Poetry of protest gives view into distant worlds
Maya Weeks explores the role of poetry in today's landscape of protest.
17 Mar 14


A few weeks ago, 13,000 writers swarmed Seattle for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. In the seaport city known for its ideal reading (and writing) weather — and home to poet Maged Zaher — writers filled hotel rooms and bars. On official panels they debated the state of contemporary literature, and at offsite readings and parties, they celebrated the written word.

The song of the nightingale / Is not up for sale
Ziba Karbassi, Gravequake

On the other side of the hemisphere, Ziba Karbassi doesn’t need to attend a conference to know what contemporary literature looks like. Born in 1974 in Tabriz, Iran, this rising star of Persian poetry, who also writes in her first language of Azeri Turkish, has been living in exile in London since leaving her country in 1989. Karbassi has published eight books of poetry in Persian, and with Stephen Watts, she has translated much of her work into English.

Taken from an incident close to the author’s family in the 1980s, her poem “Death by Stoning” depicts a young pregnant woman taken to prison, tortured, and stoned to death:

I am not a scaffold to be toppled
not a felled tree to be sunk in the flood
I am only a bag of bones and skin
smashed about

The heavy consonants in the nouns and adjectives and the scattered form of the poem demonstrate the mother-to-be’s “anguished, loving, and crazed” state of mind. “Death by Stoning” shows how poetry can give us a view into worlds distant from — but not entirely unlike — our own. Poetry can also play a part in shaping our world.

After the US invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration in 2003, over 13,000 poets rallied in the global movement Poets Against the War. During Occupy Wall Street in the autumn of 2011, poets from around the world contributed to the People’s Library in Zuccotti Park to form a living, breathing, inclusive anthology of the moment. At Occupy Oakland’s Port Shutdown on 2 November, 2011, there was a strong poets’ contingent, and when protestors in Cairo marched on Tahrir Square in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, the meme “Don’t Afraid” from one protestor’s sign quickly became a poetic rallying cry for Oaklanders.

But for artists as for whistleblowers — especially those working against repression, colonialism, and the destruction of the environment by big business — exercising free speech, online or off, can still lead to worst-case scenarios of exile, as in Karbassi’s case, and execution, as friends, relatives, and fans of Arab-Iranian poet Hashem Shaabani can attest to.

What! Graveyard? Fear? Are you kidding? You’re kidding, right? 

Karbassi, however, is not afraid of expressing herself, and poets continue to organise, as manifested at the Revolution and/or Poetry conference in the San Francisco Bay Area in October 2013.

Our poetry is not exactly our politics, and our politics are not necessarily our poetry, but the line between them is blurry and easily crossed. Poetry remains a relatively free space: there are plenty of freely accessible journals on the internet; house and salon-style readings are growing in and around urban centres; anyone could submit to the Occupy Wall Street anthology, and all submitted poems were accepted. The art form remains a hopeful space for full participation in cultural and everyday life, whether we gather at conferences or in the streets — or both.

This article was posted on March 17, 2014 at

By Maya Weeks

Maya Weeks is a poet.