National Poetry Day: Natalya Gorbanevskaya

Natalya Gorbanevskaya (b 1936) was active in the Russian dissident movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That movement provided the impetus and inspiration for the founding of Index on Censorship. After facing severe oppression in Russia, including being deemed committed to a psychiatric hosptial (a common punishment for dissidents), Gorbanevskaya fled to Paris, where she now lives.

Index published 14 of her poems, smuggled out of the Soviet Union, in our very first issue in 1972. This is one of them.

Turn the sky over,
lower it into the sea,
the silent into the voiceless.
Help the sea to rise,
lift the sea into the sky,
sea-blue into sky-blue,
height and depth
bring into balance.

Balance yourself and the world,
the world and the ladybird,
the wavelet and the wave
that drags you under to the bottom.
And go down to the bottom, softly
banging the moist doors behind you.

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National Poetry Day: Jack Mapanje

Jack-MapanjeBorn in Malawi in 1944, Jack Mapanje, one of Africa’s most distinguished poets, studied in England before returning to teach at the University of

His first collection of poems, Of Chameleons and Gods, published in the UK in 1981, was banned in Malawi in June 1985 due to its being ‘full of … coded attacks’ on the ruling dictatorship of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Two years later, in September 1987, he was imprisoned without trial or charge by the Malawian government.

Many writers, linguists and human rights activists campaigned for his release, including Harold Pinter and Wole Soyinka, and in 1990 he was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Despite this international pressure, Mapanje served almost four years in Mikuyu prison, where he composed his second collection of poetry, The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison, and most of his third collection, Skipping without Ropes. He was finally released in May 1991.

On His Royal Blindness Paramount Chief Kwangala
by Jack Mapanje

I admire the quixotic display of your paramountcy
How you brandish our ancestral shields and spears
Among your warriors dazzled by your loftiness
But I fear the way you spend your golden breath
Those impromptu, long-winded tirades of your might
In the heat, do they suit your brittle constitution?

I know I too must sing to such royal happiness
And I am not arguing. Wasn’t I too tucked away in my
Loin-cloth infested by jiggers and fleas before
Your bright eminence showed up? How could I quibble
Over your having changed all that? How dare I when
We have scribbled our praises all over our graves?

Why should I quarrel when I too have known mask
Dancers making troubled journeys to the gold mines
On bare feet and bringing back fake European gadgets
The broken pipes, torn coats, crumpled bowler hats,
Dangling mirrors and rusty tincans to make their
Mask dancing strange? Didn’t my brothers die there?

No, your grace, I am no alarmist nor banterer
I am only a child surprised how you broadly disparage
Me shocked by the tedium of your continuous palaver. I
Adore your majesty. But paramountcy is like a raindrop
On a vast sea. Why should we wait for the children to
Tell us about our toothless gums or our showing flies?

National Poetry Day: Zarganar

zarganar-2Zarganar is Burma’s leading comedian and an accomplished poet, writer, and director who throughout his career has used his artistic talents to draw attention to political repression in Burma.

Zarganar was first arrested in 1988 following the pro-democracy demonstrations, in which he played a leading role. As reading and writing were forbidden in his cell in Insein Prison, he mixed dust from the bricks in his cell with water and wrote poetry on the floor, committing the poems to memory and sweeping away the evidence. He was freed after six months.

He was arrested again in 1990 while making jokes at a political rally, and was returned to Insein, where he spent five years in solitary confinement.

Following his release, he was increasingly involved in social activism and worked closely with international NGOs. During the ‘Saffron Revolution’ of 2007, Zarganar was one of the key figures to lead public support. This led to a further three weeks in detention.

Zarganar’s arrest in June 2008 resulted from his criticism of the Cyclone Nargis relief effort. He had personally organised support from the Burmese arts community and oversaw its delivery to the delta. He was angered by the neglect and corruption he encountered and spoke out about this in interviews. In November 2008, he was convicted of ‘public order offences’ and sentenced to 59 years in prison, later reduced to 35 years.

In late 2008, Zargana was moved to Myitkyina Prison in northern Burma, 1,500km from his family home. Zarganar was awarded the inaugural PEN/Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage in 2009. He was release from prison in October 2011.

by Zargana
Translated by Vicky Bowman

It’s lucky my forehead is flat
Since my arm must often rest there.
Beneath it shines a light I must invite
From a moon I cannot see
In Myitkyina.


Listen to Index’s Free Speech Bites Podcast interview here