Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot — Part One: Editors’ Foreword and Introduction by George Szirtes

 
 
 
 
Contributors
are Sascha Aurora Akhtar, Sandra Alland, David Ashford, Tim Atkins, Andrew Bailey, Sirama Bajo, Richard Barrett, Susan Birchenough, Mark Burnhope, Wayne Burrows, David Caddy, John Calvert, Jen Campbell, Theodoros Chiotis, Karen Connelly, Jennifer Cooke, Rebecca Cremin & Ryan Ormonde, Sarah Crewe, Sarah Crewe & Jo Langton, Alison Croggon, Tim Dooley, Betty Doyle, Sasha Dugdale, Laurence Ebersole, Amy Etkins, Chris Emslie, John Ennis, Amy Evans, Gareth Evans, Katy Evans-Bush, SJ Fowler, Kit Fryatt, Lucy Furlong, Charlotte Geater, The Gingerbread Tree, Jay Griffiths, Hel Gurney, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Steven Heighton, Sophie Herxheimer & Alison Winch, Sarah Hesketh, Jeff Hilson, Adam Horovitz, Ray Hsu, Peter Hughes, Philo Ikonya & Helmuth Niederle, Kirsten Irving, Genowefa Jakubowska-Fijalkowska, Maria Jastrzebska, Tom Jenks, Antony John, Phill Jupitus, Amy Key, John Kinsella, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Deborah Levy, Ira Lightman, Francesca Lisette, M Ly-Eliot, Alex MacDonald, Melissa Mack, Christodoulos Makris, Aoife Mannix, Barbara Marsh, Agnes Marton, Sophie Mayer, Sally McAlister, Michelle McGrane, Michael McKimm, Drew Milne, Helen Moore, AF Moritz, Barbara Norden, Redell Olsen, Sandeep Parmar, Anna Percy, Jody Porter, Frances Presley, Karen Press, Katy Price, Ana Pulteney, Chella Quint, Red of The Vaginellas, Selina Robertson, Sophie Robinson, Shelagh M Rowan-Legg, Fathieh Saudi, John Siddique, Adrian Slatcher, Daniel Sluman, Ali Smith, Barbara Smith, Tom Spencer, John Stone, Andrew Taylor, Philip Terry, Sarah Thomasin, Claire Trevien, George Ttoouli, Gareth Twose, Jack Underwood, Steve Waling, Tony Walsh, Michael Weller, Tim Wells, JT Welsch, Ginna Wilkerson, Alison Winch, Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Veronica Zundel.
 
 
 
Translators into Russian are Andrei Aliaksandru, Vladimir Andreev, Marina Brodskaya, Chicago Translation Workshop, Elena Edwards, Tatiana Filimonova, Sophie Gug, Mary Harrah, Masha Karp, Svitlana Kobets, Sergei Korenevskiy, Nokolai Kozin, Maria ozlovskaya, Dasha McLeish, Cat Paronjan, Tatiana Samsonova, Maria Shukurova, Dmitry Simanovsky, James Taylor, Jennifer Wilson and John Wright.
 
 
 
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Editors’ Foreword
 
Red Letter Day: Poetry and Protest for Pussy Riot
 
  
Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot is a communion of the visual and lyrical; rhymed, satirical and experimental poetry in tribute to political prisoners of conscience, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. It contains a cornucopia of approaches to freedom and to feminism, from opposing patriarchy to reclaiming pussy from a book of dirty words. It is an offertory for three women whose actions have woken up the need for change, in not just their own authoritarian state, but also in how we address gender politics and all forms of oppression in our own society. Featured poets include Alison Croggon, Amy Evans, Jeff Hilson, Tom Jenks, Amy Key, Agnes Marton, Michelle McGrane, Sophie Robinson, Andrew Taylor and 100 more.
 
 
Summing up the work of 110 poets in 110 words is never easy – especially when the poets in question have donated their work rapidly and generously. Our anthology, which includes nearly 100 poems written especially for the band, has come together in under three weeks. What started as a conversation among four friends on Facebook, sparked by a post from EngPussyRiot that provided instructions on how to send letters to the band, has become a transnational conversation of hundreds powered by social media but driven by the same community and generosity among writers that informed the foundation of English PEN, who have supported this project practically and imaginatively from the beginning.
 
 
Both the example set by Pussy Riot – fierce, feminist champions of freedom – and the example being made of them by the Russian judiciary has fired something in writers around the world. The band’s punk prayer uses language precisely and powerfully – and it’s inspired the poets who’ve contributed to do the same. They’ve taken risks in recognition of the real legal and physical dangers facing the Writers at Risk supported by PEN internationally.
 
 
We have been overwhelmed by the wit, passion, elegance and variety of the poetic protests we’ve received. Some are funny, like Phill Jupitus’ puntastic ‘Girl Banned’ and Sophie Herxeimer’s short and sharp ‘Trollops’ Cathedral’. Others are bold and angry, like Sophie Robinson’s vivid ‘Free Pussy’ and Tim Atkin’s extraordinary ‘I Love the Rich’, which adapts a poem by Maria Tsvetaeva. Many poets, including Sirama Bajo, Steve Waling, JT Welsch and Veronica Zundel, have responded to the band’s Punk Prayer with their own new invocations. Sasha Dugdale wrote from Russia, Sally McAlister from France, and John Kinsella from Australia. Philo Ikonya, International PEN member, has been reading his roll call of unriotous dictators at events in Norway.
 
 
The PEN blog, where around 45 of the poems have been posted, along with images of their poets in balaclavas, carried the message further than we could ever have imagined: offers of poems poured in, from poets such as seventeen year old activist Betty Doyle, and feminist performance poets Anna Percy, Ana Pulteney, Barbara Smith, and Sarah Thomasin – often with videos, such as Pulteney’s performance in her church in Totnes, Devon. Twenty-two poets who took part in SJ Fowler’s and Richard Barrett’s Poems for Pussy Riot in London and Manchester shared their poems.
 
 
The book, as you’ll see, even includes cut-out-and-wear poem-balaclava masks created by Mark Burnhope, and a stencil by Chella Quint so you can create your own Pussy Riot protest wherever you are. Please read, share, tweet, translate, remix, and keep our prayers for Pussy Riot’s freedom alive.
 
 
Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer
 
 
 
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Introduction
by George Szirtes
 
 
An anthology of poems dedicated to a political purpose is not so much an anthology of poems as a political act in poetic form.
 
 
There is a long history of such anthologies including 100 Poems Against the War, edited by Todd Swift at the time of the Iraq War in 2003, and, about ten years before that, Klaonica: Poems for Bosnia, edited by Ken Smith and Judy Benson. The two were different in that 100 Poems was an act of protest about a war in which the UK and US were the initiators and actors, whereas the second was to raise money for victims of a war faced by others, the contributing poets being helpless observers. The poets in Klaonica were not taking the Serbian or Bosnian or, for that matter, the Croatian side, but donating work to relieve suffering, much as they might donate money.
 
 
There are many other causes in which poets might do the same – hospitals, libraries, celebrations, childhood and so forth – but from the political point of view 100 Poems and Klaonica represent the two main kinds.
 
 
Catechism
is of the second kind. It has been rapidly compiled by its editors to protest – from the outside, as it were – against the two-year sentence imposed on Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, three members of a much larger (twelve to fifteen members) punk band known  as Pussy Riot, for staging a brief masked performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The performance, by five members of the band was quickly put up on YouTube and within eleven days, two of the band, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, were under arrest. Thirteen days later Samutsevich was also arrested. The two remaining members of the performing band have, it is presumed, gone abroad to avoid arrest. The song the band was singing at the time was a raucous prayer asking the Mother of God to chase away President Putin. The two-year sentence is due to be appealed on 1 October, 2012.
 
 
These are the bare facts but the cause of Pussy Riot is more complex than that.
 
 
In the first place the performance was about President Putin personally, and articulated a desire to see him leave the political stage.
 
 
Who is Putin? Russians in general have mixed feelings about him. The period straight after the fall of the Soviet Union in President Gorbachev’s time, was followed by a few chaotic years under President Yeltsin. Those years were wounding and humiliating for a people that had felt stable and, in many respects, proud of their role in the Second World War as well as on the international stage afterwards. The Soviet Union with its Warsaw Pact was an equal and opposite force to the United States and NATO.
 
 
A good part of those who remembered the pre-Gorbachev era, before the dismemberment of the Soviet empire, looked back to those times with a certain nostalgia, because, despite the gulags, despite the secret arrests, despite the censorship, despite the increasing corruption, they felt safe. Given Russia’s history, their feelings about authoritarianism were and remain very different from our feelings about individual freedoms in Europe and the West. The ‘strong hand’ – inevitably a patriarchal hand – was something many trusted. When Putin came along offering just that in a new form in a world of oil and oligarchs, he seemed to them welcome. Anything but the madness under Yeltsin!
 
 
But that opinion is clearly not universal in Russia. A good many people have strong fears of the establishing of a new, more corrupt, one-party state in which the state itself is the largest oligarch, a state in which notions of ‘tradition’ are imposed on those who, for very good reason, wish to free themselves from it.
 
 
Putin is an individual, the most powerful individual in the state, but Pussy Riot’s performance, as I read it, was not only about Putin – it was also a protest against the kind of power Putin symbolises.
 
 
This includes the Russian Orthodox church. The church has an important role in maintaining Putin’s power since it represents a very large conservative constituency in Russia, one that somehow survived the officially atheist Soviet period to prosper after it. The church is an alternative embodiment of the ‘strong hand’ Putin can employ to influence and control the Russian electorate, which is why the performance, including the reference to the Mother of God, took place in a major Moscow church closely associated with Putin. The church is, necessarily, patriarchal.
 
 
And the patriarchy – both formal and informal in terms of the family and society generally – is clearly important to a band calling itself Pussy Riot. The performance was, in those terms, a call for female solidarity and rebellion against a state of affairs where Putin’s masculinity is a highly constructed point of appeal. Jack Underwood has a poem in this anthology that comically highlights precisely this aspect of Putin’s power: Putin the macho man, Putin who offers or denies you the power because he not only knows best, but has the means to effect his will. Pussy Riot is a highly intelligent form of resistence to such will: it is a call to disobedience.
 
 
Since Putin seems assured of the power, it is rather surprising that the courts should have decided to act as severely as they did. Intended primarily for home consumption, as a warning, the charge and sentence, has been entirely counter-productive in international terms. The charge of ‘hooliganism’ is rather like the one of ‘parasitism’ that was directed at the Nobel Prize winning poet, Josef Brodsky in 1964. It is broadly seen as a charge of convenience. In that sense Pussy Riot has grown from a minor nuisance to a global cause. They are up there with Brodsky. A crushing and oppressive two-year sentence becomes very big news. The result is that Pussy Riot look, as they actually are, highly intelligent while Russia looks cruel and stupid.
 
 
 
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For people on this side of the equation the issue is not so much with Putin as with what Putin represents and what Pussy Riot represent. The meaning of Pussy Riot, for many, is as evidenced in the poems published here, less a political incident, more a cross-section of contemporary concerns and passions symbolised by the three young women. The meanings of Pussy Riot in this context begin with what the name suggests, that’s to say feminism in its various forms and moods, from assertion of rights, through core issues of identity, down to protest at an inimical, oppressive male world. This meaning – probably the most intense meaning – involves a conception of the world that is the polar opposite of Putin’s.
 
 
Then again, since Pussy Riot calls itself, and performs as, a punk band, the meaning of the group is derived from and invites a punk aesthetic that is partly tribal, partly anarchic, looking to be disruptive of conservative views and manners, in exactly the same way as Pussy Riot were disruptive in the church.
 
 
Beyond that, the band is young: there is also the invitation to youth. It is not precisely an old-versus-young battle but, in this case, it is the young, masked and loud, who are in the vanguard. For many they represent the potential for a new and different model of Russia.
 
 
Each of these models and antitheses is crude in itself – life, we know, is more subtle than that – but the antitheses remain. Most importantly, trumping all other concerns, is a conception of justice. It is simply wrong to jail people for that length of time for the minor office of disruption. Three unjustly accused individuals stand against a state led by a former operative of the KGB, a state that has seen the arrest and assassination of vocal opponents. In many ways it is like the old days: the repressive state against its dissidents. The corrupt system against those who protest its corruption.
 
 
 
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The anthology contains a variety of poems, some, like Andrew Bailey’s, the second of Mark Burnhope’s, Rebecca Cremin and Ryan Ormonde’s, Tim Dooley’s, John Ennis’s, Charlotte Geater’s, Jay Griffith’s and others (the list is too long and I am going alphabetically) address the case directly or refer to it obliquely. More numerous are poems that are born out of a sympathetic feeling, identifying something in Pussy Riot that corresponds with the feeling of the poet in respect of feminism or authority or sheer voice quality. There may be earlier poems now grown particularly relevant. There are poems that appear on a larger map of concerns that happen to find themselves here.
 
 
There are poems of various styles including Alison Croggon’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Perpetual’, SJ Fowler’s ‘They’, Kit Fryatt’s ‘Sounds Like Sense’, Sarah Hesketh’s sharp ‘Some Protest Stones’, Philo Ikonya and Helmuth A. Niederle’s ‘Pussy Riot For Ever: The Body’, Amy Key’s ‘Cat Power’, John Kinsella’s ‘Penillion for Pussy Riot’, Aoife Mannix’s ‘The Eye of the Needle’, and so on. I don’t pick these out because I think they are the best poems, only because they are broadly different. I could pick many others.
 
 
Like any contributor to such anthologies, I am fully aware that it is unlikely to affect the course of events in any measurable way, though it may perhaps add to the weight of protest that hopes, at some stage, on some level, to influence the Russian court and indeed that part of the Russian people who support the sentence. It might be a consolation to Pussy Riot, and to those for whom they speak, that there are many people – including poets – who listen to them and talk back in support. A book of poems in a foreign language published in a foreign place is rarely a factor in the decisions of a hostile administration, but this is downloadable. It may be a factor somewhere, somehow. Who can tell? One has hope or one has nothing.
 
 
Speaking personally it is quite odd for me as an almost sixty-four year old male poet to be writing this introduction. It was odd, but rather nice to be asked on the spur of the moment and to say: yes. Of course I wondered if I was out of place. I am not looking to be cool with those younger than me or of a different gender. I have been on a few demonstrations but never felt it to be my natural place.
 
 
I ask myself this: if the world were arrayed into forces represented by President Putin on the one side and Pussy Riot on the other I know which side I’d be on and it wouldn’t be Putin’s. That’s where we are, and that’s where this is. And that is why it is a privilege to write this introduction.
 
 
– George Szirtes
 
 
 
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All profits from both the Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot e-book and print on demand copies will go to the Pussy Riot Legal fund and the English PEN Writers at Risk Programme.
 

Order Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot.
 
Download the Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot e-book

Visit English PEN’s website.

Visit English PEN’s Poems for Pussy Riot project page.

Read some of the Pussy Riot poems on English PEN’s website.

Visit EngPussyRiot’s live journal.

Visit George Szirte’s website and blog.
 
 
 
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