Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ten Ways to Support Split This Rock

Image of audience members holding hands at Split This Rock Poetry Festival

Split This Rock has been a people's movement since its founding in 2008. Sustained by the community's call for a permanent home for progressive poetry, together we have engaged poetry as an agent of change, speaking up for peace, elevating the voices of the disenfranchised, and using poetry to call forth the just community we wish to see. 

June Jordan's words ring true when reflecting on Split This Rock's history and accomplishments: we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

As we head towards the end of Split This Rock's fiscal year, in a society fraught with turmoil and with the future of arts funding uncertain, the need for continued solidarity is crucial. 

Our goal is to raise $5,000 by June 30 and with your help -- financial and otherwise -- we know this goal is in reach. We're halfway there! If you believe in the work of this organization, there are so many ways to show your support and help equip us to enter our next fiscal year, marking Split This Rock's 10th anniversary, strong. We offer 10 suggestions below. 

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1. Repost, Share, Shout Us Out! Moved by a Poem of the Week? Share it on your social media and encourage people to sign up to receive our emails. Excited about the DC Youth Slam Team? Invite friends to attend its next event. Love the new Split This Rock merchandise? Point people to the website. Let others know what moves you about Split This Rock and that the organization is worth their time and investment.

Youth at DC Youth Slam Team Finals huddled up
2. Attend David v. Goliath on Tuesday, June 27, 9-11 am at Busboys and Poets - Brookland! Split This Rock’s DC Youth Slam Team goes up against the adults of the Beltway Poetry Slam team in a fundraiser to send both teams to their national slams. It’s a night of fun competition you won’t want to miss! Tickets are on sale for $10 at Eventbrite.
    Image of Ushindi Performance Tribe members3. Hire Poets! Split This Rock’s Ushindi Performance Tribe, composed of dynamic DC Youth Slam Team alumni, is available for performances, workshops, and other engagements. We promise they’ll blow you away! Just ask the folks at the opening of The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Kennedy Center, Poetry Out Loud national finals, and all the other places they’ve shared their talents. For details, send an email to slam@splitthisrock.org  
    Image of a Split This Rock house party. People sit in a living room facing a poet sharing a poem.4. Host a Fundraising Event and/or Donate Signed Copies of Your Book! Help us widen the Split This Rock network by hosting a house party, reading, or other fundraising event. You supply space and refreshments and invite your friends. We'll provide poetry and info about Split This Rock. If you’re a poet, send us a signed copy of your book (or a few!) to sell at one of these special events or to offer as a perk for fundraising campaigns.

    5. Connect Split This Rock Poets & Poetry to Activist Circles! Encourage activist friends and groups to incorporate poetry of provocation and witness into their work for social change. Let them know about The Quarry online social justice poetry database and Split This Rock as a resource.

    6. Get Creative with Your Giving! Gayle Brandeis donated $5 for every pre-order she received for her latest chapbook. Be like Gayle and get out of the box! What can you do to encourage others to give? What other resources or talents could you contribute? Visit the wish list on Split This Rock's website to see if it sparks an idea.

    7. Give the Gift of SkyMiles! Help us send youth to Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival and bring featured poets to Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2018 and other events.

    8. Help Secure Venues for Split This Rock Poetry Festival and other events! DC venues are costly and hard to find. But poetry deserves beautiful spaces! Help us find donated or discounted venues. Festival sponsorship opportunities are also now available. Visit Split This Rock's website for details.

    9. Volunteer! It’s festival planning season! And 2018 will be full of 10th Anniversary activities! Though Split This Rock's reach has expanded dramatically over the last ten years, we remain a small organization internally and simply could not pull off the festival and other major events without a strong crew of volunteers. Check out the festival leadership roles on the website! Volunteer positions are always available!

    Image of crowd at Free Speech vigil10. Donate! Your donations send the DC Youth Slam Team to Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam 2017 in California, support 2018 festival costs such venue rental, event mobile app fees, featured poet stipends, and the like, bolster efforts to make Split This Rock programming accessible to all, and so much more! Visit Split This Rock's website to read further about what your gift can do or to give online!

    And there are so many other ways to help! Reach out to us if you'd like to assist in any of these ways or explore other options at 202-787-5210 or info@splitthisrock.org. We'd love to hear from you!

    Thursday, June 8, 2017

    2017 Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism Celebration Honors Recipient Christopher Soto (aka Loma)

    On Friday, April 21 at the Arts Club of Washington, Split This Rock presented the 2017 Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation, to Christopher Soto, aka Loma. The ceremony, cosponsored by the Arts Club of Washington, the Institute for Policy Studies, and Busboys and Poets, was an inspiring celebration that packed the house. 

    Judged this year by Holly Bass, Dawn Lundy Martin, and 2015 Freedom Plow Award Recipient Mark Nowak, the 2017 award went to Christopher Soto, who was selected for his advocacy on behalf of undocumented writers and queer homeless youth and for supporting queer poets of color. Christopher offered an acceptance speech by video, as he had a prior commitment in Boulder, CO, meeting with the leaders of the Undocupoets Campaign, one of the initiatives for which he was selected. 

    The three award finalists, Francisco Aragón, Andrea Assaf, and JP Howard, were also celebrated and each delivered memorable and poignant words as part of the award program, including poems!

    The finalists are: 

    Francisco Aragón for supporting and promoting Latinx poetry and poets:

    Andrea Assaf for telling stories of the Arab-American experience and of US service members and Iraqis in the Iraq war:

    and JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard for building community among queer poets of color:


    Additionally, the program included a welcome from Arts Club of Washington President Judith Nordin, opening remarks from Split This Rock Executive Director Sarah Browning, and words from CrossCurrents Foundation Chair Ken Grossinger

    Jay Chavez, a member of Split This Rock’s Youth Programs, courageously helped open the event with a breathtaking poem about their mother’s experience immigrating to the United States. 

    Visit YouTube to watch videos of the entire program. And check out photos from the event, all by Chelsea Iorlano, on Flickr.

    Prior to presenting the award to Christopher Soto, Holly Bass delivered the following judges' statement:   
    In his bio, Christopher Soto (aka Loma) describes himself as a “queer Latin@  punk poet and prison abolitionist.” Loma’s proclaimed identities challenge us to think about the seemingly incompatible inhabiting one body and working from that one body to write searing, critical poems that alter the impact of lived reality. 

    In the prose poem, “Rework,” Loma writes:

    […]There was a manner by which the oppression was normalized; by which the feeling of liberation was long forgotten; by which everything revolved around capital. But you could no longer afford to stay in your father’s home. There was no rent control and some nights you thought that he would kill you in your sleep. Language is where the tongue fails itself over and over again[…]

    This excerpt is much more than a traumatic personal narrative. The oppositional nature of things is laid bare: “oppression”/ “normal”; “oppression”/ “liberation”; “capital”/ “liberation”; “rent control”/ “capital”; “no rent control”/ “death.” Loma calls our attention to the impossibility of existence with the experience of trauma, and yet one survives. There is also an insistence on the failure of language in the face of these layers of lived experience. The poem is riddled with layers in which the incompatible happens simultaneously. And, how do we speak these things, the poem seems to ask, what words can struggle an approximation?

    Christopher Soto’s multifarious work bridges the gap between literary activism and organizing, as the very poetry he writes is often investigative of the cultural and structural barriers of toxic masculinity, misogyny, heterosexism, racism, and xenophobic nationalism. In his literary activist work, Loma creates spaces for the intersection of identities to be expressive—such as in Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, where Loma is editor. He is also a co-founder of the Undocupoets Campaign whose mission is to “promote the work of undocumented poets and raise consciousness about the structural barriers that are faced in the literary community [and to support] all poets, regardless of immigration status.”

    We exist, as poets, in an era of egregious politics, an era where #MuslimBan and #BuildAWall flash across our iPhones built in China by other poets like Xu Lizhi, the 24-year-old migrant factory worker who committed suicide by jumping out of a residential dormitory owned by his employer, Foxconn. Social media allows us to be anywhere at anytime, to trace social upheavals by hashtags, to be there from our living rooms.

    The poet, the poem, the iPhone, the world… We’re all articulated within the “invisible-visibleness” of a Global north perpetually attempting to dominate the Global south. It’s a poetics (and an economics) of consumerism, migrant labor, and the deep loss of empathy and agency. And it’s a poetic response to these arenas that we find in Loma’s own poetry, dragging out the underbellies we refuse to look at unless we’re forced to look.

    Of the many deeply engaged poets who were nominated for the Freedom Plow Award, we have chosen Christopher Soto as this year’s winner. It was far from an easy decision. What is happening in the United States at this moment has re-energized a bounty of magnificent projects to address the almost daily injustices that flash across lighted screens. The assaults upon the environment, our bodies, who we choose to love and how we choose to live and where we choose to sell our labor power. These and so many more areas of our lives are seemingly under attack at the present moment. And we were deeply heartened by the many, many poets currently working against these assaults.

    One of these poets, Christopher Soto, inspires us with the depth and variety of his engagements. In addition to his work with the Undocupoets Campaign, he has helped to establish Amazon Literary Partnership grants for undocumented writers. These fearless and necessary contributions, defiant in the face of Trump-era hatred and bigotry, make Loma a model Freedom Plow citizen. We are pleased to grant him this award on behalf of Split This Rock.

    The ceremony concluded with these moving words from Christopher Soto:

    We are grateful to the Arts Club of Washington for hosting the awards celebration again this year. Our thanks especially go out to Sandra Beasley, Judith Nordin, and Yann Henrotte for their help and hospitality. We extend our deep appreciation as well to all the Freedom Plow sponsors, Upshur Street Books and Anna Thorn as the event book seller, ASL interpreter Billy Sanders, Skies The Limit Entertainment for videotaping the ceremony, Grace Toulotte of United by Love Design, and all of the Split This Rock interns and staff.

    We look forward to honoring the innovative work of activist poets again in 2019!

    Tuesday, April 18, 2017

    Interview with Andrea Assaf, 2017 Freedom Plow Award Finalist!

    The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation and co-sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington, Busboys and Poets, and the Institute for Policy Studies, recognizes and honors a poet or poetry collective doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Holly Bass, Dawn Lundy Martin, and 2015 award recipient Mark Nowak, is being given for the third time in 2017. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 21 at the Arts Club of Washington for the Award Ceremony!

    ABOUT Andrea Assaf

    Andrea Assaf is a poet, performer, director, and cultural organizer. She’s the founding Artistic Director of Art2Action Inc. which creates, develops, produces, and presents original theatre, interdisciplinary performances, performative acts and progressive cultural organizing. Art2Action  supports artists who are women, people of color, queer or trans-identified, and creative allies. Author and director of Eleven Reflections on September—which has toured to La MaMa, The Kennedy Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and internationally— Assaf is a two-time winner of the Princess Grace Award. Her poetry has been published in Mizna in the United States, Scarf Magazine in London, and e in Mexico City, online and more. Assaf is currently Artist-in-Residence at the University of South Florida (USF-Tampa) School of Theatre & Dance. She currently serves on the Board of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA), Alternate ROOTS, and is a member of RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers.


    By Danielle Badra

    First of all, I want to say congratulations on being a finalist for the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism. Thank you for the important creative and social activism work that you and Art2Action are engaging in! Also, as a fellow queer Arab-American writer and educator, thank you for creating a space for Arab and Arab-American voices to be in conversation with veterans and other marginalized communities.

    How did you get started in social action work? How did you get started as a spoken word artist? Which came first? And when did you find these two worlds intersecting?

    My first activism was in college, at the height of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. I was in the process of coming out, as a young artist living in New York City, and it was the issue wracking my new-found community. I’ll never forget seeing the AIDS Quilt spread across the National Mall. It was at once devastating and awe-inspiring.

    I have always written poetry, for as long as I can remember, and I was studying Acting as an undergraduate at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, but I did not imagine performing my own writing until much later. I think I went to my first open mic around the turn of the millennium, at Bar 13 in the East Village. The funny thing is, I went to support a friend, I wasn’t even planning to read! But once I discovered the world of spoken word, I was moved and drawn to the self-revealing experience of performing my poems.

    As I was slow to discover myself as a performance poet, I was even slower to start writing plays. It’s taken me decades to claim these titles, “poet” and “playwright”—perhaps because I don’t have a degree in writing. I am largely self-taught as a writer, although I must give credit to the extraordinary mentorship I received as a member of The Writers’ Roundtable, an all-women intergenerational writing group that I was a part of, every other Wednesday, for nearly a decade.

    These two worlds of spoken word and activism began to intertwine, really, as soon as I started to perform my own work. My writing is inseparable from my world view, visions, and experiences. As a woman-identified person who loves women, and an Arab American in a post-9/11 context, my entire identity is politicized—whether I’m writing a love poem, or just trying to get to my next gig. I cannot, or perhaps refuse to, disassociate my internal truths from the external realities in which I live. To do so would be incomplete, dishonest. One of the things I strive for most in my work is honesty—those difficult truths which we may not always want to face, but which will ultimately set us free.

    I’m thoroughly impressed with the wide range of productions you’ve written, directed, and performed in. How do you choose the productions you want to work on? What are you working on now? And what work of yours are you most proud of?

    Some productions I choose, and some choose me. I never accept a project unless I believe in it, and believe in what the work is ultimately trying to say. I always ask, “Why this now?” And if I don’t have a good answer, I don’t commit to it. Sometimes the “now” comes later. I guess that suggests a sense of urgency is important to me in some way—it has to be relevant.

    My advice to younger artists is, don’t wait for work to come to you. Create your own projects, produce your own opportunities. There’s always so much work to be done in the world.

    Sometimes a project grows out of relationships, such as Outside the Circle—a play I co-wrote with Samuel Valdez (an artist who has Cerebral Palsy), co-created with director Dora Arreola. This project began with a personal conversation about unrequited love, and the non-normative experience of queerness, from living with a disability to being gender non-conforming or LGBT*.

    We were excited by the intersectionality of the concept, the opportunity to make connections across communities, and we found theatres interested in commissioning that work. It was written, produced, premiered, and toured within two years, which is relatively fast. Other projects are labors of love that take many years to materialize and garner support.

    I am proud of all my work, in some way. The fact of actually doing it—seeing something to completion and releasing it in the world—always feels like a minor miracle to me. I am also very proud of all the exceptional artists I get to work with; I feel honored by their collaboration. At the same time, I always feel my work is flawed, unfinished. Perfectionism is humbling, I suppose; at least, it keeps me driven. Having said that, I do feel proud of Eleven Reflections on September—perhaps because it’s so close to my heart, perhaps because it keeps evolving.

    What are you working on now?

    Currently, I’m working on a new project, which I simply call DRONE. I envision it as a high-tech, large-scale, ensemble-based, devised theatre production. I’ve found it extremely hard to fund—as work about war, critical of U.S. policy, often is—so I’ve recently decided to just focus on writing the script. I’m enjoying the writing. I’m also terrified of it. The more research I do on drone warfare, the more terrifying the future seems. Yet that is what I do as an artist: go toward what I most fear, in hope of disarming it.  

    What suggestions do you have of ways people can use poetry and writing as acts of resistance, particularly in the next four years under an administration that seems set on defunding arts and eliminating anti-discrimination policies?

    Write with people whom you perceive to be very different from you. Create together, collaborate, wrestle through it. Walk into your fear. Explore unexpected intersections. Open to self-examination, and allow yourself to be confronted by difficult truths. Then stand on stage together, share a microphone, and bring your audiences, your communities, into the same room. Let your work be a beginning, a spark, a catalyst, not an end in itself.

    I think, in the current political climate, there is a tremendous amount of fear. It is easy, and tempting, to succumb—to hide under the proverbial blanket, and hibernate until this long winter of discontent passes. There are those among us for whom the risks are too great, and we must respect that, and support them. But to the extent that we have any privilege at all, we must leverage that privilege to speak, or forsake it to risk action. We must remember the sage words of Audre Lorde, that our silence will not protect us.

    The night after the election, still reeling from the news, I attended an event hosted by my local arts council. The mood in the gallery was thick, and ironically, the central image was an enormous red shark hanging in the middle of the room. As we gathered, somewhat sullenly, our host said, “Well, historically, great art has come from times like these.” A little laughter released the tension in the room, and we couldn’t deny that she was right.

    We must look, now, to those times and places in history when artists have been the creators and leaders of resistance, visionaries and partners in vast social movements, and catalysts for change. If we have to go underground, or turn deeper into symbolism, or rise up in the streets, or take risks we’ve only dreamed of or are frightened by—now is the time. Now is the time to create, to be agents of change. I often say that for me, art is the craft of transforming destructive energy into creative energy. Now is the time for transformation.

    As Islamophobia steadily increases across this country, and around the world, is there literature or other artistic resources you would suggest to help folks open themselves to  and become educated on the Middle East and Islam?

    Read the great Arab and Arab American writers. A few who have influenced me include Kahlil Gibran, Nizar Qabbani, Nawal El Saadawi, Etel Adnan, Mahmoud Darwish, Suheir Hammad, Naomi Shihab Nye, Dunya Mikhail, Heather Raffo, Nadine Touma, Philip Metres and Mohja Kahf. I was introduced to many of the contemporary writers by Mizna, the Arab American literary journal, and RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers. Both organizations are wonderful resources.

    Also explore Persian poetry. Rumi is, of course, still unparalleled; and Hafiz—one could spend a lifetime exploring the ecstasies of Sufi poets. There are also tremendous contemporary poets in Iran today, many of whom have not yet been translated into English. Music is a great place to start. We used a piece by Hossein Alizadeh in an earlier version of Eleven Reflections… It’s important to remember that, in many Central and West Asian, Mediterranean and North African traditions, poetry was most often composed, rather than written, sung, or chanted; the separation of poetry from music is relatively recent in human history. 

    I also want to mention the importance of Somali poetry. Before war decimated Somalia’s social systems and created the refugee crisis, Somalia was known as the “Nation of Poets”—with an incredible depth, breadth, and wealth of poetic traditions and structures. I’m sure most Americans don’t know that, and poetry is not the first thing they think of when someone mentions Somalia. As with all of our war-torn lands, we must not allow our poetic traditions to be decimated, or lost in the rubble. They must be revived, taught, and practiced. They are also evolving, finding voice in other contemporary forms, such as Hip Hop. The first album of K’Naan, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, for example, had a profound impact on me.

    Why did you start Art2Action? What sort of initiatives does your organization engage in?

    I originally started to use the name “Art2Action” in 2003, when I produced my first solo show at the NY International Fringe Festival. Years later, in 2010, after various professional incarnations, I decided to start my own non-profit organization. Why? Perhaps because I wanted a certain amount of independence, to follow my own vision and passions.

    I founded Art2Action, Inc. in order to support the development of my own work, but also the work of other artists of color, women-identified artists, and LGBTQ artists. Under this umbrella, I create, develop, produce and present original theatre, interdisciplinary performances (including poetry and spoken word events), and progressive cultural organizing.  Art2Action is a very small organization, but I believe we have deep impact.

    I generally tour my own work, nationally and internationally; and present the work of other artists in Tampa (where I live now), in partnership with the University of South Florida and community venues. For example, 2014-16, we presented a multi-year series at USF called “THIS Bridge: Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim Artists,” focusing on mostly women artists, mostly based in the U.S., who are creating contemporary work in multiple disciplines. Our local community-based work, on the other hand, is currently focused on veterans, particularly those in recovery from PTSD and other mental health challenges.

    When did you decide to start working with Iraq war veterans? What was the impetus for this social action, and what have been some of the impacts of this collaboration?

    My first encounter with an Iraq War veteran was through Elia Arce’s multimedia performance, The Fifth Commandment, in 2005. She was collaborating with Matthew Howard, one of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). I did a workshop with them, and wrote a monologue that became part of the touring production. I knew that Matt was struggling with something, but I did not have the framework to recognize it as Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) at the time. Years later, in 2011, while I was creating Eleven Reflections on September, I knew I wanted to partner with IVAW. I connected with one of the St. Paul-area field organizers, and he did a couple of events with us. Now, when Eleven Reflections… tours, I always try to reach out to IVAW branches in the area, to see if they want to offer workshops together or participate in post-performance dialogues.

    In 2012, I was invited by Linda Parris-Bailey, Executive/Artistic Director and resident playwright of The Carpetbag Theatre, to direct her newest play. The script was still in development at the time, so I was able to participate in the research, as well as early ensemble explorations and dramaturgy. The play, Speed Killed My Cousin, centers on the story of a African American woman, a third-generation soldier, who returns from Iraq and struggles with PTSD, Moral Injury, and her family’s history with vehicular suicide.

    In conjunction with this project, Carpetbag Theater offers Story Circle workshops, Digital Storytelling for veterans, and post-show dialogues; as the play tours, we have these creative encounters with U.S. military veterans across the country. Through this work, I developed an on-going relationship with the VA in Tampa. In 2013, I began co-facilitating a weekly performing arts workshop at the PRRC—Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center. Initially, I thought this would be a short-term engagement. But here I am, four years later, and I’m still going every week when I’m not on the road.

    I often reflect on what draws me to this work. If someone had told me, shortly after 9/11, that I’d eventually be working with U.S. military veterans, I would have called them crazy. But as soon as I started doing workshops with the veterans at the PRRC, I was hooked. Why? Perhaps because all my assumptions and stereotypes about who veterans are and what they believe were shattered. Perhaps because people who have committed themselves to recovery are no longer hiding, and don’t have energy for falseness. Perhaps because being part of the healing process is so rewarding. Or perhaps because I, too, am broken, and art is the cracked mirror through which we can see ourselves, our society and what we have done, more accurately.

    In my playwrighting, for some reason, I often find myself obsessed with the character of the perpetrator, rather than the victim. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it’s because the perpetration of violence is what I’m trying to understand—not so as to justify it, but so that I can learn to stop it, or undo it. I have been researching, and trying to figure out how to represent, trauma for most of my adult life.

    I am interested in illuminating the connections among different kinds of trauma, from various intersecting sources, domestic and global. Repetition is elemental in the atomic structure of trauma. All my traumas are bound to yours; they orbit each other like molecules or planets, bound by the gravitational pull of this dark matter that none of us can see, but which affects us all.

    I believe that most of us are both—victims and perpetrators, at the same time. Most abusive parents, for example, were abused children themselves. Most homophobes are people who have been so deeply repressed in their own sexuality that they lash out against those who exhibit liberation, or nonconformity.

    As an Arab American, I am suffering this era of anti-Arab warmongering, but as a U.S. citizen who pays taxes, I am also responsible for funding these wars. I cannot blame the soldier who holds the gun, without also acknowledging that I helped pay for the gun. Perhaps both of us did so unwillingly, yet we did it.

    I’ve been writing about war for over a decade now. Not through my lived experience, but through that mirror we, as artists, hold up to life. As a Lebanese American who grew up in the 1970s-80s, I have been aware of this thing called war since I was in elementary school – not just because I saw it in movies, but because I knew that somehow, it had something to do with me, with my identity. Arab Americans, in my generation, unfortunately, have never had the privilege of being unaware, of simply not thinking about, war. Just as people of color don’t have the privilege of being unaware of racism.

    What moves you to continue doing this type of work?

    I don’t think most Americans, in the 21st century, have a clue what war is, or what the U.S. military actually does; we only know the mythologies that we have been taught, by politicians and the media. When you hear the real stories of people who have been inside it, something shifts. I know there are many people in the United States, fellow citizens in my own country, who might never come to see my work, simply because I am of Arab descent. They may never walk in the door to hear me speak, or pick up a poem with my name on it.

    But those same people might come to hear a veteran. So if we can work together—if I can stand on stage, or even behind the scenes, with veterans who share the same message—then perhaps we can create change. We can reach more people together, from very diverse communities, and inscribe an indelible mark on our collective conscience.

    Could you describe the process of composing “Eleven Reflections on September”?

    The process of composing—thank you for using that word—Eleven Reflections on September was deeply personal to me. I began writing the poems in 2001, out of sheer emotional necessity. I lived in New York City at the time, less than a mile from the World Trade Center towers.

     At the same time that I was processing the shock of the event, the devastation of my city, I was also confronted with my identity as Arab American in new, accusatory, and alarming ways. Poetry was, for me, as it has always been, the place I go when prosaic words fail, when narrative no longer makes sense—when reality becomes so unintelligible, and emotion so uncontainable, that only poetry can express the grief, or fear, or vastness, to help piece the world together again.

    So I wrote some poems, in the moments and years following September 11th, 2001. It wasn’t until 2007 that I began to weave these pieces together into a series, thanks to a writing residency at Hedgebrook. In 2011, with the support of Pangea World Theater and a Princess Grace Award, I had the opportunity to develop the poetry series into a fully-produced, multimedia work of theatre.

    Because I was exploring and wrestling with my Arab heritage, as well as the post-9/11 backlash of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, I was curious about the question: What would happen if I set my poems to Middle Eastern music? This was an experiment that I thought might fail, because I had no experience collaborating with Arab or Middle Eastern musicians, let alone any knowledge of the musical forms; I didn’t know if my very American, spoken word, and experimental theatre aesthetics would combine well with the music.

    So I invited some musicians to collaborate, and began to explore… And then I fell deeply in love with the music, and the experience of performing with all the exceptional musicians who have been a part of this multi-year touring project. I have learned from them, and they have informed my writing, as well as my understanding of myself as a woman of Middle Eastern descent. I am perpetually grateful for this gift.

    Who is your target audience for this necessary meditation on a post 9/11 world?

    Eleven Reflections on September has two primary audiences, in my mind. One is Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim people, especially women, for whom I hope this work offers a space of mourning and pride. We are so busy being strong in the face of crisis, that we don’t often have safe spaces to just cry—to grieve, to mourn—especially in public. The theatre can offer that space of personal journey and communal experience. At the same time, the beauty of the music, and perhaps even the tradition of poetry itself, inspires pride in our cultural heritage.

    I always offer post-show dialogues with each performance of Eleven Reflections…, because I find that some people really need to talk after this piece; I feel gratified when the Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim audience members feel empowered by the work.

    The other equally important audience is members of the American public who have lived through the post-9/11 era without ever, perhaps, hearing the emotional experience of an Arab American expressed, particularly through the intimate voice of poetry. Some of my favorite audience members are those who were unsuspectingly brought by a friend, or who decided to come not knowing what to expect, or who are just on a subscriber list—and suddenly find themselves hearing perspectives and stories they never imagined, or feeling empathy with a people they previously only encountered as sensationalized images on the news.

    I don’t want monolithic audiences that already agree with me; I want the work to be experienced by people who imagine themselves to be completely different from me. In that sense, mainstream America is a target audience, because that’s where the work can be most transformative. That’s where meaningful change could happen. Not that live theatre is mainstream, or poetry for that matter; but as much as I love performing in major cities and important venues, I also love bringing this work to places, such as small town theatres or red-state campuses, where people who’ve never talked to an Arab American might come and have an experience that shifts their perspective forever.


    Danielle Badra is completing her MFA in Poetry at George Mason University. She is an intern at Split This Rock, and the poetry editor of So To Speak, a feminist literary and arts journal. Her poems have appeared in Outlook Springs, 45th Parallel, and The California Journal of Poetics. Dialogue with the Dead (Finishing Line Press, 2015) is her first chapbook, a collection of contrapuntal poems in dialogue with her deceased sister. 

    Wednesday, April 12, 2017

    Interview with JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard, 2017 Freedom Plow Award Finalist!

    The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation and co-sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington, Busboys and Poets, and the Institute for Policy Studies, recognizes and honors a poet or poetry collective doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Holly Bass, Dawn Lundy Martin, and 2015 award recipient Mark Nowak, is being given for the third time in 2017. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 21 at the Arts Club of Washington for the Award Ceremony!


    JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is the author of SAY/MIRROR, a debut poetry collection published by The Operating System (2016, 2nd expanded ed. and 2015, 1st ed) and a chaplet bury your love poems here (Belladonna Collaborative*, 2015). SAY/MIRROR was a 2016 Lambda Literary Award Finalist in the Lesbian Poetry Category. JP is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was selected as a 2016 Judith Markowtiz Emerging Writers Award Winner from Lambda Literary Foundation. She was one of Velvetpark Magazine's Official 25 Queer Women of 2016 and was selected as one of GO Magazine's 2016 "100 Women We Love!"

    JP curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), a forum offering women writers at all levels a monthly venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. The Salon, which has been featured in Poets & Writers Magazine, celebrates a diverse array of women poets and includes a large LGBTQ POC membership.  

    JP is a Cave Canem graduate fellow, an alumna of the VONA/Voices Writers Workshop, and a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Queer Voices Anthology, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split This Rock's blog, Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color, Muzzle Magazine, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Best American Poetry Blog, MiPOesias, Mom Egg Review, Talking Writing, Connotation Press and the anthology, Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander. She is Editor-at-Large for Mom Egg Review.

    JP holds a BA from Barnard College, a JD from Brooklyn Law School and an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. She resides in New York with her wife and two sons. Her family was proudly featured on a 2014 cover of Gay Parent Magazine.



    By Fran McCrae

    How would you describe the role of poetry in activism and community building?

    As a queer poet of color, I am especially aware and appreciative of the long-standing history of black lesbian poets who have used poetry as a form of activism and as a way to both agitate and empower. Poetry for me is part and parcel of activism and community building. I'm thinking particularly of black lesbian poets, Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, and Cheryl Clarke. Discovering their voices while in college helped me to to understand the clear intersection of poetry, activism, and community building. They wrote about racism, feminism, the beauty and sexiness of loving women, and consistently used their poetry to speak truth to power. They made it crystal clear that poetry is political and that poets can and should use poetry to bring community together.

    Modern day political movements like #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, follow in the great literary tradition of black activist poets and allow black poets and our allies to use the power of our words to march, chant, write, build, and empower community, both nationally and internationally.

    What poets have most influenced you and why?

    I grew up in Sugar Hill, Harlem, and as an only child of a single Mama, I spent countless hours afterschool in my local library, the Hamilton Grange Branch of the NY public library. It was really my home away from home.

    Early poets who influenced me way back in elementary and middle school include Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Lucille Clifton, and Sonia Sanchez. I discovered The Black Poets Anthology edited by Dudley Randall in the poetry section of my local library and it became my poetry bible. I checked it out of the library so much, that my Mama went out and got me my own copy.

    Later on in college, black lesbian activist poets who I mentioned above (Pat Parker, Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke) had the most significant influence on me personally, politically, and socially. They literally gave me the courage to come and stay out of the closet over thirty years ago. I continue to call out their names and celebrate their work. 

    What was your defining moment in becoming a poet-activist? 

    A poem that I loved and memorized when I was back in elementary school, For My People, by the dynamic sista poet, Margaret Walker, was an early defining moment for me. Her poetry showed me, at a very young age, that a writer could be both a poet and an activist. I may not have had the word “activist” in my vocabulary at that age, but I remember that Walker’s poetry made me feel alive.

    For My People educated the reader about African American history (both painful and empowering moments), while simultaneously serving as a call to action for black folks. When I reread For My People, as an adult, I remembered that I had always loved this poem on a visceral level, before I fully understood its power or all its social implications. I was probably no more than nine or ten years old and my Mama would proudly have me recite it each Sunday to the church ladies after church.

    Before discovering poetry, I was a painfully shy child. However, that particular poem, really spoke to me and helped me find and share my voice. I loved the rhythm of the words and how strong my voice sounded when I performed it. It made me stand tall because of the force and power of the words. The church ladies would clap each week and I’d smile each time, then run and get a warm slice of sweet potato pie. I still love that final stanza, a call for action, that still speaks true today:

            Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
            bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
            generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
            loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
            healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
            in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
            be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
            rise and take control.

    Your collection SAY/MIRROR takes its inspiration from vintage photographs of your mother. How would you describe the potential of poetry to impact collective memory?

    Poetry can sometimes be a trigger and here I’m using the word “ trigger” as a tool: poems can get our collective attention, remind us of our history (both political and personal), and encourage political activism.

    While there can be collective power and beauty in poetry, there can also be collective pain and mourning. This is particularly true when we remember/honor/start a literal “roll call” of names of our black, brown, and LGBTQ bodies that have been murdered or maimed, seemingly without any justice in sight. Poetry ensures that we don’t forget the growing list of names as we seek justice for our ancestors and our injured, who have been targets of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination based on immigration status. Poetry forces us to pay attention; to look this sometimes ugly country directly in the eye and call it on its flaws.

    Sometimes poetry can give us unexpected hope. Recently I participated in a Poets Vigil for NEA at Trump Tower in New York City organized by my friend Loma (Christopher Soto).  Poets and allies were on the street protesting and local poets shared our poems of protest. A bus driver driving his bus along Fifth Avenue, saw and heard our vigil of protester poets, with our signs, placards, and candles. He pulled his bus over towards us, looked over in our direction from his drivers side window, gave us a big thumbs up and honked his horn loudly in support, while encouraging us to keep it up. Strangers on the street stopped, listened, and many clapped or shared supportive words of solidarity. Ultimately, it was a beautiful and empowering experience (though freezing outside) as we bonded over our shared activist experience; that evening became a part of our collective memory. 

    Being a woman, a person of color, and a member of the LGBTQ community, you are able to channel many voices in your work. How do these communities intersect in your writing and what are the challenges of representing them all?

    It is basically impossible for these voices/parts of myself, black, queer and woman, not to enter my work or intersect. It frames the lens through which I see and experience the world and it is part and parcel of who I am.

    When I am writing poems celebrating or mourning black youth, I am writing as a black lesbian mother of two sons, including one queer teen. When I write political poems, the various parts of myself intersect and inevitably speak up. I want others in the room who may be too shy to speak up, to know that we are here, we queer POC voices exist and we will speak out as long as there is breath in our bodies.

    I’m constantly thinking about a quote of one of my favorite poets, the late black, lesbian, activist poet, Pat Parker, who once said: "If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, 'No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome…' The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution."

    I am fully aware that all those parts of me (black, queer, woman), all those voices are not welcome in some forums simultaneously, but that never stops me from making my best efforts to bring “all the different parts of me” and to bring my fullest, queerest, blackest, full woman self into the room, onto the page, up on the stage, and in my role as curator and educator.

    You curate and nurture the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS). How does this forum support women writers?

    WWBPS supports primarily women writers (though we are open to everyone) by hosting monthly writing workshops with a new featured woman poet/writer/author monthly. Each month featured Salon writers are paid honoraria thanks to donations and my Brooklyn Arts Council Grant (BAC), awarded the last four years. Our workshops are pay-what-you-can and there’s no required fee, though donations are always welcome.

    The Salons occur on weekends and we have a four to five hour leisurely chunk of time to produce new work, have a featured reading by our visiting author, and a Q & A session with our feature. We wrap up with a multi-genre open mic, open to all participants. We celebrate our powerful voices, while producing new work, thanks to generous women who open their homes to us each month or help me find affordable community spaces. WWBPS literally and figuratively nurtures us; Salons are potluck events and participants bring delicious home-cooked meals.

    Women who attend often tell me that the Salons are warm, welcoming, and safe spaces to create new work and to share works-in-progress during the open mic. Recently, some Salon members have been accepted into MFA programs across the country, others are getting their work published in journals, often for the first time, some have their first chapbooks or books published or forthcoming, many are getting accepted into residencies or writing retreats. Some, who were once shy, now perform their poetry in larger venues, after building up their confidence in our open mics.

    The Salon has become an extended poetry family, where members support each other on an ongoing basis, even outside of the Salon, networking and building community. We are an incredibly diverse and intergenerational group of writers, many of us are queer POC and allies, as are many of our features. We learn from each other, as well as from our featured authors, who are often dynamic educators. Featured poets are invited to sell their books at each Salon, thereby supporting small, independent presses.

    Thanks to my Brooklyn Arts Council grants, I started a traveling Salon poetry library a few years ago. My 2017 BAC Grant allows me to stock the library with new poetry books throughout the year, often from LGBTQ and POC writers, thereby exposing members to diverse, emerging poetic voices.

    What has been your most memorable experience within the WWBPS?

    One of my most memorable WWBPS experiences was when we performed in front of a full house at the renowned Word for Word Reading Series at Bryant Park in New York City last summer. It was really a dream come true, as that reading series has been one of my favorite series for many years! I was interviewed on behalf of WWBPS, along with Salon member Keisha-Gaye Anderson, and portions of our Bryant Park performances were featured on CUNY-TV’s Study With the Best cable tv show. 

    What’s coming up next for you? Any new projects in the works? 

    As for my writing, I’m in the early stages of writing my memoir and recently finished taking a memoir writing workshop with the amazing Bushra Rehman, so I have lots of editing to do. I’m editing my poetry chapbook manuscript, “We Beautiful Black Boys.” My literary baby, WWBPS celebrates its Six Year Anniversary on Friday, April 28th with a phenomenal line-up of Salon poets performing! I’ve rented a lovely space and am catering it so I’m super excited.

    I’m especially looking forward to some upcoming collaborations with various community and literary organizations. I’m currently the guest editor, with poet Amber Atiya, of a special edition of Sinister Wisdom Journal entitled “Black Lesbians: We Are the Revolution!” (influenced by who else? Pat Parker!) It’s forthcoming in the latter part of 2017; we are busy making final selections and edits.

    Apogee Journal and New York Writers Coalition recently received a 2017 Community Arts Grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council to design and facilitate affordable craft-based writing and editing workshops.  I’ve been invited to facilitate one of their generative writing workshops as a teaching artist for this new series. My workshop will use the brilliant texts of Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to help writers create powerful mini-personal essays or narrative, memoir-themed political poems.

    I’m partnering with Humanities New York and have been invited to serve as a Readings and Discussions Scholar to create an inaugural Audre Lorde Readings and Discussion statewide program in NY for them. Of course, I’m always busy lining up featured authors for the Salon; some upcoming 2017 featured poets include Antoinette Brim, Donika Kelly, DeLana Dameron, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Anastacia Renee, and Heather Buchanan, plus others!

    What advice would you give to emerging writers from underrepresented groups (people of color, LGBTQ, etc.)? 

    I would urge emerging writers from underrepresented groups (folks of colors, LGBTQ, and marginalized writers) to find and build a writing community wherever you are. This can include reaching out to local writers, to friends who are writers or even an online community of writers, particularly for folks in rural communities without easy access to queer POC writers or allies.

    I also encourage emerging writers to apply to organizations that specifically support and celebrate their communities, such as Cave Canem, Lambda Literary, VONA/Voices Writing Workshop for Writers of Color, CantoMundo, and Kundiman. Many of those organizations, including Cave Canem, Lambda, and VONA, have really provided a nurturing space for me to grow as a writer throughout the years.

    It’s also important to go to readings, meet and hear other poets, and if folks can, attend local affordable writing workshops when offered. Also read everything you can get your hands on! 

    Learn more about JP at her website.


    Fran McCrae is a poet, advocate for the cooperative model of business, and volunteer for Split This Rock. She hails from the Texas Hill Country and currently lives in Washington, DC. Her work has previously been published in Epigraph Magazine and Burnt Pine Magazine.