Details about the events can be found here.
Remarks, Poet as Public Citizen, AWP, February 2011
I’m interested in talking about trauma and poetry; both personal and historical trauma.
in conversation with the work of wilfredo valladares and ayo ngozi
we is not the singular
dotted i, black figure against
a white background.
we is the crowd
that moves into this
dance of morning
rituals, this waking
to the rooster crow of a city.
we is the dance
that shakes and rolls
down city streets,
shimmies into markets
for fresh fruit
salsas against traffic.
we is the traffic
rushing past the living
and the dead, forgetting
to write our songs
from images and found objects
and breathe each other's spirits
into chinese medicine bottles
so we can heal
the wounds of our entrances
we is the song
of migration, sung
from behind the masks
fragile resin, cast from
faces whose eyes must remain
closed so their pasts
do not pour from them,
so their present does not
burn away home.
we is home
where we are pieced together,
a collage on sheet metal,
a photograph behind a mask,
that carries us into
holding a conversation about
a crowing rooster
to cure what ails you.
Used by permission.
Miranda attended Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation and Witness.
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Split This Rock
Introduction and remarks, Poet as Public Citizen, AWP, February 2011
The Prison Cell—Mahmoud Darwish
It is possible…
It is possible at least sometimes…
It is possible especially now
To ride a horse
Inside a prison cell
And run away…
It is possible for prison walls
For the cell to become a distant land
-What did you do with the walls?
-I gave them back to the rocks.
-And what did you do with the ceiling?
-I turned it into a saddle.
-And your chain?
-I turned it into a pencil.
The prison guard got angry.
He put an end to my dialogue.
He said he didn’t care for poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.
He came back to see me
In the morning,
He shouted at me:
-Where did all this water come from?
-I brought it from the Nile.
-And the trees?
-From the orchards of Damascus.
-And the music?
-From my heartbeat.
The prison guard got mad;
He put an end to my dialogue.
He said he didn’t like my poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.
But he returned in the evening:
-Where did this moon come from?
-From the nights of Baghdad.
-And the wine?
-From the vineyards of Algiers.
-And this freedom?
-From the chain you tied me with last night.
The prison guard grew so sad…
He begged me to give him back
translated by Ben Bennani
I share this poem, with Egypt and Tunisia on my mind, as an example of what poetry can do at a time of great transformation and as a reminder that before any change can come—it must be imagined first.
We’re here to celebrate the gifts that poets bring to social change- the naming of injustices, the stealing back of language, amplifying the voices of those without power, engaging multiplicity and complexity in a time of sound bites and corporate propaganda, humanizing the dehumanized, making visible the invisible.
Split This Rock grew out of the Poets Against the War movement and was founded in 2006 by Sarah Browning, myself and a group of local poets in Washington, DC as an opportunity to call poets together from across the country, to speak out against unjust wars and to celebrate poetry of witness and provocation. Our first festival in 2008 brought poets from across the country together share poetry, resources and conversation about critical issues at the intersection of social change and poetry.
At this first festival, we learned about incredible work being done by poets in communities across the nation— teaching poetry in public schools and prisons, working with veterans and victims of war, working with youth, offering workshops to survivors of violence, creating conversations about environmental change, working in homeless shelters and domestic abuse shelters, taking poetry into places where it is needed most. We celebrate the many ways that poets are speaking out, organizing, and engaging with the wider community.
Our third Split This Rock Poetry festival will be in 2012 and we hope you will join us.
Adrienne Rich writes, "The poet today must be twice-born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet.” (from What is Found There: Notebooks on Politics and Poetry).
In this panel we’ll be talking about that journey and talking about some of the many ways poets are engaging in the public realm. There is a fear for many poets that politics will somehow taint their poetry. We’re here to assert that social engagement or activism will enrich your view of the world and your poetry.
Our panelists are poets whose aesthetics are socially engaged and whose lives too are socially engaged. I don’t think I’m overstating it to say these are poets whose work as writers, activists, as translators and editors and builders of poetic movements have helped shape American poetry. I’ve asked our panelists to share news with us about their own work in the public realm, and the work of others who are models for this work and to think also about how we might engage and support young poets in this work and to help us think as a community about creative ways of responding to crisis and trauma.
Join Sarah Browning, Jonathan B. Tucker, Samuel Miranda and Sonya Renee Taylor for a reading that speaks to the power of poetry in our public life. Dedicated to splitting open the injustices in society, the nationally-potent Split This Rock serves and strengthens the community and world by giving voice to the voiceless, naming the unnamable, and reaching across differences to imagine a better world. Witness the diversity and complexity of the human experience, captured in these four powerful voices and feel the call to action. For age 8+
Sunday, Feb 27 at 4:30pm
Undivided: The Poet as Public Citizen
(AWP, Washington, DC, February 5, 2011)
Adrienne Rich, in her essay, “Poetry and Commitment,” writes:
I’ll flash back to 1821: Shelley’s claim, in “the Defence of Poetry” that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.” Piously over-quoted, mostly out of context, it’s taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power--in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay, “A Philosophic View of Reform,” Shelley had written that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged” etc. The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded…
And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority…
Shelley saw powerful institutions, not original sin or “human nature,” as the source of human misery. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the “struggle between Revolution and Oppression…”
He did not say: “Poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world.”
By this definition, many of our greatest poets have been unacknowledged legislators. This is what Whitman meant when he said: “I give the sign of democracy.”
Poets should have no trouble identifying with being “unacknowledged.” They grouse about being ignored, about paltry attendance at readings and royalty statements that would cause most novelists to jump off a bridge. Yet poets also contribute to their marginalization by producing hermetic verse and living insular lives, confined to the academy or to circles of other poets, by refusing to embrace their role as unacknowledged legislators.
The only antidote to irrelevancy is relevancy. The British poet Adrian Mitchell famously said: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.” Mitchell lived his principles as a pacifist and unacknowledged legislator; in fact, he was declared the “Shadow Poet Laureate” of the UK. In February 2003, he read his anti-war anthem, “To Whom It May Concern,” to a quarter of million people in the streets of London, gathered to protest the pending war in Iraq.
Across the Atlantic, a former Marine and conscientious objector, Sam Hamill, was invited to participate in a Bush White House symposium called, “Poetry and the American Voice.” That symposium was cancelled when word leaked out of Hamill’s plan to collect a batch of anti-war poems and present them, like a bouquet of sorts, to First Lady Laura Bush. Hamill responded by founding an organization called Poets Against the War
Hamill also edited an anthology by that name. In the foreword, he writes:
Can (thousands of) poems inhibit this or any administration planning a war? It is only one step among many. But it is an important step, as each is. We join physicians against the war, teachers against the war, farmers against the war, and others. Poets Against the War helped bring about hundreds of poetry readings and discussions around the world while compiling a document of historic proportion…A government is a government of words, and when those words are used to mislead, to instill fear or to invite silence, it is the duty of every poet to speak fearlessly and clearly…Since most poets write in the same language politicians are given to abuse, in the language of everyday common speech, they must struggle to reveal clarity by way of musical and imagistic expression, and by transparency of emotion.
If phrases like weapons of mass destruction bleed language of its meaning, then poets must reconcile language with meaning and restore the blood to words. World War I poet Wilfred Owen uses the phrase an ecstasy of fumbling to describe the action of fitting on his gas mask before the deadly poison reaches him. Thus, as Gregory Orr observes, Owen takes back “the experience of war from the jabbering propagandists and patriots.”
Consider the state of our nation today, in a plummeting spiral. Could poets do any worse than the legislators? Would poets strip away our constitutional rights in the name of security more vigorously than the lawyers who sit in the House and Senate? Would poets, those perfectionists of the word, so quickly and eagerly resort to corruptions of language like “enhanced interrogation” to describe torture, by way of explaining that some tortures (and torturers) are better than others? Would poets be any less ethical than the politicians who grovel before lobbyists for the insurance and drug companies, triggering a health care crisis without end? Would poets with empty pockets vote repeatedly to pour billions of dollars into one catastrophic war of plunder after another? Should poets leave politics to the Republicans and the Democrats, or should all of us—poets included—grapple with the world?
Poetry humanizes in the face of dehumanization. Poetry frees a voice caught in the collective throat. Last night, three organizations of poets—Split This Rock, Acentos, and Poets Responding to SB 1070—collaborated on an event at the True Reformer Building called “Floricanto in Washington.: A Multi-Cultural Reading in Response to SB 1070.” I took part in this event with more than twenty-five unacknowledged legislators. I’ll read the poem I read last night. The racist backlash against immigrants in this country today triggered in me the memory of an incident from my own life thirty years ago. That’s the basis of the poem. A “corrido” is a Mexican narrative song, and the poem itself is called…