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.