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CAMPUS Debate: Other Peoples’ Voices

“This is my story, not yours”.

In last week’s posting I gave myself a virtual sore throat arguing for the political imperative in poetry. This conviction is rooted in my own experiences: silenced as a child, silenced again in the psychiatric system, I have a deep-rooted belief that as poets we have an obligation to speak out – and that in poetry, we have the perfect vehicle for our voices.

It’s an obligation I feel most acutely when there is a silence to be broken. When people are silenced, for example – by law; by threat of violence; by wilful misinterpretation; by the denial of language, for example – it seems more important than ever that we speak out, on their behalf.

Speech for the speechless. Ventriloquism give us the perfect strategy for achieving this magical act. As poets, we can speak in the voices of those who have no voice. We can give them back their words. We can speak directly from their lives and their perspectives.

Except, of course, we cannot. We can never stop being ourselves. When we speak in the voices of other people, we simply throw our own voices into their mouths. When they talk in our poetry, it is our perspectives, our feelings, our priorities they express.

In effect, we silence them, all over again.

Read this.


The Angry Survivor by Choman Hardi

This is my story, not yours. Not
the government’s to turn into numbers,
charts. Not for women’s use to win hearts
for their cause. Not journalists’
to sensationalize. Not nationalists’ to tell
a simple story. This is my story. Mine.

Long after you turn off your recorder
and return to your calm and peaceful world,
I stay indoors and weep, can’t sleep.
Why don’t people understand?
I am neither hero, nor God,
cannot stand the talk of forgiveness.

For years I went to every wake. Wept
at every man’s funeral. Kept asking: Why?
Now I just endure the days, for sure,
by planting cucumbers which you
interrupted, by believing in another world
where things can be put right.

Spare me your despair and understanding,
the best you can do is to leave me.
As for the record, I don’t care about that.
Take history with you and go. Don’t come
here again, I just don’t want to know.

I am fed up with documentations of my grief
with journalists asking me to sing a lullaby
for my dead children so they can broadcast it
during comemoration or use it as propaganda
during elections. I am fed up with women.


Written directly from her own identity as a Kurdish woman forced into exile by Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime; Hardi’s work is at once passionately political and searingly personal. In her recent collection “Considering the Women”, the Anfal Sequence is spoken directly in the voices of survivors of the genocide of the Kurdish people. Described by Moniza Alvi as “poetry of international significance”, it is remarkable in every conceivable way.

This all brings us to this month’s CAMPUS Debate:

When we speak in other people’s voices, do we give them voice?

When poets speak in the first person about lives, experiences and feelings which are not their own, they are engaging in a form of theft or colonisation? When driven by an imperative to give voice to the voiceless, is what we achieve an act of ventriloquism, or another level of silencing, in which the poet’s perspectives and limited experiences are represented as those of the subject?

Choman Hardi is one of the few poets who directly and consciously engages with the substance of this question: when we speak in other people’s voices, do we give them voice? Or do we take it away from them?

This evening, I’m delighted that via the magic of the Internet, that I’m able to invite Choman Hardi to join me from her home in Sulimanayah, Iraq, for a live chat on CAMPUS; to explore how she meets these forces and tensions in her work. We’ll publish the finished transcript on the CAMPUS blog next week.

But before that, to set the mood, I’d like to invite you all to join in the conversation and offer the opportunity to contribute to this debate by posting your responses below. As a poets and storytellers, where do you draw the line between invocation and extortion? When is assuming a voice other than your own reasonable, and when is it not? When should we speak on behalf of others, and when should we question the conditions and perpetrators of their silence?

It would be great to hear from as many of you as possible. If there’s one thing that we can agree on, is that all our voices on this matter should be heard.

Over to the floor…



  • Ann Heathcote

    I believe speaking on behalf of the silenced is better than doing nothing, especially if we do it in the spirit of “If not me, who?” And maybe essential, at least for ourselves, and hopefully for others, if we have been one of the silenced and then have found our voice. Yet at the same time, from what you say Clare, it’s seems vital we remain mindful of and explore the limits and risks of doing this.

  • LydiaHarris

    Thank you for these thoughts and for the poem. I don’t know what I think. I’d not dare take on a voice. But perhaps coming at voicelessness sideways, perhaps by exploring a thing, a thought might emerge. I am so accidental in my writing. But I am fascinated by what might come next.

  • Clare Shaw

    Anne, I couldn’t agree more. Wouldn’t it be awful if a concern about “getting it wrong” meant that we didn’t speak out? I think you say it perfectly – mindful of the risks – but willing to take them. Aware of the limits – and willing to push them. And all the time driven by a belief in the power of voice, and what it achieves for us, and for others. Thanks.

  • Annie M

    While inner truths remain uniquely our own I believe we have need to speak of them in whatever terms possible. When that’s impossible sometimes it’s right, sometimes imperative that others – especially those once silenced – speak out against the silencers. But I firmly believe ‘We don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are’ (taken, I understand, from the Talmud) so to me it’s more than being mindful, it’s imperative when speaking for others that a real connection is being made.

  • Clare Shaw

    wonderfully put, Annie – how do you see that connection? how do you put it into practice in your own work?

  • Annie M

    Thanks, Clare – I think the connection can be complex with many strands but I see it mostly as a continuous emotional thread which survives between author, speaker, poem and reader – so hard to achieve, amazing when it happens. When author and speaker are separate individuals I think it’s more difficult to maintain that thread – though when it is, all the more powerful.

    In my own work it’s something I can only hope will happen. Trying to be aware when I’m overly caught up in poetic techniques and not losing connection with what the poem wants to say I think are two of my many stumbling blocks. If I’m able to get past them maybe there’s half a chance a connection might survive. Even then, a poem has a life of its own – so often it’s unconscious or accidental parts that resonate with the reader.

    I struggled to articulate this but it really got me thinking – thank you.

  • Karen Kemp

    For me it is about being resonance brave enough to and from that tune into someone else’s. This is best done when we are aware of our own resonance. it is wonderful when a writing exercise really makes you think.

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