On Catechism : Poems For Pussy Riot

par : Sarah Crewe

Before elaborating on the content of Catechism, i should begin by stating that i am not Russian. In spite of having a son with a distinctly Slavic name (long story) my family tree rarely branches out of the north west of England. Also, whilst i am Catholic, i am certainly not Christian Orthodox, and i have never visited the now infamous Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow.
Up until recently, the most political activism i had engaged with would be participating in gigs, going on marches, signing petitions.
I have never danced in a cathedral. i am not a musician.
But what i am, is female. More so, i am feminist.  I am a feminist who enjoys punk music and alternative culture. I may not do balaclavas, but coloured tights, yes indeed.
I am also a mother. I cannot imagine the pain and profound sadness that must be involved in being locked away from my child due to my political convictions. I cannot comprehend three women being kept miles away from home, from family, for a peaceful protest.
This is why i have felt the cause of Pussy Riot so acutely and the need to be involved. The feeling within that here there are women who, whilst far greater in their courage, in their real, everyday lives, are women just like me, and just like my friends. There is a sense of if this could happen to them, who could be next in 21st century society? The alarm bells resonate throughout Europe for us all.
In light of my strength of feeling, i really wanted to do something positive. But what could i do? I write. How can we, as writers, make a difference to politics?
Fortunately, not everybody does such a rousing impression of a headless chicken as myself. A group on Facebook, English Pussy Riot, provided details on how to write prison letters to Pussy Riot. It was Sophie Mayer, poet and feminist academic, who realised that actually, as poets, wouldn’t it be more fitting to send the three women poems to show our solidarity?
After so many poets registered an interest in doing this, Sophie contacted English PEN, a charity that aids writers in exile or those who have their liberty as writers threatened, to ask for help with finding translators into Russian. They immediately said they’d like to support the project by publishing the poems for us.
In a matter of days, Poems For Pussy Riot grew from a small seed of an idea, to a blossoming project supported and promoted by English PEN on a daily basis. In a fortnight, it had gone from a small collection of poems, to an actual book. 110 poets had generously given up their time and work to offer assistance, whether it is through accord or affinity, to the band.
Editing, selecting and gathering information for the book was split by three of us, Mark Burnhope, a Bournemouth poet and disability rights activist, took charge of providing superb balaclava illustration for a dozen of the poems. Where i focused on misspelt band names and all things Russian, Mark actually knows how to do a good job of sub-editing and provided a fresh pair of eyes to each mistake i’d overlooked for the sake of an explosive word or bright colours. Sometimes it’s good to have an adult involved!
Sophie dealt with most of the liaison with Cat Lucas and Robert Sharp at PEN, and both hers and PEN’s enthusiasm, time and dedication to the project was just immense and put me to shame. Her work was truly relentless, efficient and infectious. She also located some terrific poems both nationally and internationally by writers i was previously unfamiliar with.
Being an editor of an anthology means that by the time the final cut goes to press, the words can often cross your eyes and mind like a wave, like the song you’ve heard a million times before. Yet with Catechism, the variety is such that on each read, or each listen, a different pitch, another tone is heard that may have gone previously unnoticed, such is the sheer variety of the collection.
There are poems dealing in dynamite words, those that may be regarded as too coarse for poetry by some. But this cause is about breaking down barriers, yes? So we had Jen Campbell’s Vaginaland, Sophie Herxheimer and Alison Winch’s Trollops Cathedral, Ira Lightman’s Soutien-Gorge and Daniel Sluman’s Her Face When she Came.
Then, we have the poems that really get to the belly of the beast. Poems that specifically refer to the one person who has the power to release Pussy Riot, and yet insists that they “got what they asked for.” The risible nature of Putin’s media machine is illustrated with terrific humour in Tom Jenks’ Fifty Shades Of Putin, and the glorious defiance of the band in the face of his leadership is captured perfectly in Sarah Thomasin’s To Vladimir Putin(A Pussy Riot Poem).
There is also a medley of form, from rhyming in Sophie Robinson’s Free Pussy, to visual work from Amy Evans, Rebecca Cremin and Ryan Ormonde. We felt it was important for visual poems to be included in the collection, as Pussy Riot made such an impact on the eyes first and foremost.
Since the publication of Catechism, Yekaterina Samutsevich has been released from prison. Whilst her release is undoubtedly righteous, there is little cause for celebration when two members remain prisoners of political conscience.  It is also true that a collection of protest poetry in all its glorious shapes and forms is unlikely to free them.
Yet in bringing this book together, a real sense of strength in numbers was felt within the feminist community, from all genders, from all backgrounds, sexuality and ethnicities who feel the need to question and keep questioning the severity and injustice of a leadership that would see women locked away for singing not an anti-religious, but rather an anti-government protest song.
As poets, it is nice to write about the trees, the sea, the beauty of nature and pretty birds in flight from time to time. But sometimes it’s preferable, imperative even, to use the tools we have for what is really important, to speak out for the freedom of others. While Catechism contains a vast spectrum of poetic styles, all poets are singing from the same hymn sheet on the matter of liberty. These women should be free, and we will keep on singing and shouting loudly in chorus, whether that is in verse, in image, in sound or in song, until they are.
http://www.englishpen.org/the-poems-for-pussy-riot-project/