Recognizing poets, engaging the world: Split this Rock Poetry Festival
With today’s 24-hour media and relentless political barrage, our language can be altered beyond recognition. Words and phrases are twisted and repeated until they lose original meaning. Until they are so flat, so one-dimensional that everyone accepts it without question.
Poetry can shake things up. As an art of words, it empowers us to take back our language, to make it full, meaningful, and robust again. It can reawaken us to the true meaning of things—or at least help us explore something more. Plus, with a poet’s individual voice, it’s just comforting to know not everyone’s thinking the same thing.
Amidst a mass culture, poetry that explores social and political issues can be powerful. And needed.
“Art of all kinds gives us a way to imagine other possibilities than the one that is being force fed to us by a variety of propaganda machines,” says Sarah Browning, founder and director of Split this Rock. And poetry addresses the language side of things.
Split this Rock is the only organization of its kind that focuses on socially engaged poetry. Which is the main reason why it began—to fill an identified gap in the poetry scene. Although it puts on events year-round, the main event is biannual: Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness. The event begins Thursday, March 22, and runs through Sunday, March 25. The anchor location is DC Busboys and Poets, but weekend events are happening all around the U Street corridor/Columbia Heights area.
Split This Rock Festival has already made a big splash in the poetry world—both DC and nationwide. And it’s only in its third year.
It helps that it didn’t start from scratch.
“We have built this festival upon the shoulders of others who came before,” says Sarah. Split This Rock emerged out of Poets Against the War, which began nationally a decade ago courtesy of renowned Seattle-based poet, Sam Hamill.
It was the winter of 2002 and Sarah had just moved it DC. Sarah had always been both a poet and an activist, but had never found a way to connect the two. “I grew up in an age when political poetry was frowned upon,” she says. And she didn’t know how to access the poetry scene in DC. That winter, she received a mass email from Sam Hamill asking for poems about peace—poems that would help make February 12, 2003 a day of “poetry against the war.”
The response he got from his poet peers was exceptional—1,500 poems in 36 hours (a few of Sarah’s included). And as February 12th approached, events and readings were being organized all over the country. Except for DC. Sarah couldn’t find single event to attend in DC on this marked day.
So a week out from the big day, Sarah created an event of her own: an open mic night. It was informal. It was word-of-mouth. She spread the word in all ways she could. And although it was freezing that night of the 12th, and notice was short, nearly 200 people showed up.
And this set the tone of all that would follow. One of Sarah’s primary goals from the start was to bring poets together across all divisions, across race, language, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity. But also across poetic style: the lyric, narrative, experimental, and the spoken word.
“These divisions too often bedevil us as a nation, as well as a poetic community,” Sarah says.
After that, readings began to spring up all over. As the DC branch of Poets Against the War grew, Sarah began to sense there was a whole world of socially engaged poets doing amazing work, but flying under the radar. They were isolated from the literary world because of a history of avoiding social issues topics in writing, so they weren’t getting published or recognized. And they were too often isolated from social change movements that didn’t know how to incorporate poets or how to work with them effectively. Using poetry as a platform was unfamiliar. Hence the gap.
DC’s Poets Against the War answered by creating a forum and place for poets to present their work.
“There was a tremendous response from poets and audiences alike,” she says. “Poets had been very actively doing their own thing, but there wasn’t much infrastructure.”
Flash forward to 2008. DC Poets Against the War eventually morphed into Split this Rock. And although it emerged from Poets Against the War, Split This Rock focuses on all issues, not just those of war and peace—although those are certainly still included. All poets working on the range of social issues are welcome.
“I felt the responsibility to do something, especially with the perpetual wars, the growing disparity in wealth—and DC is really a microcosm for our a lot of our country’s issues.” It was time to do something on a larger scale. So Sarah and others involved in Split This Rock came up with a hybrid happening: part event, part conference, and part political action.
The first festival was in March 2008, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. 250 attended. And afteward, the love letters started pouring in.
“I realized people had actually been waiting for something like this,” she recalls. “People were so eager to meet other folks who shared their passions.” There was no way to network before.
The second festival, two years later, got 350 attendees. And now, four years after it’s start, the third festival is about to begin. This year, Sarah’s goal is to do more local outreach to make sure they’re visible to those who are interested. All are welcome.
“Folks active in Split this Rock write about race, social class, environmental justice, sexual orientation…we like to have a broad definition of what is a ‘political poem,’” Sarah says. “There are many broad ways of engaging the world.”
The organization’s national impact has been two-fold. First is in the core poetry community. Split This Rock is bringing to the surface poets who would not otherwise be recognized.
“They’ve had books published and are perhaps known in certain circles, but they never felt named socially engaged poets before now,” Sarah says. In many cases, it’s the first time they’re being celebrated in that way.
Second, is its impact on the literary world at large.
“Last year, the National Book Award went to a very political book by an African American woman,” Sarah explains. “Ten years ago that was unthinkable.” Maybe Split This Rock didn’t make this happen, but it’s helping create the condition so that it could. It’s creating the condition for writers to freely tell their story of what it means to be American at this moment. Not one poet or genre specifically—but all poets.
Especially in today’s turbulent times, more Americans are aware of social and economic issues. It’s a legitimate—and even desired—topic to write about. Not everyone can win esteemed literary prizes, but events such as Split This Rock offer a different way for poets to get recognized and share work with others.
And the DC setting isn’t trivial. For one, Sarah likes the fact they’re just putting DC on the map in a cultural way.
“But also, DC has this schizophrenic identity. We need to tell the story of the city behind the government and the monuments.” That’s why they like to get out into the neighborhoods. Sometimes poetry is about the changing city. One’s role in it all. Sometimes it’s about your neighbors, other residents. Sometimes it’s just about documenting a moment. Poetry can be a successful outlet for many experiences.
This year, festival organizers put together some of the programming (they curated the feature poets for the main stage), but most ideas came from the general public through a national call for proposals. Throughout panels, workshops, and group readings, it’s expected that people in the audience will have just as much to contribute. It’s all about engagement.
There’s even a political action segment Friday afternoon that encourages public participation. In years’ past, this has meant a group poem in a public space, where each person gets up to recite a line of poetry to create a “cento,” or a poetic form meaning patchwork.
Another highlight is a public conversation session where DC poet, Venus Thrash, will be interviewing Sonia Sanchez. And the entire festival will be celebrating the life of June Jordan, poet, activist, essay writer, and teacher on the 10th anniversary of her death.
Visit the website to see the full schedule of events and participating poets.
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