I just spent the past three days at one of the most inspiring and productive events 21st century American poetry: Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Centered around activism and the ability of poetry to impact change in the world, the festival brings together poets from an array of backgrounds and perspectives and merges the traditionally separate realms of spoken word and page poetry.
Split This Rock is much wilder and cooler than more conventional writing conferences, and because everyone has gathered for a common cause—to celebrate poetry at work in the world and to find places where poetry can make a real difference in people’s lives—much of the politics and egotism that infects other conferences is absent. Last night, for example, after a phenomenal reading by Yusef Komunyakaa, Franny Choi, Wang Ping, and DC Youth Slam Team member Thomas Hill, the evening’s host, Regie Cabico, brought the readers up on stage to dance to disco music beneath disco lights. Not something you get to see every day!
The feature readings gave me the opportunity to hear many poets I love read, some for the first time: Joy Harjo, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ann Waldman, Wang Ping, Tim Seibles, Claudia Rankine, Myra Sklarew, Edwardo C. Corral, and others. But I was also excited to be introduced to new voices: Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail, Latina poet Maria Melendez Kelson, and some fantastic performance poets—Danez Smith, Franny Choi, Gayle Danley, and of course the members of the DC Youth Slam Team.
While I wasn’t able to attend as many of the panels as I wanted (the snow days have me scrambling to make up for as much lost time as possible at work), every panel I attended was thought-provoking and motivating—I have pages and pages of notes on subjects that interest me deeply: how to write politically engaged poetry that works as art and pushes past the expected, how white poets can tackle the difficult subject of race, how poetry can enter the realm of performance in ways beyond the traditional slam or one-person-performance piece. Some of my favorite quotes from the event include: “Language must be equal to or greater than its subject matter” (Mary Ruefle via Jehanne Dubrow); “In calling whiteness to account, I want to tell the story of whiteness to myself so I can figure it out in order to change it” (Joy Katz); “Whiteness is the world’s most boring story and also the world’s most lethal” (Alish Hopper).
I am incredibly grateful to Sarah Browning, the founder and director, and to all of the organizers and volunteers who make the festival come together and remind us of what we know but often forget: that poetry does make things happen.