MIAMI (Reuters) - Poems written by Guantanamo prisoners about their lives as captives of the United States have been compiled in a book that will be published this summer with an endorsement from a former U.S. poet laureate.
“Poems From Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak” is being published by the University of Iowa Press and will hit the shelves by August, the publisher said. The 84-page volume was assembled by lawyers representing captives held as suspected terrorists at the much-criticized U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
Marc Falkoff, an assistant law professor at Northern Illinois University who has represented 17 Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo, compiled the poems. He said most expressed religious faith, nostalgia for childhood homes or yearning for family.
Others are angry, disillusioned or questioning, like one written as a conversation with the surrounding sea.
“Do our chains offend you? ... You are taunting us in our captivity,” Falkoff read from a poem in a telephone interview. “I want to dive into you and swim back to my home.”
“He’s saying, ‘I’m stuck here on a prison island and you, the sea, are being complicit with my captors and guarding me.’”
Some of the poems were originally scratched out with pebbles on foam cups that came with prisoners’ meals, got confiscated by guards and were rewritten from memory after the prisoners were released, Falkoff said. Others were written by captives among the 375 still at Guantanamo.
Robert Pinsky, U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, wrote a blurb for the cover, saying the prisoners’ voices deserved attention, although not necessarily admiration.
“For us Americans, it is a patriotic duty to protect institutions like due process of law and habeas corpus,” Pinsky told Reuters by e-mail.
“Underlying those treasured legal principles is an idea: the dignity of individual people. Evidence suggesting transgression of those legal principles, any betrayal of that idea, demands our attention,” said Pinsky, who has taught creative writing in U.S. civilian prisons.
Critics, including some of Washington’s allies, have called for Guantanamo to be closed and said the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects there infringed their human rights.
The poems were cleared by U.S. military censors, who the lawyers said blocked the release of many others.
A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, described the detainees’ poems as “another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies against whom they are at war.”
“While a few detainees at Guantanamo have made efforts to author what they purport to be poetry, given the nature of their writings they have seemingly not done so for the sake of art,” he said.
Since the U.S. Congress stripped Guantanamo prisoners of the right to challenge their detention in court, their lawyers have turned to the creative arts to tell their stories. Federal public defenders in Oregon made a video about a Sudanese client they said was wrongly detained, and posted it on YouTube.
“These guys are not super-duper evil double-0 terrorist agents. These guys, for the most part, were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Falkoff said.
But is it art? Falkoff said the original cadence may have been lost in translation to English, mostly from Arabic and done by a limited pool of translators granted security clearances by the U.S. military.
Profits will go to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has spearheaded litigation on behalf of Guantanamo detainees.