Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Voices Forward: Adrienne Rich’s Statement to the 2008 Split This Rock Poetry Festival

Ten years ago, in 2008, poets convened for the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness. Every poet invited to feature at the first gathering agreed and most participated at no cost to the festival—so strong was their commitment to this gathering dedicated to poetry that engages the real textures and troubles of our lives. Only
A black and white image of Adrienne Rich looking directly at the camera with a warm expression. She has short salt-and-pepper hair, dark eyes, and freckles. She wears a black top and small, silver, hoop earrings.
Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012
one poet declined, and that with deep regret due to intensifying illness.

In lieu of her nourishing presence, Adrienne Rich sent the following statement to the founders. They read it to those gathered at that first festival. It is our honor and pleasure to share it with our community now, ten years on, to inspire us all for the next ten years and the years beyond.
* * *
WASHINGTON D.C., MARCH 20-23, 2008

By Adrienne Rich

Over the weekend preceding “Split This Rock,” I have been watching video clips of the “Winter Soldier” panels conducted by Iraq Veterans Against the War. I have been listening to the hard-earned, factual, understated yet intensely charged words of testimony from these men and women.

War and injustice are not “themes” for some poets to pick up or put down by choice. Let’s be clear about this from the outset: Even when we taste the sweetness of life, love, greet a new child, pay decent homage to lost comrades and elders, our work, our access to time and space, our pulse and breath are subject to the structures of inequality, exclusion, cruelty and violence. We read and write poetry to sense through expressive language what the discourse of power has numbed or silenced; to search out truth in our own souls and with other souls.
We don’t write poetry to speak truth to power, as if it will change the minds of the powerful.

Illegitimate power does not want truth. It depends on manufactured ignorance, manipulation, secrecy and force. We in the United States who have written dissident poetry for much of our lives have done so because, like it or not, politics have saturated the air we breathe, the pores of our skin, the waters we drink, where and how and with whom—and whether—we sleep at night. Recognizing this we crave, and try to create, language equal to our time and needs, our location in a greater humanity. We begin to question easy, cynical formulations and accept the responsibility of our artistic task.

Dissident art realizes itself, finds its voice in collective activity. There is no contradiction here, only challenge. May “Split This Rock,” like “Winter Soldier,” become one conversation, one event among the many that, for the long future, must confront our national, our human, emergency.

* * *
This is the essential work to which the founders, board, staff, and community of Split This Rock are committed, to poetry on the side of life. We thank every poet and reader who joins us, shares this work forward, and supports us. As we affirmed one to another at the closing of the 2018 festival, WE ARE WITH YOU. To invest in the long future of dissident poetry, consider a gift to Split This Rock. Visit the website for details. #10YearsofPoWeR

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Split This Rock 2018 Festival Press Coverage Round-Up!

It’s hard to believe that it’s been just a few weeks since Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2018. We are so moved by the outpouring of love, unity, and meaningful conversation that occurred at the festival and has continued in the weeks after. Split This Rock is grateful to stay in conversation with you all as we work toward liberation together.

Have you written about Split This Rock Poetry Festival? Let us know by emailing info@splitthisrock.org.

Below is what attendees, presenters, and media are saying about this year’s Festival. All photos by Kristin Adair.

Special features from Festival sponsor Poetry Magazine

Festival Preview Coverage

The Festival led the Washington City Paper’s Critic’s Pick for the weekend, with Alexa Mills encouraging DC residents to check out the Festival: “If you’re looking for some clarity in the chaos, turn to the poets.” Features a great photo of D.C. poet and 2018 Festival feature Elizabeth Acevedo!

In anticipation of the festival, Kathi Wolfe from The Washington Blade underscored the event’s importance to communities speaking truth to power. The article declares, “Poetry isn’t an elite, ethereal art form. It’s as essential as food, water or having enough air to breathe." Then goes on to quote Split This Rock Executive Director Sarah Browning, "Poets have always challenged the powerful and told the suppressed stories of those with little power, which is why our words are on the lips of revolutionaries and why tyrants don’t much like us.” The Poetry Foundation later picked up The Blade’s story on The Harriet Blog, congratulating Split This Rock on our 10th anniversary!

Over on Sputnik’s By Any Means Necessary, Executive Director Sarah Browning and 2018 DC Youth Slam Team Member who performed a poem on the festival main stage Mary Kamara joined hosts Eugene Puryear and Sean Blackmon to discuss Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2018 as well as the power of poetry to bring hope in times of despair.
Leading up to the festival, Split This Rock’s Sarah Browning joined local radio station WPFW for interviews with David Rabin (April 10) and David Whetstone (April 18) to talk about Split This Rock’s mission and the 2018 Poetry Festival.

Festival Reflections

From Deborah A Miranda reflections in a blog post: "Split This Rock! is not just a place, nor just a literary festival. It is a crucible, an awakening, a cracking open of the heart that has been hardened by oppression, grief, fear, exhaustion. Poetry is the hammer. My heart was the rock." Deborah charges Split This Rock to do better, as well, to build community with Indigenous poets and communities, as we "rebuild the foundations of this nation." Read the full post, Split This Rock! 2018: Three Days in a Poet's (almost) Utopia on Deborah’s blog Bad NDNS.

Dan Wilcox offered reflective recaps of the Thursday workshops, Friday workshops, Thursday Featured Readings, and Friday’s Public Action: “It’s like returning home. Split This Rock Poetry Festival happens every other year & I look forward to it, but this year it fell exactly during Albany’s WordFest, including the Third Thursday Poetry Night that I host, but I had to be here. It was the 10th year of this festival of “provocation & witness,” & I’ve been to all of them.” Read all of the recaps on his blog.

From Karren LaLonde Alenier’s blog The Dresser: “The Split This Rock panels this season make the Dresser groan with pleasure because it is hard to decide which ones to attend. For example, this afternoon April 19 at the 1:30 session, she has to decide between ‘Arabic/English Poetry Game Workshop,’ ‘Seniors for Social Justice,’ or ‘WordPlay: Poetry a self-advocacy for Youth with Autism.’ This is not to mention the panel on the Warrior Writers and two book oriented sessions--one on the letters of Audre Lorde and the other Eco-Justice poetry.” Read Report #1, Report #2, Report #3, Report #4, and Report #5 on Karren’s blog.

Over on the Ms. Magazine blog, Emily Sernaker provides an in-depth discussion of Thursday afternoon's No More Masks! 45 Years of Women in Poetry panel, featuring Elizabeth Acevedo, Ellen Bass, Sarah Browning, and Solmaz Sharif as speakers. The panel centered around the No More Masks! anthology, co-edited by Florence Howe and Ellen Bass. In addition to a history of the anthology, Sernaker documents one of the topics that came out of the panel: tokenism. Quoting Acevedo: “I think folks are realizing there are writers that have been previously marginalized and disenfranchised who are writing the best work in the country right now. But I also get reached out to like, ‘because you’re a writer of color who’s writing some of the most exciting work in the country right now, can we just have a poem?'”

Book Riot’s Christina M. Rau highlighted several must-read voices that she felt inspired by after attending the fest: “In the tumultuous socio-political landscape of the United States today, poetry filled the air in DC. Voices rang out, speaking to a vast array of issues...Be on the lookout for Jonathan Mendoza. This young poet is the First Place Winner of the 2018 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest. He read a poem entitled ‘Osmosis’ that brought the entire room to silence and then cheers. The poem weaves its way through water and land, singling out instances of injustice regarding immigration and violence.”

Public Action Coverage

At Think Progress, Alejandro Alvarez reported on the festival’s Public Action, in which attendees each brought 12 words each to contribute to a group poem, called a cento, on the topic of gun violence, to join the voices of students for the National School Walkout DC. The article shared: “The White House sidewalk is no stranger to protest. But where you might normally find signs, flags, and hearty chanting, Friday’s activist lineup featured something a bit different: poetry… By gathering socially active poets directly before the National School Walkout, [Sarah] Browning said she hoped to “add voices of witness and imagination” to the conversation for gun control. With roots in the anti-Iraq War movement, she described Split This Rock as a creative force injecting a human perspective into a national push against war, greed, and violence.”

Abby Zimet of Common Dreams also covered the Public Action: “...About two dozen members of Split the Rock climbed a makeshift stage to each add a line to a piece titled “Louder than a Gun.” Their ensuing "tapestry of voices" included the lines, “My country ’tis a quivering child’s breath, held in a closet....Our hearts are less fragile than the nothingness that pulls the trigger...What is it worth? Building graveyards on the backs of our children?” and, from longtime activist Joanne Rocky, “They will beat their guns into poems, and sing out love.”

Read the full poem and see more photos of the public action at Split This Rock's website.

From Festival 2018 Presenters and Readers

On the Kenyon Review Podcast, Featured Poet Javier Zamora spoke with Kenyon English faculty member Andrew Grace about immigration, advocating for undocumented poets, and what Salvadoran poets Americans should be reading. At PRI’s The World, Carol Hills discussed issues of race in America with Featured Poet Kwame Dawes.

Here’s a special treat: Presenters from Brick City Collective filmed and posted their session titled, "Witness and Experience: Luso/ Latinx Poets Voicing Brick City Life." The panel features 7 poets & writers who make up the Brick City Collective, a multimedia arts group whose roots are in Newark, NJ. Take this amazing chance to catch the session if you missed it or want to share it with friends!

Finally, stay tuned in the next weeks as we prepare video highlights from the featured readings to post on Split This Rock’s YouTube channel. Meanwhile, you can watch videos of past festivals and dream of 2020!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Split This Rock Interview with Terisa Siagatonu

By Franny Choi

Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 19-21, 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170.

Full festival schedule available on the
website. The Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock.

Events Open to the Public

Nightly Free Poetry Readings: National Housing Center Auditorium

Social Change Book Fair: Saturday, April 21, 10 am-3:30 pm, National Housing Center (Free)

Poetry Public Action: Louder Than a Gun – Poem for Our Lives, Friday, April 20, 9-10 am, Lafayette Park (Free)

Open Mics: Thursday, April 19 & Friday, April 20, 10 pm-12 am, Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, Cullen Room, 1025 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 ($5 at the door)

Closing Party: Saturday, April 21, 10 pm-1 am, National Housing Center Auditorium ($10 online and at the door)

Open mics and the closing party are free to festival registrants.

* * *
Terisa Siagatonu is an award winning poet, arts educator, organizer, and mental health advocate from the Bay Area. With over a decade of experience in writing, performing, competing, coaching, and teaching poetry, Terisa has shared her work in places ranging from the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, France, to the White House. A recipient of President Obama’s Champion of Change Award (2012), Terisa's writing has been featured on Button Poetry, CNN, NBCNews, NPR, Huffington Post, Everyday Feminism, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Upworthy and elsewhere. A national poetry slam finalist, Terisa is also a poetry slam coach on both the youth and collegiate level, having coached five poetry slam teams to place Top 20 in the nation. Alongside being a full-time artist, Terisa is also a Senior Poet Mentor with Youth Speaks, Inc., leading poetry lessons with Bay Area high school students and professional development with teaching artists. She is one of the co-creators of The Root Slam, a poetry venue based in Oakland, CA, and was a member of the 2017 Root Slam Poetry Slam Team, helping her team to place 5th in the Nation at the 2017 National Poetry Slam competition. Terisa holds a Masters in Marriage/Family Therapy from the University of Southern California, aiming to merge art and therapy throughout her healing work both on and off-stage.

* * *

Franny Choi (FC): Can you talk about one of your proudest poetry-related moments over the past year or so?

Terisa Siagatonu (TS): Last year, I had the opportunity to visit American Samoa and spend an entire week leading writing workshops for 5 of the high schools on the island, including the one my father attended when he was a teenager. The last time I visited American Samoa was 12 years ago, and I remember being 17 years old and complaining about how hot it was, and how much I wanted to go back home to California. On this trip, though, I wanted to stay on the island forever. I still do, even though I'm not there anymore. During that week, I was so grateful to be given another chance to cherish the land, my culture, and my people, with their unconditional love and overflowing hospitality for me and my colleagues. While in each of those classrooms on each campus, something inside of me was changing as I witnessed my own people step into their voices and tell their stories for the first time in their lives. That was the case for all of the students I worked with that week. Every teacher I met said: "that was the first time I ever heard them open up like that." I struggle a lot with owning all of my Samoan identity because of the disconnect I feel at times from being born in the United States, but I felt so at peace and at home during that week on island. It was the first time where I felt the most confident in my ability to lead a group in a writing workshop because this group of people are the ones who are most important in my life: they're my community. I come from them, and I depend on them the way our culture depends on them to keep our legacy alive. I've never felt so proud to be both Samoan and a writer. It meant everything to me to be able to share something as important as writing with my people, because both are the reasons why I'm still here and why I know who I am.

(FC): In your poem “Meauli,” you say, “There is no translation for anti-blackness in a lot of our languages, but it doesn’t mean we haven’t been nurturing it in our language.” What do you want to nurture in your language?

(TS): I want my language to nurture things like patience, forgiveness, genuine empathy, and growth. These are things that were incredibly hard for me to come by when I was growing up. Things I didn't have permission for when I was younger. I want a kind language, one that angles towards hope and doesn't falter when a better way of saying something is close but unreachable in the moment, for whatever reason. I want my language to hold people accountable for how they hurt others, while also knowing how to learn from the mistakes it makes when it causes pain. I guess I want my language to nurture what I've always wanted nurtured in me. I think it's easy to be reactive with language, and go off the rails with whatever emotion we feel is biggest in our body at the moment, without really teasing out what we actually mean to communicate. I want my language to nurture the hard. Not the easy. I want it to re-imagine what is possible when language has only the capacity to heal, and not be a weapon all of the time.

(FC): What do you think is your role in the fight?

(TS): I'm somewhere either in the middle of the pack, trying to make sure everyone is well nourished and has what they need to journey on, or I'm in the very back, walking alongside the slowest, engaging with them in dialogue and actively listening to their every word as we move, and not worrying about being the last ones left. I'm a people person. A "South" in all of those 4 Directions Working Styles group activities (they're the ones who care about the well-being of the people involved and whose strengths lie in being compassionate and group-oriented, even to a fault). I can't imagine a better world than this one that doesn't free us all. I see myself committed, even now, to dedicating my life to understanding what it takes for us to get closer to that freedom. Even if we never reach it in my lifetime, but we reach it nonetheless.

(FC): Can you envision an APIA space that is truly inclusive of Pacific Islander folks? Is such a space even possible (or necessary)?

(TS): I think my Pacific Islander community and I, to a large degree, are moving into a place in our understanding of our identity where we are no longer waiting for permission or asking to be accepted into something that wasn't necessarily made with us in mind (i.e. the "APIA" community). For me, it comes down to: do I want to spend my energy and time teaching non-PI members of the APIA community about the PI community, or do I want to spend my energy and time with my PI community, learning how to be understood and seen on our own terms? For all that we are? There was a time in which we Pacific Islanders believed it was absolutely necessary to be a part of the APIA umbrella because we deemed our smallness (in numbers, in resources, in collective power, etc.) as being a deterrent or an obstacle in our way towards self-actualization and acceptance, but in reality, there is power in all that we are as a people. There's power in us realizing that not only do we come from small islands in the Pacific: we are the Pacific. A whole damn body of water, and the largest body of water this world has. "Inclusivity" is fine, and at times, necessary. But I see a world for me and my Pacific Islander people where we don't have to keep coming from the margins of anything, yearning to be in the center. I see a world in which we are what everything else orbits around. Where we're seen, nurtured, accounted for, and never left behind ever again. 

(FC): What’s the last thing you read or saw that gave you hope?

(TS): Before he died this past January, my grandpa kept a daily journal every year, and wrote in it every single day since 1994. He has 13 red journals, mostly written in Samoan, but some written in English. I read a passage he wrote last year when he thought he was having a heart attack or stroke. You could see where his hand started to shake in writing that passage, as he was describing, on paper, the pain he was experiencing in his chest. I read how he called out for my Uncle for help. The last part of that passage was him accepting this fate and preparing himself to enter God's Kingdom. Although I grew up in a very religious household, my faith in God and in religion was nothing like my grandpa's. He was the most devout Christian I knew, and reading that passage of his brought me to a really scared and sad place, but it also reminded me of how unwavering my grandpa's faith is in his God. And how he was anything but scared that day. I read that and was reminded that I come from the same courageous lineage as this man. That I can also have a faith in something that is as unwavering as my grandpa's faith. That when it's my time to leave here, I hope to have my writings in a place where my future generations of my family can find them as well, and know exactly what to make of them when they read through it all. 

* * *

Additional Links

Terisa’s poems appear in the portfolio of Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2018 featured poets in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine.

“Layers,” the poem Terisa performed at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

Terisa’s poem “Atlas” in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine

Huffington Post feature on Terisa and Carrie Rudzinski’s poem “Women”

Terisa poem “The Day After American Samoa Is Under Water” (The Quarry)

* * *

Image of Franny Choi smiling to the right of the camera. She wears an abstract, floral print dress in shades of pink, yellow, turquoise and black. She wears a lilac shade of lipstick and softly cat-eyed framed glasses. She has long hair that is dark gold hear her scalp and a very light blonde at the ends.Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) and the forthcoming Soft Science (Alice James Books, 2019), as well as a chapbook, Death by Sex Machine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017). She has received awards and fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the Helen Zell Writers Program. She is a Kundiman fellow, Senior News Editor at Hyphen   Magazine, co-host of the podcast VS, and member of the Dark NoiseCollective. She was a member of the curatorial committee for the 2018 Split This Rock Festival. Photo by Eileen Meny.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Split This Rock Interview with Sherwin Bitsui

By Susan K. Scheid

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today:  Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille T. Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170.

Full festival schedule available on the 
website. The Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock.

Events Open to the Public

  • Nightly Free Poetry Readings: National Housing Center Auditorium
  • Social Change Bookfair, Saturday, April 21, 10 am-3:30 pm, National Housing Center (Free)
  • Poetry Public Action, Friday, April 20, 8:30-10 am, Location TBA (Free)
  • Open Mics, Thursday, April 19 & Friday, April 20, 10 pm-12 am, Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, Cullen Room, 1025 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 ($5 on www.busboysandpoets.com)
  • Closing Party, Saturday, April 21, 10 pm-1 am, National Housing Center Auditorium ($10, tickets available soon at Split This Rock's website)
Open mics and the closing party are free to festival registrants.

* * *

Image of Sherwin Bitsui in closeup, outdoors with the Grand Canyon behind him. The plants in the canyon are green and blooming. Bitsui looks intently toward the distance, out of frame to the camera's right. He wears a black, fleece, pull-over with a zipper and has short, dark hair and dark eyes.Sherwin Bitsui (Diné) is the author of Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press) and Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press). He is of the Bįį’bítóó’nii’ Tódi’chii’nii clan and is born for the Tlizilłani’ clan. He is from White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. Bitsui holds an AFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts Creative Writing Program and a BA from University of Arizona in Tucson. He teaches for the MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. An ecopoet, he has poems published in Narrative, Black Renaissance Noir, American Poet, The Iowa Review, LIT, and elsewhere. Steeped in Native American culture, mythology, and history, Bitsui’s poems – imagistic, surreal, and rich with details of the landscape of the Southwest – reveal the tensions at the intersection of Native American and contemporary urban culture. Bitsui's honors include the 2011 Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Native Arts & Culture Foundation Fellowship for Literature, a PEN Open Book Award, an American Book Award, and a Whiting Writers Award.

* * *
Susan K. Scheid (SKS): Your book, Flood Song, is full of beautiful and dream-like imagery. I wanted to savor it like rich food eaten in small bites. Some of the images that stay with me were: “I pinch your silences into soft whispers, / pile them on your still chest” and “The luminous wander the cornfields without husbands; / their wooden faces splinter the owl’s nest;” and the references to the “cornfield inside you.” I wonder if you are willing to share with us a little of your writing process? Can you describe what takes you to this place where you can write such surreal and powerful poems?

Sherwin Bitsui (SB): I like to think the poems reveal themselves to me on their own, they meet me halfway and it’s my job to give them shape and form. Sometimes I follow them for months and years until I’m able to see their edges sharpen and clarify. My process unfolds — there are many detours along the way. I am lucky to find at the end, a line or two, that speaks to thought in a new and interesting way. Lately, I feel that the poem is already here in our time, a poet just reveals it to the reader or listener—that moment of recognition is what makes poetry most powerful for me. Time and distance fold away, something deep in us is revealed and we are renewed again, briefly, by its beauty.

SKS: In one interview you stated that the Navajo language is “thought in motion”. How does that inform your poetics?  And since you are also a visual artist, does that influence your writing?  How do your poetry and visual art interact with one another? 

SB: I’m always in some state of translation — a poem is also a kind of translation. I don’t know how deeply Dinébizaad affects my writing in English — it’s difficult to see myself and my work as some kind of ethnographic subject. I sense my ability to encounter both worldviews simultaneously gives me the perspective and distance needed to create my work. Language then takes on another quality besides meaning-making — there is weight, movement, tension, texture and tone that also inform the emotional quality of the experience I’m trying to create for the reader and listener.

SKS: In Flood Song, I was struck by the imagery of the land, the water, and the invasion of technology. These poems express the centuries of indigenous people’s struggle, the removal from their lands, the loss of traditional ways, and the encroachment of technology. They speak to me as well as someone who grew up surrounded by corn fields, who now sees so many drastic changes to our planet. Do you think of yourself as an environmental/eco-justice poet? If so, what does that mean to you?

SB: I don’t particularly see myself as an environmental/eco-justice poet. The poems may reveal some aspect of my thoughts on the subject of ecology and our collective response (or lack of?) to shifts in our relationship with the land and environment—but they do so because I only write what is essentially present in my world at the time. It is a difficult time to write poems — there is much to look away from and ignore, poetry doesn’t have that option — it must see and respond even when we choose not to.

SKS: Flood Song has poems with the repetitive drip of rain and the rhythmic lapping on the shores of a lake, or an ocean. This rhythm and many of the images and themes in your book remind me of Walt Whitman. How would you describe the way your poetic voice has developed?  Who are some of the poets that have influenced you?  Is there anyone else (non-poet) that has influenced your work or your poetic voice?

SB: I hope my work continues to evolve with each book — each work teaches me something about myself and the world around me. I always want to feel like I’ve been called to write a poem. Sounds strange, but I know my poems feel forced if I try to write when I’m not necessarily in the right space or time. This may explain why it takes me several years to complete a body of work. Flood Song and Dissolve are both book-length poems. Flood Song is a lapping, horizontal work that moves and takes on the dimensions of a kind of flood.

Dissolve feels like a much different work. It is restrained or tethered to something deep inside; perhaps it’s a floating work, one suspended above the ground but unable to fully free itself from the gravity of the shifting world beneath it. The breath of the poem feels like it’s moving inward as opposed to moving outward. There is also a lot of mirroring in the new work. One stanza or line may contain a gesture that is replicated in another line or stanza. Lately I’ve read pieces from Flood Song before moving into Dissolve, I notice very quickly how my voice has to shift in order to locate the frequency of the newer lines.

SKS: What role do you think poets can play to bring hope to the world?  Do you have any words of encouragement for fellow poets?

SB: Poets renew language and bring worlds together. I’m always hopeful that poetry can change lives. Poets should continue to be uncompromising in their creative vision. It’s also important we support each other and appreciate the very fact that we are here making language do things it is probably not supposed to do.

* * *
Additional Links

Bitsui’s poems in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine, with poems by all the poets featuring at the festival.

Three Poems by Sherwin Bitsui (The Quarry)

I Don’t Stand Alone: Poets Orlando White and Sherwin Bitsui on the Importance of Mentors, by Jennifer De Leon (Ploughshares)

The Motion of Poetic Landscape: An Interview with Sherwin Bitsui, by Bianca Viñas (Hunger Mountain)

Sherwin Bitsui: Sounds Like Water, by Thomas Hachard (Guernica)

Three Native American Poets: a conversation between Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Linda Hogan, and Sherwin Bitsui with Poetry Lectures from The Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute hosts (audio file, The Poetry Foundation)

* * *

Susan K. Scheid is the author of After Enchantment (2012). Her poetry has appeared in Truth to Power, Beltway Quarterly, Little Patuxent Review, The Sligo Journal, Silver Birch Press, Tidal Basin Review, and other journals. Her work is also included in the chapbook anthology, Poetic Art. She has taught workshops as an Artist-in-Residence at the Noyes School of Rhythm. She lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, DC. She is Co-Chair of the Split This Rock Board of Directors.