Poets Who Will Not Remain Silent:

Dispatch from Split This Rock! Poetry Festival 2016

“silence / from our imagination / in wave upon
wave / in a shipping container & I love you
in a box of shock you love me / in a cemented
dream / we’re a happy family /
with a great big hug and chains that leave no mark
Won’t you say you love me too?

-Philip Metres, Sand Opera

With these lines, Philip Metres juxtaposes U.S. military language from an interrogation conducted at Guantanamo with lyrics from the children’s show theme song “Barney is a Dinosaur,” and we read in the collection notes that this seemingly innocuous jingle was used in the interrogation. Political commentary forms a key element in the aesthetics and range of language registers which form and inform the collection Sand Opera. This interweaving of poetry and social justice characterizes the spirit of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival, during which Metres led the poetry reading “Writing Beneath War: The Middle East,” and co-facilitated the panel discussion “Now What? Everyday Experience and Resistance in the Middle East,” drawing on his experience teaching Israeli and Palestinian literatures. Split This Rock holds poetry festivals in even numbered years, promising poems of provocation and witness, from poetic action and young voices of slam poetry to documentary poetry and eco-justice. Four days of panels, roundtables, readings, and community building around themes of social justice took place in Washington D.C. from April 14–17, 2016. Offerings ranged from the local to the international, from educational and academic to leadership and activism, and everything in between. Featured readings included sign language interpreters as well as work by disability activist poets, queer poets, and poets from diverse activist communities.

Each featured reading began by introducing a young poet and remembering the work of pioneering activist poets. Members of the DC Youth Slam Team shared their work, and Split This Rock made available poetry chapbooks by team members as well. In the collection Learning to Forgive Gravity, poet Hannah Smallwood offers thoughtful meditations on navigating chronic illness and queer identity. In the poem “9 Things No One Ever Told Me About Coming Out” she asserts,

Bisexuals, asexuals, and pansexuals have closets too.
But ours are more like wardrobes to Narnia
Because no one ever believes us
When we come out.

With these few lines, we gain a sense of the frustrations of being mislabeled and having our experiences erased, as well as a powerful voice reclaiming the human right to self-determination.

These same themes found a unique and empowering vehicle in the poems of Lauren K. Alleyne, first place winner of the 2016 Split This Rock Annual Poetry Award. In the elegiac “The Hoodie Stands Witness” from the collection Difficult Fruit, Alleyne imagines the perspective of the hoodie worn by slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin:

That day, he was thinking
of nothing in particular.
He was quiet in his skin;
tucked into the shade of me,
he was an easy embrace
until an old ancestral fear
lay its white shadow
across us like an omen.

The poem offers a striking access point into the realm where the personal intersects with political events and institutions. The lyricism of the lines and the sense of calm belie the warning of the last few lines. Alleyne’s economy of words works to situate the horror present in everyday situations. In the poem “John White Defends,” the title character, based on a non-fiction account, attempts to protect his home from racist teens on a delusionary revenge mission, as he worries for his son who is their target:

I wanted
to spare him the burning
the dangerous
the needle
the bullet
the shackles
the whip of a merciless law
I wanted to spare him

The terse lines and tight line breaks create a sense of tension that builds until the final line, when we know exactly the terrible meaning of “this,” from which White wishes to spare his son.

A similarly careful arranging of lines emerges in the work of Mahogany L. Browne, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut activist who led a panel discussion and reading with an open mike session with co-organizer Amanda Johnston. #BlackPoetsSpeakOut invited Black poets to read poems of social justice, and to assert, in the words of poet Jericho Brown, “I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” Black poets and allies were invited to learn the history of the movement and allies were encouraged to support the right of Black poets to be angry and embrace the value of speaking up for justice. Poet Amanda Johnston spoke about and demonstrated the power of community building, as well as emphasizing the importance of self-care for activists, and the value of basic life skills like sleeping, eating, and resting as strategies for maintaining energy for activism.

Mahogany L. Browne’s linguistic acrobatics and language registers assert themselves in the collection RedBone, which also foregrounds self-care and forms of resilience, as well as methods of surviving difficult family, social, and societal situations. In the poem “RedBone in Greek,” the narrator’s mother, RedBone, takes on the role of a Greek gorgon in defense against an ex-husband:

First Husband walk in
Let the light vanish
Whole room close like fist
Squeeze air from throat
Redbone legs shake
But Redbone eyes ain’t move
Redbone whisper
“I make him stone He can’t hurt me, I make him stone”
Her eyes become graveyards
Redbone’s First Husband ain’t but a man to Medusa

We see the incantatory effect of the whispered words and the way in which Redbone takes power through recourse to the legend of Medusa and the ability to turn men to stone. Browne offers a variety of registers of language and subtle shifts so that we register several different aspects of the scene — identifying with Redbone, hearing her voice, seeing her from her daughter’s viewpoint — hovering somewhere between first person, second person, and third person narrative.

While Browne presents views on the relationships between identity and family, featured poet Linda Hogan, who was unable to attend the festival, but very much there in spirit, offers a broad view of family in her recent collected works, Dark. Sweet. Poems from the collection were recited by featured poets Rigoberto González, Zeina Hashem Beck. In the poem “The Petrified Steps,” Hogan’s narrator illustrates generational and locational ties:

I am the translator of old trees.
You ask how I earn this job.
It is because my ancestors carried the bones of our dead
such distances on our backs
in bundles and bags.
I come from those who read the past, carry it with us,
and just now I abandon the future
because I also read the faces of people
and not just trees, not just histories
or the bones of the gone.

Hogan’s narrators concern themselves with the discourse between people and animals and the interconnections between human generations and those of natural spaces.

The event “Farm to Table to Poem: A Food Justice Poetry Workshop,” led by Craig Santos Perez and Aiko Yamashiro also located social justice at the intersection of people, social ties, and the natural world, with a focus on food and meal preparation as communal and ecological events. The organizers discussed activism and poetry based in Hawai’i centered on the Pacific food justice and sovereignty movement, including activism at the boundaries between traditional food and healthy food preparation, with one example being an effort to prepare homemade spam from scratch as a community building activity centered on healthier and more community centered food preparation. The workshop leaders invited participants to write about their relationship between food and family, eating and kinship.

Another locationally oriented event, “Writing Beneath War: The Middle East,” featured readings by poets Zeina Hashem Beck, Philip Metres, and Solmaz Sharif on the theme of struggle against Orientalist approaches to reading and writing the Middle East. Metres and Sharif presented work at the boundaries of United States military documents and the ways in which these documents attempt erasures of personal narratives from the region and its diaspora communities. Hashem Beck, who recently won the first Rattle chapbook contest, read from her collection To Live in Autumn, a series of love poems for an ever changing Beirut. In a particularly memorable passage on the pleasures and struggles of living in and away from the city, the narrator of the poem “Dance: Dubai 2012” relates,

I re-member you, Beirut,
the heat the traffic the craziness the cigarettes
the melting mascara the smeared rooftops
the garbage the godless god-full sky the rain,
and I dance as you explode again today
and I dance as I explode again today
(let it rain let it rain let it rain)
I dance on your balconies
here in this desert until
a faint female voice calls out
a question, says turn
we carry cities, instead of angels,
on our shoulders, we trail them
behind us like old hurts.

The city appears as explosion, rain, dance, a shawl of memories and old wounds, a puzzle to be reconfigured in memory, put back together after falling apart. The narrator performs an uneasy dance with an imperfect, but much loved city from a far country.

In the work of Solmaz Sharif, distance takes on a different hue of meaning. Watching from a distance implicates the viewer in military surveillance and cognitive dissonances. In the poem “LOOK,” we feel the dangerous juxtaposition of the personal and the political:

Whereas the lover made my heat rise, rise so that if heat
 sensors were trained on me, they could read
 my THERMAL SHADOW through the roof and through
 the wardrobe;

As Hannah Smallwood invites us into a world in which the story of a wardrobe stands for layers of personal identity and self-assertion in the face of erasure, here a wardrobe offers no resistance against military invasion of privacy in both the theoretical and very real senses. Split This Rock Poetry Festival provides attendees with just this kind of range in terms of the aesthetics and social justice elements of poetry. It serves as a welcome respite from a poetry world in which formal and artistic concerns often seem far removed from the role of the social justice activist. The festival provides a brief but thorough opportunity for self-care and community support for those of us at the crossroads between poetry and activism.