PEN Writers in Prison

In early 2010, 26 teamed up with International PEN to mark 50 years of the PEN Writers in Prison committee. 50 writers from 26 were paired with a writer whose cause PEN had championed over the years, and asked to write 50 words as a response. The resulting submissions were published in the run-up to the 2010 Free The Word festival.

You can read the full 50 here.
Or read more about International Pen here.

I was paired with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. Born in Leningrad on May 24, 1940, Brodsky left school at the age of fifteen, taking jobs in a morgue, a mill, a ship’s boiler room, and a geological expedition. During this time Brodsky taught himself English and Polish and began writing poetry. Brodsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972 after serving 18 months of a five-year sentence in a labor camp in northern Russia. According to Brodsky, literature turned his life around. “I was a normal Soviet boy,” he said. "I could have become a man of the system. But something turned me upside down: [Fyodor Dostoevsky’s] Notes from the Underground. I realized what I am. That I am bad.”

Before leaving the Soviet Union, Brodsky studied with the beloved Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. After his exile, he moved to America, where he made homes in both Brooklyn and Massachusetts. There, according to fellow poet Seamus Heaney, he lived “frugally, industriously, and in a certain amount of solitude.”

Celebrated as the greatest Russian poet of his generation, Brodsky authored nine volumes of poetry, as well as several collections of essays, and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. His first book of poetry in English translation appeared in 1973.

In addition to teaching positions at Columbia University and Mount Holyoke College, where he taught for fifteen years, Brodsky served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1991 to 1992. In 1993, he joined with Andrew Carroll to found the American Poetry & Literacy Project, a not-for-profit organization devoted to making poetry a more central part of American culture, 'as ubiquitous,' in Brodsky’s words, “as the nature that surrounds us, and from which poetry derives many of its similes; or as ubiquitous as gas stations, if not as cars themselves.” Joseph Brodsky died on January 28, 1996, of a heart attack in his Brooklyn apartment.

Lent’s soulful question swiftly followed your arrival. More seductive than sugar, more toxic than wine How beguiling the path of the crowd must be. The compulsion to silently acquiesce - surely that’s The most malignant, most corruptive temptation? Your answer was to stand up, not to give up. Thank you, Iosip.

1963: Josef Brodsky

The 26:50 project is just the kind of imaginative response that PEN has come to expect from 26. Every project that we undertake together – from Free the Blog! and 26 Exchanges as part of Free the Word! to the creation of a new identity for PEN, to the most recent, 26:50, marking 50 years of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee – has further cemented a wonderful partnership. The 50 poems, prose pieces, musings and reflections that came out of 26:50 highlight how words can have such powerful impact to inspire and continue important stories beyond their original telling. PEN feels very privileged and fortunate to have the ongoing support of 26, especially in 2010 as it’s a very significant year for us.

Emily Bromfield, Communications Director, International PEN