I’ve come across an old piece on Guantánamo Bay censorship policy, via a new piece on the same. The recent piece is about poetry going into the US facility there; the earlier article is about poetry coming out. It quotes some fascinating rationale for the close monitoring of poetry written by inmates:
But most of the poems, [sent by inmates to Marc Falkoff at NIU] are unlikely to ever see the light of day. Not content with imprisoning the authors, the Pentagon has refused to declassify many of their words, arguing that poetry “presents a special risk” to national security because of its “content and format”. In a memo sent on September 18 2006, the team assigned to deal with communications between lawyers and their clients explains that they do not “maintain the requisite subject matter expertise” and says that poems “should continue to be considered presumptively classified”.
The article goes on to quote some prisoner poets on their motivations:
Moazzam Begg, who spent three years in Guantánamo Bay before being released without charge in January 2005, began writing poetry as a way of explaining what he was going through. He knew that everything he wrote would be censored, so used poetry to try to describe his situation to his family.
“The idea was to say it without saying it,” he says, “and to explain to my interrogators that it was a farce.”
The formal constraints of poetry gives the writer control over their material, he says, “the ability to say the words without going into a rant”.
Poetry was also a way of engaging with the system.
“I knew that everything I wrote would be censored,” he continues, “and that the person censoring it would have to read the poem.” By writing in English, a language rarely used by detainees in the camp, he was able to communicate directly with guards, and perhaps those higher up in the US military.
It was also a way of “showing anger” and “channelling frustration”.
The obvious parallels are to “dissident” poets, playwrights, and musicians of Eastern Europe, who carved out small cultural undergrounds for themselves and like minded people, sometimes suffering tremendously for it.
But the response of the state in the face of this couldn’t be more different. In this excerpt from a smuggled transcript of the 1964 trial of Joseph Brodsky for “social parasitism”, compare the Judge’s preconceptions regarding education, training, and the value of poetry to the US military’s conclusion that it does not “maintain the requisite subject matter expertise”:
Judge: But what is your specialist qualification?
Brodsky: Poet. Poet-translator.
Judge: And who declared you to be a poet? Who put you on the list of poets?
Brodsky: No-one. (Spontaneously.) And who put me on the list of human beings?
Judge: And did you study for this?
Brodsky: For what?
Judge: For being a poet. You didn’t try to take a course in higher education where they train … teach …
Brodsky: I didn’t think it came from education.
Judge: How does one become a poet, then?
Brodsky: I think it comes… (embarrassed)…from God…
[my translation, see Defending Poetry, p.71 ff]
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