The Split This Rock Poetry Festival, 2012 is now a few weeks behind us and I want to share some reflections on this terrific event. For me, it was 4 days of renewing friendships, making new ones, hearing remarkable poetry, and gaining energy for the journey. The photograph to the right, taken by Alan King, shows the poets after the COLLECTIVE BRIGHTNESS reading. From left to right: Ahron Taub, Chin-In Chen, Blas Falconer, Kazim Ali, Daniel Nathan Terry, Joseph Ross, Kevin Simmonds, and Gregg Shapiro.
On Wednesday night, we registered and gathered in the Langston Room at Busboys & Poets for a tribute to June Jordan. We heard her own voice, several poets reading her work, and Split This Rock founder Sarah Browning got us all fired up. I was fortunate to sit with two dear friends: Melissa Tuckey, an amazing poet who used to live in D.C. but now lives in Ithaca, sat on one side of me, and my friend Kevin Simmonds, a remarkable poet and musician, who also edited COLLECTIVE BRIGHTNESS, sat on my other side. We laughed and shared stories. It was also nice to introduce two good people to each other.
On Thursday morning, I went to the panel on “Poetry as Activism.” We heard about interesting projects from Ken Chen, Jennifer Karmin, Phil Metres, Mark Nowak, and Jonathan Skinner. Phil Metres, a terrific poet, told about the work of the Cleveland Peace Festival. Mark Nowak’s works always amazes me. He organizes factory workers to write poetry and has connected American auto workers with South African auto workers, around poetry. This was a terrific panel.
Thursday afternoon, I attended the tribute to Sam Hamill, founder of Poets Against War and one of the founders of Copper Canyon Press. Sarah Browning, Martin Espada, and Marilyn Nelson all read some of Sam’s work and then Sam read several poems. His work founding Poets Against War is foundational to Split This Rock. It was good to see him in person and to see him in good spirits and health.
Later Thursday afternoon, I was honored to be part of the panel of readers from the anthology COLLECTIVE BRIGHTNESS: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, and Spirituality. Kevin Simmonds, who edited the book, introduced each of us and it was moving to hear poems I’ve read many times, in the voices of their authors. The photo above shows us all after the reading.
On Friday, I joined the poets in a protest at the Supreme Court building. I met up with my friend, poet Carmen Calatayud, who was taking Francisco Alarcon and Odilia Galvan Rodriguez to a change of clothes and then to the Supreme Court. So I joined them. This was one of those perfect “in between” moments that can only happen at a gathering of such devoted people. Francisco, Odilia, and Carmen, along with others, founded an amazing Facebook group called Poets Responding to SB 1070. This online group has become a true movement of poets and activists opposing the discriminatory laws in Arizona. I admire these folks a great deal. Eventually, Carmen dropped us off and Odilia, Francisco and I joined more than 100 poets in front of the Supreme Court. We created a group poem, called a cento. We each composed a 12-word line and read them out, one by one. It was very moving.
Saturday morning, I attended “Even in Polite Company: Women Writer Their Own Truths.” This panel was fascinating and included Niki Herd, Antoinette Brim, Lita Hooper and Demetrice Anntia Worley. Niki read some of her powerful poems from The Language of Shedding Skin. The other poets read from their work as well. Antoinette Brim moderated the panel gracefully. Lita Hooper read from a novel in verse about two twin girls who get separated during Hurricane Katriina. I hope that novel finds its way into print.
Saturday afternoon found me at the reading from poets in Beauty is a Verb: New Poetry of Disability. These poets are perfectly able! They read their poems and discussed their own experiences as poets. My friend Kathi Wolfe read beautifully at this panel from her Helen Keller poems.
Later, on Saturday afternoon, I attended a fascinating discussion at the panel titled “White Poets Writing About Race: An Invitation to Conversation.” Martha Collins, Ailish Hopper, Tess Taylor, Susan Tichy and Jake Adam York really provoked some interesting discussion about how white poets write (or don’t write) about race. We discussed ways of getting it “wrong” and getting it “right.” I have to admit that some of the comments in this discussion troubled me but it’s an essential conversation, one we should have more often.
Later still on Saturday, I attended the reading featuring Khaled Mattawa, Marilyn Nelson, Jose Padua, and Minnie Bruce Pratt. Khaled Mattawa is a Libyan poet so his reflections were fascinating. Marilyn Nelson is an awesome poet and I had been wanting to hear her read for some time. She read one lengthy and beautiful poem about two black women, conjoined twins, and the wild and beautiful story of their lives.
On Sunday morning, I attended the final reading with Sherwin Bitsui, Kathy Engel, and Naomi Shihab Nye. I had never heard Sherwin Bitsui’s work but it mesmerized me. His use of Native American images, language and sounds transfixed me. Kathy Engel was a friend of June Jordan’s and writes sharp and crisp poems. My friend Naomi Shihab Nye is always wonderful.
After this reading, I loaded Naomi’s luggage into my car and we were planning to head for BWI. She received a last minute invitation so we swept through Andy Shallal’s house to meet Marjan, (Andy’s wife), Alice Walker, and Clare Nader, Ralph Nader’s sister. From there we took off for BWI. Naomi and I got a nice chance to talk and laugh. Besides being an amazing poet, Naomi is a genuinely loving person. I am grateful for her friendship.
Once again, Split This Rock energized me for teaching, writing, and working on new ways for poets to take up our voices in the public debates of our country. We need to do this. I’m so grateful for the chance to attend this festival for the third time and I’m already looking forward to Split This Rock 2014!