Poetry and Activism

Report from the Republic of Poetry, Part 3

Festival Logo
Festival Logo

Two distinguished poets at the International Festival of Poetry in Trois Rivières, Québec (2013) spoke from places of extreme violence. Their poems were of the utmost tenderness and beauty, answering an unasked question: what can poets do, as poets, in the face of violence?

This post is dedicated to Tal Nitzan and Maram al-Masri, and includes links to videos I made of them reading.

Tal Nitzan is a remarkable Israeli poet and activist, and Maram al-Masri is an acclaimed Syrian poet living in Paris. Each of these beautiful and talented women offered a poetry of conscience that spoke profoundly both through what was said as well as through all that was not said. Neither woman was polemical, and both deliberately avoided the style and language of violence. As I listened, I knew of course of the horror that is on-going in the West Bank and in Syria, and my inner knowledge resonated with the beauty and generosity of the poetry to create an intensely powerful and ethical response.

The violence of both places is experienced primarily by the defenceless. ‘Horrorism’ is the term the Italian scholar Adriana Cavarero uses to address the fact that contemporary violence is directed primarily against the helpless. Here is the key point: ‘violence against the helpless is becoming global in ever more ferocious forms, [and] language … tends to mask it.’ The masking language draws on images of warfare, but there are huge differences. In war armed combatants face each other knowing they are aiming to kill each other, and knowing they may be killed. Violence against the helpless is inflicted for the sake of making life utterly miserable and uncertain, fraught with fear, with arbitrary displays of force, and random death. This type of violence should be named as a hideous phenomenon in its own right. Horrorism, Cavarero explains, describes actions that ‘dismember and disfigure the body, the social relations, the uniqueness of that way of life’.

Both Tal and Maram focus their poetry exactly on the defenceless. They bring tenderness into juxtaposition with violence, and speak both for and to those who suffer. They carry a disruptive ethics of care straight into the heart of the chaos, for they do not engage with justifications or rationales, but rather situate the poet, the poetry and the listener in the place of suffering and in a mode of responsibility.

Tal Nitzan has edited a book of Israeli protest poetry titled With an Iron Pen. In the introduction, she speaks of the sense many activists have of being part of a disregarded minority, of being unheard and perhaps irrelevant. She asks what the purpose of poetry is in such social contexts, and her answers speak to all of us who know of the violence carried out in our name and oppose it from the depths of our being.

Tal states as a first response that there is no choice. She offers, therefore, an ethics of response and responsibility that refuses to justify itself, and thus refuses to make itself answerable to instrumental logic. She goes on, though, to speak of the role of prophecy and, I would add, its close cousin lamentation, in awakening conscience and the awareness of responsibility. She claims poetry as ‘a rebellious act that unsettles axioms, generates question marks, and asserts the right of readers and writers as one to doubt, protest, and rise up.’ In conclusion, she reminds us that ‘throughout history, literary creations have expressed the forbidden and the revolutionary and have … precipitated’ great changes.

Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman
Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman

Tal Nitzán is an Israeli poet, editor and a major translator of Hispanic literature. She is the recipient of numerous prizes, has published five poetry collections, along with the edited work of protest poetry. The English version of With an Iron Pen (2005) was done with Rachel Tzvia Beck, published by SUNY Press, USA; the French version with Isabelle Dotan is published by  by Al Manar. Her poems have been translated into over 20 languages, and collections of her work have been published in French, Spanish, Italian (two books), Portuguese and Lithuanian.

Her activism focuses on the  Israeli occupation of the West Bank now. She describes this horror as ‘a multifaceted, multifront phenomenon that has spanned four decades, wherein trauma follows trauma with relentless speed, horror, and frequency.’ One of her poems was written for her godchild, a Palestinian child born into a family with whom she works toward peace, and named for her. I reproduce it here with permission.

Maimed Lullaby

To Tal Ashraf Abu Khattab, born in Gaza on May 1, 2010

The baby who bears my name is a month and two days old.
Unaware she has been born into hell, she wrinkles her tiny nose
and balls her hands into fists like babies everywhere.

Her four kilos and the cake her grandpa didn’t bake
weigh on my heart.
If I send her a teddy bear, it will sink like a stone.

The sharp fin traces its circles. I climb up,
my foot on the deck, shame and alarm on my face.
My baby has been left behind.

(Tal Nitzan)

The reading that I video’d (view here) took place at the Bar Hexagon in the Hôtel Delta. Tal reads in Hebrew, and Alexandre Faustino, a Canadian poet, reads the French translations. Léo Guilbert, the compere for the session, is seen in the background of the video.



Maram al-Masri
Maram al-Masri

Maram al-Masri was born in Syria and now lives in Paris. She is a writer and translator, and is regarded as one of the major women voices of her generation. She has been awarded numerous prizes, and is the author of five books, the most recent of which is Elle va nue, la liberté. In this book she directly addresses the war in Syria, focussing on the women and children, the suffering of the helpless, and through it all the deep desire for freedom.

Of herself she writes:

Comme des lionnes en cage,
les femmes comme moi
de liberté…

{Like caged lionesses /  women like me / dream…/  of freedom…}

Before war broke out in Syria, Maram wrote of love and freedom. A description of her English language translated work A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor: Selected Poems offers insight into this period of her writing. ‘Syrian poet Maram al-Massri writes of love and the place of women in the modern age with striking candor and intensity. “I am this mix between the submissive and rebellious woman,” she writes, “my freedom is so difficult and so desired.” Her poems invoke a world where women are trapped and men flow freely, of the intoxicating power of seduction and the intensity of lust, of the security of relationships and muffled explosions of emotion.’

Like grains of salt
they shone
then melted.
This is how they disappeared,
those men
who did not love me.

I made a video (view here) of Maram reading at the Maison de Culture, accompanied by Afroworlbeat. Her poetry in this reading addresses Syria, the refugees, and horror. The compere Stella Montreuil reads the French translations, while Maram reads in Arabic. The reading starts with her poem on Syria, with its stunning opening words:

Syria for me is a bleeding wound
It is my mother on her death bed
It is my child with her throat cut
It is my nightmare and my hope
It is my insomnia and my waking



More information on both these outstanding women can be found on the web. A few sites to start with are:










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