Monday, April 11, 2016

A Home for Progressive Poets: Split This Rock Festival

By Sarah Katz

The Split this Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation and Witness, will take place this year April 14–17, and includes readings, workshops, and a flash mob that will take poetry to the streets of D.C. The Writer’s Center interviewed Sarah Browning, executive director of Split This Rock, to learn more about the history of the organization and how this year’s festival will be different.

 During the dark years of the Iraq war, when the Bush Administration was in command, a cadre of 40 members of the D.C. Poets Against War movement began dreaming of a home for progressive poets.

That dream was realized as the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, in March 2008. The response to the event was “astonishing,” said Sarah Browning, former co-director and current executive director of the festival. “We went to AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference] in 2007, and put an ad in the [conference program for a reception], and people mobbed us—people hungry for a home, for a meeting place, for a forum.... Somebody said to me, ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.’”

I met with Browning at the shiny, new, but still small office shared with the Institute for Policy Studies on Connecticut Avenue, where I could see for myself how Split This Rock—whose name is pulled from a line in “Big Buddy," a poem by Langston Hughes—continues to grow in size. Although the political climate has changed since 2008, the vision of Split This Rock remains the same.

Executive Director Sarah Browning
Photo by Sarah Katz
“Our poetry can help draw the connections that are there and make them explicit,” said Browning. “So we did have poets [in 2008] who were working in prisons, talking about what wasn’t even then called the 'prison industrial complex,' but is now, and of course about race, gender, the environment, as well as war and peace, economic justice, and disability.”

“Poetry is even more necessary these days,” Browning added. “Especially in light of the hatred and fear mongering that’s going on, it can teach us about each other. It can give politics a human face—something Martin Espada says. Most crucially, it can imagine alternatives. So when we’re being told that we have to spend 59% of our budget on 'defense' in order to be safe, poetry can help us imagine a world that is radically different.”

Browning reminded me that political poetry was once considered “unserious work” by what she called the “literary establishment,” even after the civil rights movement. When Browning attended college in the 1980s, she felt pressure from a creative writing professor to uphold the status quo in poetry.

“He told me ‘poets must love language above all else,’ as if somehow one area of my life and concern could not be engaged by imaginative language. It’s an absurd notion; anywhere else in the world poets have been a part of public life, reading their poems at state events, running for office, being journalists, writing columns. These have not been seen as separate spheres—it’s just that poetry is where the most imaginative language can take place.”

She added: “I always say a bad poem doesn’t make social change, it just shuts people down, just like a boring speech does or the same chant for forty years.”

Split This Rock, fortunately, has played a huge role in turning this notion on its head. Now, for the third time, Poetry magazine is featuring Split This Rock poets in their special issues. The first one was the March 2014 issue; the eco-justice issue was released in January; and this April, Poetry will feature the festival and its poets.

“So the literary world is changing,” Browning said, “but that doesn’t mean there aren’t sill spaces that are still elitist and white and we’ve seen a lot of sexism made public; it was always there, but it’s finally being made public and exposed. So we know there’s still a lot of work to do. But that has been an enormous change.”

Learn more about Split This Rock on their website, and review their festival events.

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