UEL PEN 2015 - Setting The Tone

Posted: Friday, 16 October 2015 by UEL pen in Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hello and welcome to a new year of UEL English PEN, the final straw that broke the back of student apathy on campus. At our first official meeting (and chance to swap summer stories) we opened the floor to our members, new and old, to have a discussion about the direction that UEL PEN will take this year. In between some incredible poetry from our feature act Spike Zepheniah Stevenson and host of talented open mic’ers, we concluded that through its social media and regular poetry readings, UEL PEN will be a hub for engaged students to organise, learn, and rejuvenate, providing an online and offline space for blistering poetry, challenging debate, and active organising and campaigning.

In the face of increased pressures on students from our overtly financially driven university, to the genuinely Orwellian on-campus thought-policing and physical policing sanctioned by Conservative governmental policy, UEL PEN aims to battle back against the creeping attacks on fundamental freedoms students are supposed to have at university. We believe that our students should feel free to exercise their freedoms to write and read without university officials looming overhead who will be forced to report students who are “vocally or actively opposing fundamental British values” under the government’s new Prevent programme. Apart from the obvious reasons of being unimplementable, lamentable and widely accepted by education professionals to be a threat to independent thought, Prevent presumes that “British values” are anything but subjective, and formed in the public consciousness, which as any student will tell you, is not one codified viewpoint.    
Students should even feel safe in their right to offend with free speech, while wilfully misattributing the well-known aphorism “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it” to Voltaire, and thus offending humanities lectures the world over. Freedom of speech is not a political or legislative game to be played out by politicians, vice-chancellors and assorted middle-management others, it is the bedrock of a worthwhile education and fulfilling university experience. When the Home Secretary proudly proclaims at a gathering of the party of government, “Students, yes, overstayers, no, and the universities must make this happen”, it implies that these institutions, apparently grounded in the pursuit of knowledge and self-betterment, may be forced to act upon this government’s worst political scapegoating tactics. Apart from being clearly detrimental to students, the xenophobic positions of Tory party policy (in reference to migration and counter-extremism especially) will disproportionately affect international students in a number of ways, and unless Theresa May clarifies the vague wording of her speech, international students (who can be categorised as economic migrants) may face effective deportation at the end of their degrees. UEL PEN will fight for cohesion and community on campus, where a diverse group of students is essential to any real university experience.

Right, now that my anti-governmental rant is out of the way, back to UEL PEN updates! On September 25th we held our first open mic event of the year, “UEL PEN: Set The Tone” at the UELSU, with over 40 dedicated listeners who may or may not have been there primarily for free pizza, but definitely reaped the benefits of experiencing our feature act, poet and illustrator Spike Zepheniah Stevenson who read and sung a selection of poems dealing with everything from our reliance on ever-atomising technology, and the never-ending stream of iPhones (“Technophobe”), to “Drawing A Crowd” where Spike sketched our wonderful audience while introducing himself in flawlessly uptempo rap, with ad-libbed lines for added effect. As always, our open mic'ers surprised, inspired and brought their best. Alongside original pieces, we had a reading of Sarah Kay’s legendary spoken word piece “If I Had A Daughter” that brought some screw-faces and odd noises of approval from the crowd, in between the tears of course. 

Lastly, since this is being posted on Blog Action Day 2015, we’d like to take this opportunity to vocalise our support for Raif Badawi, joint recipient of the PEN Pinter Prize 2015, and imprisoned blogger in Saudi Arabia. First arrested in June 2012, Raif Badawi has been fined £175,000, sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 public lashings, for insulting Islam and founding a liberal website, Free Saudi Liberals. He is currently still in prison, his second bout of public flogging has been repeatedly postponed after his health has seriously deteriorated. As part of English PEN, we continue to call for Badawi's sentence of flogging to be overturned immediately, as well as for his conviction to be quashed and for him to be released unconditionally.

Onwards and upwards,





­­"We're having a religious related talk, at about 4 pm, do you wanna join?"

We all exchanged looks and shook our heads at the same time. "Sorry mate," one of us said, "we're not religious."

His face dropped for a second, but then his smile was back. "Right, right, sure thing! Sorry for bothering!"
No pushing; no trying to convince us; no telling us we should find God or faith. Respectfully backing down from our group. Key word: respect.

In this world burning with hatred, consumerism, emotional scarring, and unstable powers radiating more than a burnt out supernova, where do you find respect? You don't always find it walking down the street, or with peers. You tend to grasp it and then someone says something about your beliefs, your gender, your sexuality – or lack thereof – and it's gone.

Some time ago, the non-religious students from the London South Bank University’s Atheist Society put up a modified version of Michelangelo’s iconic “Creation of Adam”. The piece featured the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the “deity” of the eponymous Church. According to The Independent, the installation “came about as a humorous response to the teaching of intelligent design in American schools in 2005”. The poster was taken down for being “religiously offensive”.

Freedom of expression, right? Respect for other people’s beliefs, right? Well, no, it seems.
It is absolutely fine, even encouraged, to stick traditionally religious posters up. It’s alright to invite people to talks about religion. It’s alright for people to chastise their peers for engaging in sexual intercourse before marriage, and justify it with “it’s a sin, you will be punished”. It’s alright for people to sneer at a satirical representation of prophets – not even offensive, just a pamphlet of sorts. It’s okay to express yourself however you want.

Except it’s not; not when it is not in line with the standard religious practices. So, someone handing out religious texts and books, even when you explain you don’t want one – is acceptable. Photoshopping a satirical deity on the image of a fresco is condemnable and should be punished.

There is a shameless expression of double standards pummelling people everywhere. In an ever-shifting, adapting, struggling-to-be-kind world, how can we still rely so much on oppression? An allegedly welcoming city such as London should not have these problems.

Ideally, no place in the world should have this problem, but it is beyond unattainable. So, one would argue, let’s start with a smaller, ‘democratic’ part of the world. Let’s teach it, let’s nourish it and most of all, let’s reinforce it time and again. In theory, anyway. In practice, things are different. In practice, I would be sneered at for my lack of belief. I would be asked to bring forward tangible paperwork to prove evolution (I have been asked that before and laughed endlessly.)

If universities can’t provide a safe environment for their students to express beliefs, as well as themselves, what else have we got? Usually, a little after essential formative years, yet not fully moulded adults, this is a time to allow ourselves to shape our identities further. Oppressing us will do nothing else than function as a prime example of reverse psychology. Foucault phrases it as such: "Where there is power, there is resistance [...]”

Universities: allow your students to think and choose for themselves. Allow them to put the Flying Spaghetti Monster up. You allow them to put Jesus up. It’s a belief. It’s a conviction, and it’s a choice.

There has been great progress in allowing people to declare and stand by their gender, their sexuality, etc. Yes, religious issues go back in time. Yes, it is difficult to make a point in a country that is still ambiguous about its secularity. But we need to try.

Don’t call people out because they don’t believe in what you do. Equally, don’t pick people up on their beliefs. Stay out of it. In time, people will learn to stay out of your business as well.

Be fair. Weigh your choices, and in case of indecision, keep weighing. Both as a person and as an institution ran by people.


By contributing writer, Jo Lazar, as part of our Year 2 Creative & Professional Writing degree Work Experience module.


In a society where journalists and their sources are scrutinized for going against the current of propaganda and government control, how can we know there will be any truth left for us down the road? Free speech and freedom of the press. These are two things that may very well be fictional in the future. With the influential and life changing actions of Edward Snowden, Britain and the U.S have banded together to make the line between “terrorism” and “journalism” almost indistinguishable. The UK Terrorism Act of 2000, originally implemented to protect our country from radicals has now got the public and it’s governments guessing between journalists and terrorists. This act defines terrorism as an act or threat “designed to influence the government”, that “is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” and "that would pose a “serious risk” to the health or safety of a section of the public." The UK government have persisted with the line that this risk is present with the disclosure of any “classified” documents. The act also states “the government” can mean a government of any country; in this incidence, namely the US. Subsequently, the British government has opened investigations into anyone who previously worked with Snowden, and used this as a pretext to enter the Guardian’s offices and demand the destruction of their Snowden-related hard drives. David Miranda, assisting journalist Glenn Greenwald (former Guardian worker), was travelling through Heathrow airport, and detained for nine hours under the Terrorism Act under schedule 7, back in August 2013. This compels all those who fall under it to tell all information they know and to pass on any documents they possess. Snowden passed on “thousands of files” to Miranda v(who since wrote many stories concerning the UK and US authorities and their surveillance systems.) These were systems that gave the UK and US full monitoring of it’s citizens through the company GCHQ), and he has since attempted to speak out against this gross misconduct through the UK legal system. However, he was rewarded with a blatant ignorance to any freedom of expression in the European convention on human rights. What does this mean for us?
If the UK legal system is now flexing it’s muscles to take away our information, force us to give up passwords, and destroy our documents, what does this mean for our sources? What does this mean for our “permitted” content? If those with truthful information are being stopped at our front door and 'frisked,' how do we know any information we do manage to receive hasn't already been tainted in order to protect the government’s view of “truth”? Many associates of Edward Snowden have been advised by their legal aids not to return to the United Kingdom, for fear of being stripped of all viable sources in a similar manner to David Miranda. Several of these people work for The Guardian. Even Jesselyn Radack, Snowden’s US legal advisor, was recently detained concerning Snowden and Julian Assange (another famed “whistle blower”). These detainments under schedule 7 are risking the people, their sources and their integrity. “Terrorism” is the conviction these truth-seekers must live with, now restricting their free movement across international borders. Guardian reporter Sarah Harrison lives in fear of this particular schedule, as it constricts her movements, her voice, and her ability to travel home. She states: “Schedule 7 is not really about catching terrorists, even in its own terms. The Miranda judgment states that it has, in this case, “constituted an indirect interference with press freedom” and is admittedly “capable, depending on the facts, of being deployed so as to interfere with journalistic freedom.” Officers can detain someone not because they suspect them of being involved in terrorist activities, but to see “if someone appears” to – even indirectly – be facilitating the bizarre definition of terrorism used in the act.” No longer are we protected, no longer do we receive these acts such as the Terrorism Act of 2000 for “national security”, no longer are the people the priority. These acts are being created and even twisted, among legal officials, to protect the government and their preaching laced with hypocrisy. Illegal activity is OK, as long as you’re a government with enough manpower to dehumanize those who will speak against you. We expect our governments to work for the best interest of their countries, but what country puts the distribution of the truth and hard facts into the same definitions that they consider to be “terrorist activity”? The most harm caused in connection to both Snowden and Assange has been caused by the UK and US governments trying to cover up the blatant violations of human rights they have been so easily committing. In a day and age that we believe freedom of speech and information to be at it’s best, we live shrouded in falsified fear of those who actually uphold their integrity as journalists, rather than their devotion to a botched system.


By Catherine Watson, contributing writer, as part of our Year 2 Creative & Professional Writing degree Work Experience module.

Where We Are Now... come on a journey with UEL PEN...

Posted: Wednesday, 29 January 2014 by UEL pen in Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

So, at the request of our fellow Student PEN Centres & English PEN, and out of a need to document the fast trajectory we’ve all been on as a newly-formed student-led subgroup of English PEN, we at UEL PEN thought we’d take you all on a journey – one of inception till present day. Enjoy the ride…

Inception & Creation:

Created in May 2013 and launched in September, the University of East London English PEN Society has already proven to be full of promising social events. It was created by those of us on the Creative & Professional Writing (BA) Hons degree course who wished to inform students and tutors alike of the issues regarding freedom of speech and freedom to write worldwide. Because of our chosen field of study, the freedom to write and being able to express ourselves is a topic that is very important to us.

We started the society by running a fundraiser on Crowdfunder from June till August 2013, where we read 60 books between four of us in just 8 weeks - helped out by honorary member, Rachael Spencer from our course. We created a separate blog specifically to log the reviews we wrote in order to prove we’d read the listed books, and we successfully managed to raise our set target of £250. We also held a stall at our Fresher’s Fair in September, offering all sorts of different interactive activities; students could share their opinions on what “Freedom of Speech” meant to them, on cut-out speech bubbles (the idea for which we totally borrowed from Surrey PEN – thanks guys!) which we then took photos of and shared/tweeted. Students were also able to give a suggested donation of £2 and choose among our ‘lucky dip’ books, where we’d wrapped up the books and written a small summary on the wrapping – this was in order to redirect the focus to the stories instead of the authors ‘name,’ as well as offering an element of surprise and mystery to their purchase and support.

Emerald at our Fresher’s Week stall.


The money we raised from our fundraiser was used in part for our first event; our Launch Party in October. The remainder of the money, plus all profits earned that evening and for all events we have held and will hold thereafter, go directly to English PEN at the end of the academic year. We welcomed guest speaker Julia Ziemer from English PEN, who shared more information about what PEN do and how to get involved, and our feature act was Tim Atkins, our course tutor and accomplished poet, who performed a piece he’d written and had published in the English PEN anthology Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot. We also showed short films on the subject of free speech, supplied refreshments and snacks, and held a raffle at the end of the evening. We were supported by English PEN, UEL’s Vice-Chancellor John Joughin, University of East London’s Student Union, and Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, who very generously donated a huge pile of books for our book raffle. UEL students were invited to read out their pieces on the subject of freedom of speech in our open mic section, and Mel Dok’s story on the riots in Turkey made such an impact on English PEN that they featured it on their website. At this event, largely due to the amazing marketing skills of Freyja, an honorary member who we said goodbye to at the end of last year when she moved to San Francisco, we welcomed almost 40 people.

Tim Atkins reading out his Pussy Riot piece at our launch event.

In November we held an awareness raising event for Pussy Riot, in light of the imprisonment of two of their main members, their appalling treatment in prison, and Nadia Tolokonnikova’s subsequent disappearance whilst in transit to a Siberian prison colony. We also welcomed new member into the fold; open mic organiser and events whizz Jack Pascoe. In this, we had another open mic section, and held a candlelit Empty Chair section where we read out some of Maria Alyokhina’s work (the other incarcerated member), in order to release her words into the world in her absence and in defiance of the censorship imposed on her. We also welcomed Grace Hetherington of English PEN, and we had approximately 20 attendees. We preceded the evening with a Letter Writing afternoon in which we invited students to come and write letters to the imprisoned band members, expressing their support for them.

Sam reading out Maria Alyokhina's work in the Empty Chair section at our November event.

After a restful and mince-pie filled Christmas break, the UEL English PEN Society has another event in the pipeline for February 20th, 2014 – an open mic and poetry performance evening in recognition of LGBT History Month, and in collaboration with the UEL LGBT Society. We’ll be raising awareness of the current situation in Russia, as well as people throughout history who have been imprisoned or murdered as a result of their pro-gay activism or writing. We're also very excited to be welcoming Feature Act Michelle Madsen, founder of the London branch of Hammer and Tongue, the UK's largest slam poetry network; and Guest Speaker Russell Sax, who is a current student on our writing MA: Imaginative Practice, reading pieces from his newly released book A Gay Man Walks Through Soho.

In March, we’ll be focusing on land rights for indigenous people and translation work – event page coming soon – please ‘like’ our Facebook page for invites and updates on this.

A Russian gay rights activist at a protest rally, in a police van. Sign says: “Love Beats Homophobia”

Other Developments:

We are very lucky to have been offered the chance to field out several volunteer roles within our society as one of the projects offered on our Level 2 work experience module. Helena Blakemore, course leader for the Creative & Professional Writing degree, has always been hugely supportive of what we do at UEL PEN, and we’re very thankful for this very exciting opportunity. We will be offering roles such as graphic design, marketing, events organisation and admin, on an academically marked module; hopefully helping to create work experience for University of East London students within our society and degree course. This is also fantastic chance to find and/or choose suitable candidates to hand the society over to in May, when Sam (President) and Mandy (Social Networking Queen), will both be graduating. We will miss the society very much!

We’re also attending several external workshops and events as a society that are relevant to human rights and freedom of expression; not just to meet and talk to new people, but being writers, to increase our own personal skills in writing for freedom. The last one we went to was run at IdeasTap HQ in Borough on Thursday 23rd January and attended by Sam and Emerald; the Keats House Blackout Poetry workshop, taught by Laila Sumpton and Stephanie Turner. It was fascinating to use a new form of poetry writing technique that we hadn’t attempted before, and we were asked to respond to artworks created for the organisation on a separate IdeasTap brief, based on the theme of freedom of speech. The work produced by everyone in this workshop was stunning, and we were very pleased we’d had the opportunity to attend.

On February 17th, we are attending She Grrrowls once more; this time to read out some of our own work on the theme of women’s rights and Anti-Valentines. Watch this space for updates, and catch the UEL PEN Twitter for random musings on just about everything free-speech related.

In the meantime, we are currently up to a staggering 70 members and supporters, but are always looking for more. If you’d like to get involved, and/or think you can help with any of the above-mentioned roles, please get in touch with a little bit about yourself; where your passions lie, what you think you’d like to do for us, or even just to say hello, on: uelenglishpen@gmail.com – we look forward to hearing from you.

Hope to see you at our next event! Till then, with love and hope.

UEL English PEN Society


Co-authored by Sam Dodd & Mandy Lutman.

New event coming up!

Posted: Thursday, 23 January 2014 by Mandy in Labels: , , , , , ,

20th February 2014
Student Union Lounge, Docklands Campus

A Open Mic and Performance Poetry night to raise awareness of imprisoned and executed gay rights activists, bloggers, journalists and writers.

Theme: LGBTI (but in the interests of freedom of speech and inclusion, other themes are welcome too!)

We'll have a very exciting Feature Act for you: Michelle Madsen, founder and host of Hammer and Tongue London, part of the UK’s largest slam poetry network!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJwqERcUWOQ

OPEN MIC SLOTS: to book yours in advance, please email Jack on u0710321@uel.ac.uk - there are limited free-for-all spaces available, so do ensure you book in advance! And do tell us your act- whether it's poetry, prose extract, non-fiction, comedy or music - the more diverse the better, and all are welcome
Your piece must be no more than 2-5 minutes in length.

We'll also be screening a moving short film about an African LGBTI activist, and holding an Empty Chair section too, where we'll read out some pieces by imprisoned or executed activists and writers, in order to release their work into the world. Get ready to punch the air with passion at their beautiful words.

£2 entry fee: In return for this, you will receive a raffle ticket for our book raffle at the end of the evening. Prizes guaranteed.

This event comes only a few days before the Sochi Olympic Games closing ceremony in Russia. Since May 2012, when President Putin returned to office, he has introduced a series of new gagging laws that seriously threaten freedom of speech and LGBTI rights within Russia, and that have already led to many, many hate crimes, censorship and murders. In advance of our event, here is one of the small ways you can help: click on this link and sign up to PEN International's Thunderclap initiative to create a Twitter storm around Putin's account during the opening ceremony - they do all the hard work on your behalf: https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/8086-pen-sochi-olympics-campaign

Be sure to 'follow' @uelPEN and @LGBT_UEL for updates on Twitter, and have a ponder at UEL PEN's blog: http://uelenglishpen.blogspot.co.uk/

UEL English PEN Society event, in collaboration with UEL LGBT Society.

Check out our event on Facebook! See you there!

Open Mic Night and Letter Writing Day - Tuesday, 19th November 2013

Posted: Wednesday, 13 November 2013 by UEL pen in Labels: , , , ,

A Open Mic night to raise funds for, and awareness of, Pussy Riot.

General encouraged theme of freedom of speech, but in the interests of freedom of speech - you can perform anything you wish! We'll also be holding an Empty Chair section where we'll read out some of Pussy Riot's work, to release their words into the world.

Anyone who writes specifically themed Pussy Riot themed pieces, in support of them, will receive a FREE BOOK.

To book your slot, please email Jack on u0710321@uel.ac.uk - there are limited free-for-all spaces available, so do ensure you book in advance! Please make sure you tell us your act- whether it's poetry, a prose extract, non-fiction, comedy, music or playscripts - the more diverse the better, and all are welcome. It must be no more than 2-5 minutes in length.

Preceded by an afternoon filled with tea, coffee, biscuits and writing of letters of support to Pussy Riot and their families.

Letter Writing drop-in session: 2pm-4pm, Student Union Lounge
Open Mic: 5pm-7pm, Student Union Lounge
(The SU lounge is next to the cashpoints in North Building, Docklands Campus)

Intro to the case: Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went missing whilst under the guard of Russian officials during her transfer to a Siberian prison on the 21st October. She and another member of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, are serving two-year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, for their impromptu anti-Putin punk performance in Moscow's main cathedral in February 2012.

Here is a link to a video article regarding the disappearance: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/13/opinion/ghitis-nadya-pussy-riot-missing/

...this is the petition calling for the disclosure of her whereabouts, her release as a prisoner of conscience, and for contact to be reinstated between her and lawyers/family: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/pussy-riot-where-nadya

...and here is a documentary about the punk collective: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01hs5t8/Storyville_20132014_Pussy_Riot_A_Punk_Prayer/

Be sure to 'follow' us on Twitter for updates on Pussy Riot and Tolokonnikova. @uelPEN

UEL English PEN Launch Party

Posted: Sunday, 13 October 2013 by Mandy in Labels: , , , , , ,

On Tuesday, the 8th of October, UEL English PEN hosted our official launch party at the Student Union lounge located on Docklands campus. After hours of food shopping, organizing the lounge and trying to make our projector work, we were ready to open the doors to the public at our scheduled 5pm time.

We were amazed at the amount of people who turned up, just as much as they were amazed at the amounts food and drinks we provided. We wanted to make everyone feel comfortable and it worked. We equipped the lounge with English PEN flyers, our ‘lucky book dip’ and we were also holding a raffle where winners received one of the amazing books we had on the display.

After a short introduction we invited Julia Zimmer, PEN’s events and development officer, who explained what English PEN does internationally, how big the organisation is and what we can do to help.
This followed by a short movie about what freedom of speech actually is and then continued with Tim Atkins, reading a powerful piece by a member of Pussy Riot.

After a short break, it was time for an open mic night! We encouraged students to come and read their work and were surprised at the amounts of people that shared their amazing writing. Among the pieces, we also had a privilege to hear a piece written by one of our classmates, who visited Turkey over the summer and shared the horror stories of the riots – her story is so moving English PEN asked to publish it on their website! You can read the piece here if you haven’t already.

We were also proud of everyone else who read their brilliant work which varied from political to comical. We’d like to thank every single one of them – you made us laugh, think and be creative!
The night finished with an announcement of the winners of our book raffle, which made everyone walk out happy and excited.

Again, we’d like to thank everyone who participated in any way in our launch – we never expected that amount of people and we were really humbled by your positive feedback. We promise to hold these nights more often as they bring us and our ideas closer together. Check out the pictures from the launch on our Facebook page!

Hope you are all having an amazing weekend,
UEL English PEN Society.