This week we discussed a collection of poems edited by the lawyer Mark Falkoff, Poems from Guantanamo; the Detainees Speak (2007). One participant noted that “IPP in this country is bad but at least we don’t torture them”. Given the detainees’ situation, our group found the writings to be quite “incredible”.
Though participants were all acutely aware of 9/11 and the War on Terror, we spent a few introductory minutes clarifying the role that Guantanamo Bay has played in America’s “crusade” for democracy and freedom, both home and abroad. The group were unanimous in their conclusions that it was “ridiculous” and “astonishing” that these men could be held without a trial or access to a lawyer, despite the exceptional circumstances of war. The biographies listed before each poem – detailing inmates’ prior lives as charity workers, students, teachers – served to heighten sympathies further.
The group were unduly impressed by the quality of the poems considering the lack of formal writing lessons, as well as the wider struggles involved in creating and publishing the book itself. In an interview with Amnesty International Magazine (and also detailed in the collection’s introduction), Falkoff explains that detainees were originally not permitted pen and paper. Some inmates wrote poems on Styrofoam cups salvaged from meal times. They then “inscribed their words with pebbles or traced out letters with small dabs of toothpaste” and passed these “cup poems” from cell to cell.[i] A couple of these poems were included in the collection and one of our group stated such works implied “you can treat us like shit but you can’t stop us talking to one another”.[ii]
Eventually the military authorised writing materials and “for the first time poems could be preserved”. Nonetheless, most were initially destroyed because the Pentagon felt poetry “presents a special risk” to national security due to its “content and format.”[iii] We likened this to slaves in the cotton fields singing songs that carried coded messages about escape and rebellion (not that there was ever any evidence of such secret language among the G-Bay poetry). The Pentagon also heavily censored the poems that were eventually submitted for classification review. 22 were finally published in this collection.
Our group were sure that the authorities would not have permitted any particularly graphic poems (e.g. “about torture”) to be released. They were somewhat amused that one of the verses states “America sucks” and references “American pigs”.[iv] They wondered why the Pentagon would have consented to this piece being published, perhaps to deem the collection “authentic”? It was also ironically observed that this particular poem appropriated rap music (“Yeahhhhhhh!”), music which of course originated in the US and has a history of being denounced
by the authorities.
The group voiced their surprise at the lack of anger in some of the poems; “are these the kind of poems you would write if you were snatched off the street?” Indeed, “I’d have written f*ck you!” It was noted how difficult it is in prison to not respond if someone “comes at you and wants to kick off”. Yet these poems imply these inmates are rising above their distressing circumstances, and in so doing revealing their humanity.
While I have my own selfish reasons for wishing to stimulate discussion about America and American prisons, I was keen that these groups may also have the potential to extend beyond American-centric discussion and even creative writing. The benefits of study and writing groups for (former) prisoners are extensive and I have documented this elsewhere on this blog. But it would be a bonus if we could stimulate conversations about topical issues more generally. I am not so naive as to assume that we can prevent re-offending and secure people jobs by referencing the news. But current affairs are an unavoidable part of our daily life and general knowledge can contribute to both personal and professional enrichment. In light of the tragic events in Paris just a couple of days prior to this group, we ended up in a passionate debate about the rise of ISIS stemming from involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the poems we read out loud entitled, “They Fight for Peace,” suggests peace itself can be a contradiction because “going to war for peace can fuel further conflict”.[v]
In the creative writing section today, we wrote poems in reply to some of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Falkoff’s book. Russ asked participants to think about their own experiences of incarceration, and whether there were times when they really needed “home”? He advised, “find something you really want to say and give these people hope”. To give just one brief example that was written:
All I want to say, is
One day you are going
To be OK
The tide will turn now
You’re having your say.
[i] Mark Falkoff, “Poems from Guantanamo”, Amnesty International Magazine, 12 December 2007, http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/news-item/poems-from-guantanamo [accessed 24 November 2015].
[ii] Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost, “Cup poem 1 & 2”, in Mark Falkoff (ed.), Poems from Guantanamo Bay (Iowa City: Uni of Iowa Press, 2007): 35.
[iii] Mark Falkoff, “Poems from Guantanamo”, Amnesty International Magazine, 12 December 2007, http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/news-item/poems-from-guantanamo [accessed 24 November 2015].
[iv] Martin Mubanga, “Terrorist 2003”, in Mark Falkoff (ed.), Poems from Guantanamo Bay (Iowa City: Uni of Iowa Press, 2007): 56.
[v] Shaker Abdurraheem Aamer, “They Fight for Peace”, in Mark Falkoff (ed.), Poems from Guantanamo Bay (Iowa City: Uni of Iowa Press, 2007): 20.