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Words from Guantanamo Bay

As reported in the Guardian, a collection of poems written by detainees at Guantanamo Bay will be published this August by the University of Iowa Press. Lawyer Marc Falkoff, who represents 17 people at the camp, started to receive poems as part of his communications with his clients, and soon learned that other lawyers also received poems. The detainees used the poems to process and comment on their experiences.

Moazzam Begg, who spent three years in Guantánamo Bay before being released without charge in January 2005, began writing poetry as a way of explaining what he was going through. He knew that everything he wrote would be censored, so used poetry to try to describe his situation to his family.

“The idea was to say it without saying it,” he says, “and to explain to my interrogators that it was a farce.”

The formal constraints of poetry gives the writer control over their material, he says, “the ability to say the words without going into a rant”.

Poetry was also a way of engaging with the system.

“I knew that everything I wrote would be censored,” he continues, “and that the person censoring it would have to read the poem.” By writing in English, a language rarely used by detainees in the camp, he was able to communicate directly with guards, and perhaps those higher up in the US military.

It was also a way of “showing anger” and “channelling frustration”.

According to Falkoff, detainees are writing poetry because “they’re trying to keep hold of their sanity and humanity”.

Getting the collection published proved to be difficult because the Pentagon classified the most of the detainees’ writing for security concerns. Falkoff says he hopes the collection, titled Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, will put a human face on the people confined there.