Wednesday, March 20, 2013

5 Years Ago Today Split This Rock Touched Down!

Five years ago, on March 20, 2008, I stood on the stage at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, DC, and welcomed hundreds of poet-activists to the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness.

We had chosen the date to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, a war so many of us had opposed, a war which our government waged illegally and immorally despite the opposition of millions throughout the world.

Four essential American poets joined me on the stage that night, E. Ethelbert Miller, Martín Espada, Alix Olson, and Naomi Shihab Nye. 

Today, five years later, we have a different president. US combat troops have left Iraq. But what a country they left behind -- one of the most violent in the world, torn apart by ten years and more of war and occupation. We spent over $1 trillion fighting that war, funds desperately needed for building a just and sustainable society. 

And though major combat has ended in Iraq, our government continues to approach the world through the lens of war, sending drone proxies over Asia and Africa, sending advisers, waging war.

Happily, the poets continue to wage peace. We remember Muriel Rukeyser in her centenary year: "As we live our truths, we will communicate across all barriers, speaking for the sources of peace. Peace that is not lack of war, but fierce and positive."  

Split This Rock marks its 5th anniversary today. We'll be celebrating all year. But for today, on this solemn and joyous anniversary, I offer below my welcoming comments from that first festival, five years ago. The poetry has blossomed, our numbers grow, we are sisters and brothers together. It's been a remarkable five years. Thank you.

- Sarah Browning, Split This Rock Executive Director

E. Ethelbert Miller 
Alix Olson

Martín Espada
Naomi Shihab Nye

Sarah Browning Welcomes the Poet Hordes 
Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness
March 20, 2008

Friends – Welcome. Look at all of you – please take a moment and look around at one another – the activists and poets and activist poets and lovers of poetry, gathered from all over this crazy, beleaguered nation for Split This Rock Poetry Festival. You are the most beautiful crowd I have ever seen. Adrienne Rich has a poem that reads:

Poetry means refusing
the choice to kill or die

but this life of continuing
            is for the sane mad
and the bravest monsters

Thank you for being the sane mad and the bravest of monsters.

On this bloody and awful anniversary – five years of a disastrous, illegal, and immoral war – poets have come together to challenge one another and this country to end this appalling war and to dramatically reorder our national priorities. We come together to reclaim our language from the spinmeisters and propagandists who would murder it, who would use it only to pacify the people, to convince us all that perpetual, worldwide, preemptive war is the only alternative.

We come together to imagine all the many alternatives, the rich and varied possibilities of our human experience. We come together to speak for the voiceless, for those who have been silenced by oppressive governments worldwide, including our own, and by that most silencing of forces, despair. We come together to give hope. We come, as one of tonight’s poets, E. Ethelbert Miller, has said, “not with our dirges but our jubilees.”

And so we welcome you to Washington, DC, a city of the most crazy-making contradictions in American life. It is the seat of imperial power, a symbol of wealth and autocratic strength all over the world. But it is also the city with the greatest disparity of wealth of any in the country; the highest child poverty rate, the highest HIV infection rate, the highest adult illiteracy rate. And it is also a city of beauty, of liveliness, of warmth, of a rich and essential tradition of poets who have wrestled with the city, have given voice to its citizens who live here, in the shadow of the Capitol who yet have no one representing them in that building. Yes, Washington DC is still a disenfranchised colonized city.

Poets here have become the unacknowledged legislators – Walt Whitman lived and wrote here during the Civil War, witnessing the horrors of that war. The Harlem Renaissance was born here – yes, New Yorkers, here – with Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, and many others writing and publishing early works from that period. Essex Hemphill was the most important Black gay writer of his generation. And these poets of course are part of a long tradition in this country and around the world of poets who work and write in the public sphere, who know that poetry is for everyone, that poetry and the world tussle and jostle and struggle with one another endlessly, attempting a way forward.

Split This Rock builds on this great tradition. We are thrilled that so many poets responded to our call to come together this weekend to demand an end to this war and a dramatic reordering of our nation’s priorities. In the days ahead we’ll experience a real tapestry of poetry – some of the glory that is American poetry at the start of the millennium. We hope to build a lasting network and home for activist poets and we invite you to join us. You’ll be given an evaluation form this weekend – we know these things are awful and hated, but please use this one. Tell us what meant the most to you this weekend and what we can do better next time. But also tell us how Split This Rock might serve your needs in the future as you continue to do the powerful, important work you are all doing in your own communities.

Split This Rock is the result of two long years of dreaming and planning and insanely late nights fueled by chocolate and coffee or chocolate and wine. Many, many people have worked incredibly hard to make it happen. The volunteers have stood up tonight and I add my halleluiahs to the chorus of praise. I also want to thank an incredible coordinating committee and advisory board who have helped to birth this crazy baby from the start. Three people deserve special recognition – they have given their lives over to Split This Rock for months, with no pay and little glory, and I want to thank them with everything that is in me and ask them to stand so we can praise them: My friends, my comrades Melissa Tuckey, Jaime Jarvis, Regie Cabico.

Andy Shallal, the owner of Busboys and Poets, has also believed in Split This Rock and supported it with all the power of his considerable energy and resources. There would be no Split This Rock without Busboys and Poets. Thank you.

The gorgeous slideshow of socially engaged poets that was playing at Busboys this afternoon is by Lynda Koolish, who flew all the way from California to share that with us and to document the festival. Lynda, please take a bow.

I also want to take a moment to honor and call out the poet Sam Hamill, who was supposed to have been with us reading tonight. Most of you know that Sam is a huge part of the reason we are all here together this weekend. Five years ago, he challenged poets to speak out against the impending war and he galvanized poets as never before. DC Poets Against the War and all of our organizing that has led us here results from Sam’s clear vision and dedication to the public role of poets and poetry. Sadly, Sam had a mild heart attack last week – he’s alright – he’s had angioplasty and is already up and walking around. But he obviously couldn’t travel. He is very very sad to miss this week and he sends you all greetings and warm wishes. Stephen Kuusisto is reading tomorrow night at 5 pm here and will be reading two poems that Sam sent so that he could be here with us in spirit. Please come back tomorrow at 5 to hear those poems.

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