REVIEW: Woman Scream Poetry Festival (By Mandy Moe)

Words By: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Rotunda Media
Header Credit: Woman Scream Festival

On the 3rd of March, 2015, the BBC posted an article titled “Delhi rapist says victim shouldn’t have fought back”—a follow up story on the 2012 rape and consequent death of a female Indian student. The men who raped her not only said that she deserved it; they felt that she should have accepted what was happening to her. In a culture that dictates that women are inferior from birth, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the rapists believed that what they had done was teach the girl a lesson.

If you believe that this sort of mindset is something to be condoned, then I suggest you stop reading now.

Culture does not justify violence and those that assume it does are at best nihilistic. The aforementioned article ends with hope for the future, describing the courage and determination of ordinary men and women who took to the streets to protest against this injustice, braving the winter. They wanted only one thing: to be heard. A noble pursuit, no doubt; but considering that this is an issue that’s been ignored for far too long, it will understandably take time.

Being heard is perhaps easier said than done. I come from an Asian culture where women are taught from a young age to be accepting and complicit, not necessarily about things that matter, but if your opinions are disregarded from a young age, you are more likely to refrain from offering them. I had a difficult time finding my voice, but I finally found it in writing—poetry, more than anything else offered much reprieve from the drowning silence.

So when I received a newsletter from the Perth Poetry Club, saying that they were holding the Perth contribution to the Woman Scream International Poetry Festival 2015 on the 7th of March, I knew I had to attend.

The Woman Scream International Poetry Festival is sponsored by, and began with, the Women Poets International Movement (also known as the Movimiento Mujeres Poetas Internacional MPI) in the Dominican Republic in 2009. Their aim is to promote female poets and poetry through a series of collective projects and cultural events, an approach I find more proactive than protests following an instance of tragic violence. As they say, prevention is better than cure.

In 2011, following the death of Mexican poet and female activist Susana Chávez in Ciudad Juarez, the Woman Scream International Poetry Festival expanded its focus to raise awareness of her murder and what she stood for. Chávez had protested against the brutal and unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, using the phrase Ni una muerta mas, or Not one more dead. In 2013 the Festival honoured Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education, and youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, with a story of her own to tell.

The 2015 Festival is dedicated to the Mirabal sisters; Minerva, Maria Teresa, Dede and Patria – also known as the Butterflies – who opposed the tyrannical regime of Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo served as official president of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1938 and from 1942 to 1952, but remained behind the scenes as dictator from 1930 to 1961. Three of the Mirabal sisters, Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria, were assassinated by Trujillo’s henchmen on the 25th of November, 1960. This year’s theme, “Women of Light”, is chosen in their honour.

I hadn’t been to the Moon Café in months, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the atmosphere at the Perth Poetry Club was still the same: warm, welcoming, and charming. They’d painted over the walls; and the backdrop for the poets was now polished wood panelling. I thought it looked good, but I realized halfway through staring at the panelling that I missed the painting of sleepy green cat lazily clinging onto the crescent moon.

Then again, perhaps the sleepy green cat wouldn’t have been an appropriate backdrop for an event that was taking place to highlight the injustices and abuses inflicted on women.

I’d walked in just in time to hear Ron Oakley’s built-on piece from his granddaughter’s original writing, which brandished the words like a verbal banner:

“Women unite, reclaim the night!
Wherever we go, whatever we dress,
No means no, and yes means yes.” 

The poems came in all shapes and sizes—well, in all syntaxes and concepts, to be accurate. Tim Parkin referenced Kurt Cobain’s suicide note in his poem “Empathy”; Penelope urged women to “learn your loveliness—above all, learn to be the mistress of your own madrigals”. Sue Clemell had written about the trials of a single mother who had been impregnated by the Greek god, Zeus, saying, “I’ve had to kill my own monsters.”

Karen Mulligan stated: “Hurt her, hurt me. We are all linked inextricably. … If you push her, I fall.”
A poem by Alexia, which I especially enjoyed, included the line, “Growing up, told that women are seen, not heard.”

It was fantastic to see and hear the number of men and women walk up to the microphone, steady their papers in front of them, and start reciting their pieces. Usually the Perth Poetry Club isn’t one to lack enthusiasm, and this session was no exception. Poets and poems were greeted with warm rounds of applause, and the hosts, Coral Carter for the first half and Janet Jackson for the second, kept the energy up for the full two hours.

Coral Carter concluded the afternoon, and her poem—in fact; it wasn’t even a poem, but rather a deferential homage in which she eulogized, in the simplest way possible, the women whose lives had been taken this year. She read out the names, in some cases, the women did not even have names, but were remembered as “Unnamed woman”, followed by her age at the point of her death. The names were accompanied by the monastic ringing of a small bronze gong.

The entire room was silent during this last performance, before breaking into loud applause.
It was the perfect way to end the event.

Seeing the poets and people of Perth come together to celebrate the Woman Scream International Poetry Festival gave me hope. At the start of the second half of the session, Janet Jackson had read out a poem by a woman called Parri, in which she urges the world, Do not end this poem. I hold the hope that the poem will never end, and that that voices once stifled will find the courage to speak, and in speaking, be heard.

Let’s hark back to a poem by Susana Chávez, where she wrote:

“May strikes from the sea remain in our memory
penetrating. May the habits of uncertainty finally end,
and the rain falls where ashes could get wet.
May nostalgia always work over the snow
and allow me to interrupt the game
of silence,
May God bless the broken shoes
and take away the so called habit of suffering.”

Perth Poetry Club holds poetry sessions every Saturday at the Moon Café from 2pm to 4pm.