Poetry Parnassus at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre

Whilst the Olympics offered an unprecedented opportunity for the UK to welcome athletes, artists and visitors from across the world, we felt that we would also like to highlight the problems encountered by many individuals who find themselves on our shores, often as a result of political instability in their own countries.

English PEN was a natural partner for this work. Five different Parnassus poets visited over five days, with UK-based poet Avaes Mohammad providing continuity throughout the week.

Several poets cited this one of the best experiences of their stay. Particularly poignant was the fact that Kosal Khiev from Cambodia (despite having all the correct paperwork), was detained at Heathrow and then at Colnbrook overnight upon his arrival. Kosal was due to work with inmates just days after his detention and posters of his workshop were to be seen around the prison. Thanks to fast work and well-placed letters from the Parnassus partner organisations he was released late the next day. Whilst we did not expect him to return to Colnbrook, Kosal insisted on continuing with his workshop and the success of his visit was a testament both to his courage and to the sensitivity and experience of English PEN staff and writers.

Other poets who visited Colnbrook included Kayo Chingonyi, Nick Makoha and Shazea Quraishi.

Philip Cowell, Head of Programmes, English PEN:

We loved being involved in this international festival of poets. The model of working intensively in an institution with writers was brilliant. Effectively, we created a mini-Poetry Parnassus – an entirely open international festival – in Colnbrook IRC – an entirely closed international space. The writers were diverse, varied, and completely fantastic, each bringing their own take on poetry and their own international backgrounds to the sessions. We experienced a few problems – one of the writers being detained himself for example – but apart from that, we felt this worked brilliantly and we got some great feedback from the staff and detainees.

Aaron Barnes, Education Officer, Colnbrook IRC:

I’d like to congratulate everyone involved in the event, and express our gratitude for their visit. I hope all the visitors enjoyed their experience with us here. We look forward to any other future events or visitors you may like to bring here.