The veteran poet and poetry event organizer Michael Horovitz and former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg (left) might seem an unlikely pairing. But their joint poetry reading last Thursday evening at the Everyman Cinema Club in Hampstead, North London, revealed much common ground.
The reading was organized by Penned in the Margins, founded in 2004 by the young poet Tom Chivers to celebrate the power of words in performance and on the printed page. Chivers said the event would explore questions such as: “Can a poet be political? Can he or she engage with and respond to war and conflict? Should poets take sides, and what happens when poetry arises in the most unusual situations and settings?”
Begg’s poetry grew out of some of the most challenging situations imaginable. In February 2002 he was seized by the CIA in Islamabad and spent a year incarcerated in Bagram air base, and then two years in Guantanamo. It was only in January 2005 that he was released without charge. He witnessed the brutal treatment of fellow detainees, including two killings in Bagram.
“I’d never written poetry until Guantanamo Bay, and I’ve never written poetry after it,” Begg told the audience. The poems were written in solitary confinement, “where I spent two years in a cell measuring eight feet by six feet.”
Although Begg has written no poetry since his return to Britain, poetry was the catalyst for his continuing urge to express himself through words. His memoir “Enemy Combatant”, written in collaboration with journalist Victoria Brittain, was published a few months ago. Saudi publisher Al Obeikan is to publish it in Arabic translation. Begg frequently contributes op-eds to US and British newspapers, and he works for the Cage Prisoner Islamic human rights website at http://www.cageprisoner.com/
Begg found a strange beauty in the most ghastly surroundings. His poem “Chime of the Razor Wire” was inspired by the sound of intertwined barbed wire and razor wire rubbing against each other. “It sounds not unlike wind chimes, and it sounds almost calming, particularly when it’s pushed by a soft Caribbean breeze and particularly at sunset.”
Michael Horovitz has been a leading light in British poetry, and the organizer of major poetry ‘happenings’, for more than half a century. A man of many parts - troubadour, beat poet, songwriter-singer, visual artist - the Open Democracy website describes him as “a one-man poetic antidote to social complacencies”.
Numerous volumes of his poetry have been published, and he is also the editor of several important anthologies, some arising from events he has organized. During the poetry evening he read from some of his earlier work, and from his hugely ambitious new epic poem “A New Waste Land: Timeship Earth at Nillenium”.
This work, which took nine years to write, runs to 250 pages, including illustrations and cartoons, plus 150 pages of notes. Imbued with Horovitz’s characteristic wit, it is his take on New Labour and on national and international events.