Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Poetry & Possibility: Remarks by Co-Director Sarah Browning

The following are opening remarks by Split This Rock Co-Director Sarah Browning at Poetry & Possibility, the benefit party held for Split This Rock at the home of board member Micheline Klagsbrun Monday, January 18, 2010.

Thank you all for coming and for your support of Split This Rock. Two things happened this week that reminded me of the critical importance of poetry in our Balloon Boy’d world: First, we helped organize a memorial event at Busboys and Poets for the rebel South African poet Dennis Brutus, who had died at the end of December. Dennis had been featured at the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival in March 2008 and he was the conscience of the festival, telling us that of all of us there, he was probably the only one who’d spent any substantial amount of time splitting actual, and not just metaphorical, rocks – which he did while imprisoned on Robben Island in the early 1960s with Nelson Mandela.

The event was joyous and celebratory, even as we mourned. Dennis continued to split countless rocks after his release from prison, this time the metaphorical kind: Injustice, apartheid, war. His was a singular voice of resistance. Martín Espada, who will read at this year’s festival in two months, wrote “Stone Hammered to Gravel” for Dennis in honor of his 80th birthday five years ago:

Did you know, slamming the hammer into the rock’s stoic face,
that a police state is nothing but a boulder
waiting for the alchemy of dust?...
South Africa knows. Never tell a poet: Don’t say that.

Poetry as resistance – and imagining another possibility, as we celebrate with today’s event, that a police state is just a boulder waiting to be turned into dust. Imagine! As Dr. King, whose life we remember today, reminds us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But then, just two days later, came the news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. And we are faced again with the unimaginable suffering of millions of people and with our own sense of helplessness. Of course we’ve all been giving what we can for immediate and essential relief efforts. But this week as we saw wave after wave of images of suffering Haitians, it seemed essential to remember, as always, that the people of Haiti are not only victims, though they are, of course – of this disaster and of centuries of oppressive US foreign policy – they also are a people with a long and proud history, a rich culture. Poetry reminds us of the full humanity of others.

And so we circulated a poem by a Haitian American poet who will be reading at the festival in March, Lenelle Moïse, and I want to share the second half with you. The poem is titled “Mud Mothers.”

is haiti really free
if our babies die starving?
if we cannot write our names
read our rights keep
our leaders in their seats?

can we be free
really? if our mothers are mud? if dead
columbus keeps cursing us
& nothing changes
when we curse back

we are a proud resilient people
though we return to dust daily
salt gray clay with hot black tears
savor snot cakes
over suicide

we are hungry
creative people
sip bits of laughter
when we are thirsty
dance despite

this asthma
called debt
legendarily liberated

Thousands of people read the poem – on our blog, on Facebook, on list servs and web sites. Split This Rock brings essential voices such as Lenelle’s to a broad, diverse public hungry for authentic voices. It supports and encourages the poets who write poems that look directly at our world and struggle to understand, to bridge differences, to imagine other possibilities. We organize local programs and events, including readings and discussion series – and youth programs, including an annual contest for DC youth, The World & Me, and programs in schools and community settings.

And of course the capstone of our programs is the biannual poetry festival, the second of which is coming up very soon, March 10-13. Voices of dissent, beauty, imagination, and vision will be featured for four days of readings, workshops, discussions, open mics, a film program, and an opportunity for all who gather to speak out for a more just ordering of our nation’s priorities. I hope you’ll join us.

Of course, all of this work costs money and so we are very grateful for your support. We are still so young. If you know of others who would like to hear about Split This Rock, please let us know and we will contact them. There are festival sponsorship opportunities for businesses and organizations, too. Please see me after the program for more information. Thank you.

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