first, what drew you to the Pussy Riots trial above all other current events? Do you find that their actions have echoes with your own poetry (or poetry in general)?

Sophie Mayer: I came to political consciousness as a teenager, reaching against an orthodox religious upbringing, through riot grrrl and feminist poetry – writers such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Chrystos – so Pussy Riot’s case resonated with both of those, with their daring. Their appeal to a tradition of resistance within the Orthodox church, as the church of the people – and the Virgin Mary as a powerful female figure – was so strong, and so immediate. The vivid colours, words and actions, the sense of riotous humour, the energy of their performance carried so strongly internationally via YouTube. We’re the same generation, sharing access to similar kinds of knowledge and tools; that struck me hard, too.

Mark Burnhope: Well, my poetry does have an equality/civil rights/social justice thread running through it; as a disabled person, ‘advocate’ has become one of my default settings through no choice of my own, I think. But my first involvement in Pussy Riot’s story was as a poet for Catechism. I heard that the plan was to send them a poem anonymously. That was my hook. When Sophie asked me to help edit the final e-book with her and Sarah, I won’t lie, I felt like a hitchhiker, particularly on the cause of feminism. I couldn’t just tick off another social issue box to add to my CV. I called myself a feminist, but didn’t know which writers to read. I knew that by saying ‘I am a feminist’, I was placing myself somewhere on a wide spectrum of opinion and argument. Where was I? I didn’t know.

But I knew some things: 1) Governments shouldn’t use churches as buildings of entrapment. They’re meant to be places of liberation. 2) ‘Blasphemy’ as a legal category is always a misnomer: against the backdrop of a religiously diverse Russia, Pussy Riot’s ‘crime’ was to stage a surprise protest – a prayer – not against God, but against a government taking God’s name in vain, trying to monopolise the religious devotion of the people. Their ‘crime’ was exposing the irony that no one comes to the Virgin Mary, the Mother, except through Putin. Finally, 3) Jesus rioted in the Temple, turned the tables on those who had turned God’s house into a den of thieves. The thieves here were of conviction, conscience and voice, and Putin’s government had a network of dens.

In the short time I’ve worked on Catechism, I’ve become more convinced than ever that whichever rope is being pulled – for sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism – the same patriarchy is holding all the threads together. The poets writing for Catechism have heard the same bell ringing as I have.

Sarah Crewe: I had actually heard of Pussy Riot before as my brother in law is a musician and very politically active with LBGT issues, so to see them go from a band he’d talked about to suddenly being propelled into the news like that was bizarre. I think that four Russian women in a punk band, complete with colour, balaclavas and a shedload of attitude was going to be pretty hard for me to ignore personally. I think, or at least, i hope, the fact that i’m interested in women’s issues, Russia, colour and punk comes through in my own work.

2) Did the project quickly crystallize into its current shape? How did you come up with the idea of having the poems translated into Russian and sent to the band?

SM: EngPussyRiot posted guidelines for how to send a letter to the band in prison. Liv Moss, who organised an amazing fundraiser for Pussy Riot in London on 9th September, shared them on Facebook. I re-posted them and suggested we might send the band poems instead of letters, on the thinking that poems might be able to get through the prison censors more easily that direct letters. Several people jumped on it – then the following day, I invited more. Liv contacted me to say she would be able to assist with getting the letters to the band if I could get them translated into Russian.

That’s when I contacted English PEN, to ask for help finding translators. They immediately said they’d like to support the project by publishing the poem. In about three days, it went from a speculative conversation about sending a few poems to an English PEN-supported and –promoted project. And in about three weeks, it became a book.

SC: I think Sophie’s answer covers this perfectly!

3) What place do politics have in poetry? Is all poetry political, just some more explicitly than others?

SC: I certainly don’t think all poetry is political. I’ve heard people argue that just by participating in a creative medium, the act of making this choice is political, and I’ve also heard the same point being used to suggest that all female poets are feminist by this definition. I can’t agree with either. There’s nothing remotely political about writing a poem about, say, the poet’s last holiday. Many people don’t care for writing about politics, and that’s fine, as long as they don’t jump on a bandwagon claiming to be political on the grounds of being a poet.

In terms of the place politics has in poetry, I think, as with all forms of writing, it’s a perfect opportunity to express concerns and raise issue through an artistic medium. Anything that makes people think has to be a force for good and for positive change. However, I also think that with poetry, the poetry always has to come first, i.e. if the politics are great but the poetry is awful, I can’t ignore that, and I don’t think it helps any cause at all to have what sounds like an immature, inarticulate ranting session masquerading as a poem. Good job Catechism is so brilliant really, haha!

MB: As a reader, I think that the only thing that doesn’t deserve a place in poetry is bad writing. ‘Content’ is up for grabs, and I’m not about to say what shouldn’t be written about (if I did, I would only be revealing what I can’t write about well). As a writer, I think that people too easily use ‘political’ and ‘propagandist’ as synonyms, and they’re not. Everything we write, whether we like it or not, carries what we care about. A poem might wear those things lightly or heavily (and lightly is always better, if you’ve been listening to your poetry tutors) but they’re always there. In that sense at least, poetry is always political. If a poem doesn’t invite possible objections, disagreements, disgusts, neither will it persuade anyone of anything. And if it doesn’t do either, it probably isn’t a poem.

Ultimately, I’ve always doubted ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. If people sometimes sneer at ideological ‘feminism’, it’s because they are sceptical of any single-issue politics – of disability, LGBT, any of that stuff – and to me, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ smells of another one. Even if all poetry isn’t political, I reckon it all should be useful.

SM: What the case of Pussy Riot shows is that language is political: the case against them was about the words they used, who used them, and where. Poetry works with and in language and symbols: so, for me, poetry is political and activist, in that it engages intensively with the fabric of political discourse, and can resist the way that the powers-that-be insist on stable, singular and exclusive definition – with punitive effect, in the case of Pussy Riot.

I think that Pussy Riot made lots of us realise, with a sudden shock, just how political what we do is – about the risks that writers run when they put words together. Some of the poets in the anthology – poets involved in feminist poetics, disability poetics, or left poetics – actively practice poetry politically; while other poets may have found themselves finding a political voice for the first time.

Advertisements
  1. […] A three way interview with the editors of the print and ebook anthology Catechism: Poem for Pussy Riot: Sophie Mayer, Sarah Crewe and Mark Burnhope. The poems, were translated into Russian in collaboration with PEN and sent to the band. All funds raised by the anthology go towards Pussy Riot’s legal fund and PEN’s Writers at Risk programme. This is part 2 of our interview with them (part 1 can be found here). […]

  2. […] An Interview with the Editors of 'Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot … […]

  3. SC: I certainly don’t think all poetry is political. I’ve heard people argue that just by participating in a creative medium, the act of making this choice is political, and I’ve also heard the same point being used to suggest that all female poets are feminist by this definition. I can’t agree with either. There’s nothing remotely political about writing a poem about, say, the poet’s last holiday. Many people don’t care for writing about politics, and that’s fine, as long as they don’t jump on a bandwagon claiming to be political on the grounds of being a poet.

  4. […] like to hear from you (www.harrygiles.org). The editors of Catechism were interviewed by Sabotage here and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: