Monday, March 31, 2014

Split This Rock Poetry Festival in DC

L-r: Reggie Harris, me, Kevin Simmonds, Tisa Bryant
Two years ago I attended my first Split This Rock Poetry Festival, the biennial Washington, DC-based gathering that brings together socially engaged poetries and poets, and had such a great experience that I vowed I would be back in two years. Although poets who teach in academe are integral to Split This Rock's lineup, one of the most refreshing aspects of the festival is its separateness from any academic institution, college, university or otherwise, and the aesthetic range of poetries, from experimental to spoken word. This year, panels and readings were held at a range of not-for-profit and historical sites, including The Human Rights Campaign's offices (where we read), The Charles Sumner School, the Wilderness Society, and the Institute for Policy Studies, as well as the Beacon Hotel, which was a conference sponsor.

The poets who participate work not only in classrooms at all levels, but in prisons, running nonprofits, as booksellers and waiters, as poker pros, you name it. The aim is not the usual official verse culture game of trying to impress the high priests and priestesses of the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) and the MLA (Modern Language Association), but rather, as Split This Rock's tag points out, to call "poets to a greater role in public life and [foster] a national network of socially engaged poets." As William Carlos Williams, a socially committed poet among his Modernist peers, wrote in his great, late long poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," and as we could say of so many aspects of our society and globe, "men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there [in poetry]."

This year, I returned as part of a quartet reading poetry by and in tribute to some of the major Black LGBTQ writers from the Harlem Renaissance through the 1990s. Our group, under the rubric of Gathering Forces, performed singly, in pairs, and in ensemble fashion, the works of a number of major Black LGBTQ writers. Our list was not comprehensive, and in some cases, we included poets who might raise (critical and cultural) eyebrows, like Ai, who was not publicly out in her lifetime (though she was outed shortly after her death by Gay and Lesbian Review Online), and Robert Hayden, who is still not usually thought of as a queer poet. Moreover, in retrospect, I think several of us thought about how might have exchanged some of our choices so that we could have included more poets from the past, like Countee Cullen, or other kinds of texts, like excerpts of letters, manifestos, and the like. Nevertheless, despite no opportunity for extended rehearsal, we met up on Friday morning (March 28) in DC, did a very run-through of portions of each poem, and when the crowd arrived--and we had a very good turnout despite so many other compelling concurrent sessions--we did the ancestors proud.

Our lineup went as follows:

Lorraine Hansberry, from her annual lists of "Likes and Dislikes"
Pat Parker, "My Lover Is a Woman" (Tisa)
Langston Hughes, "I loved my friend" (Kevin, beautifully sung)
Angelina Weld Grimké, "Grass Fingers, " (Reggie)
Roy Gonsalves, "X" (John)
David Alan Frechette, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (John)
Essex Hemphill, "The Brass Rail" (Reggie and I)
Pat Parker, "My Brother" (Tisa)
Reginald Shepherd, "God With Us" (Reggie)
Melvin Dixon, "Hungry Travel" (Kevin)
Marlon Riggs, "Tongues Untied" (John)
Ai, "Ice" (Tisa)
June Jordan, "Kissing God Goodbye" (all of us)
Claude McKay, "Jasmine" (Reggie)
Claude McKay, "Commemoration" (John)
Ai, "Why I Can't Leave You" (Tisa)
Stephen Jonas, "IV" (Reggie)
Audre Lorde, "Pirouette" (John)
Stephen Jonas, "What You Can See" (Reggie)
Audre Lorde, "Power" (Kevin)
Ai, "Salome" (Tisa)
Robert Hayden, "The Tattooed Man" (Reggie)
Richard-Bruce Nugent, excerpt from "Smoke, Lilies and Jade" (John)

I only had a day to spend at Split This Rock, so I tried to catch some of the other panels. One I attended was "Women and War/Women and Peace II," featuring poets Samiya Bashir, Lisa Suhair Majaj, Melanie Graham, Robin Coste Lewis, and Kim Jensen. Unfortunately Robin could not attend, and the panel moderator, whose intentions appeared great, did not seem to know how to frame the conversation, at one point having us all respond to an exercise she used in her class (in which we were to write down our greatest fear on a piece of paper, ball it up, and throw it across the room at someone (!) and keep doing so until we had dispersed our own; the one I received was "I fear white women will co-opt my voice," and while I didn't discuss this fear, Jennifer Karmin, who is white and who was sitting beside me, did do so). At another point, she cited her recent dissertation, quoting Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse (I added my thoughts to this discussion point), but the poets' presentations of their own work focused the panel back onto the topic at hand.

I slipped out partway through to catch a little bit of the panel dedicated to the legendary Black Rooster Collective, which was entitled "The Black Rooster Collective: 'You' Street Poets of Witness." Although only four of the poets affiliated with this collective were present, each of them, Joel Dias-Porter, Brandon D. Johnson, Gary Copeland Lilley, and Ernesto Mercer, read poems and recounted enough history to give a rich overview of who they were when they began, and how they continue, despite having moved to various parts of the US (New Jersey, Virginia, etc.), to remain in contact and aesthetic and political conversation. I should note that several of them (Joel, Brandon, and Ernesto, as well as Toni Asante Lightfoot, who was not present) were among the most talented and dynamic poets I encountered during my first few years at Cave Canem, and their dialogue reminded me that poetry has lived and continues to live, and thrive, far beyond university walls or powerful academic critics' perspectives and dicta. Two years from now, I hope to attend the next Split This Rock Poetry Festival, and urge others to consider attending too.

At the "Women and War/
Women and Peace II" panel,
Lisa Suhair Majaj (at left, in green),
Samiya Bashir (at center in purple)

The Black Rooster Collective panel,
(l-r) Brandon Lewis, Ernesto Mercer, Joel
Dias-Porter, and Gary Copeland Lilley

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