Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Quarry & the Poetry of Social Justice

by M. F. Simone Roberts, Split This Rock Poetry & Social Justice Fellow

Split This Rock established its spirit, indeed its name, with inspiration from the Langston Hughes poem “Big Buddy,” at its heart a poem about community and resistance to injustice:

Don’t you hear this hammer ring?
I’m gonna split this rock
And split it wide!
When I split this rock,
Stand by my side.

In the year and a half that I have volunteered with this organization, I’ve found myself welcomed into a community of poets and activists, and activist poets, who support and encourage each other in both word and deed. We do stand by each other’s sides splitting the rocks of recalcitrant social problems and oppressive ideologies, and the rocks of that sometimes recalcitrant white page, the living earth of our languages.

Even the word for unwanted resistance is connected to rocks and mineral world, the “cal” in “recalcitrant” reminds us of calcium – our very bones.

As we mulled names for this database of social justice poetry we kept coming back around to the suggestion of one of our Board members, the poet Dan Vera, who offered “The Quarry” early in these discussions. And then, serendipity told us to stop fighting that first, right instinct when Sarah Browning, our Executive Director, remembered Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Museum of Stones,” read at the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival back in 2008.

In that poem is the line, “all the world a quarry” and it all came together. The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database. Done. The quarry is a resource we go to build our cities and communities, but it is also the place we are sometimes sent in punishment for our resistance to oppressive regimes. The world as problem, and the solution to the problem, the stone that builds the prison and the stone that crashes a window wrapped in a petition for freedom.

To our joy, those who have visited The Quarry in just its first day have divined its purpose perfectly. Larry Ferlazzo at instantly saw its uses as an educational resource. White Cross School quickly discovered the Geography search and located two local North Carolina poets to shout out. Joseph Ross sees The Quarry in several dimensions:

As a teacher, I know I will use this database to share poems with my American Literature students as well as with my Creative Writing students. As a poet, I know I will browse these poems to see what others are writing, how they approach different topics and issues in American life. As a reader of poetry, I will savor these poems as a personal call to work for justice more effectively in the world.

Over at Harriet, the blog of The Poetry Foundation, the staff go right to the heart of our mission: celebrating the enormous power of “the imagination to transform the individual and society.” Poetry, social justice poetry, is where our imaginations do not fail us.

Ron Charles of The Washington Post asked us an important question in The Style blog. Duly impressed with the search feature of the database, he notes  “users can find poems by selecting from a list of more than 40 different themes and issues, such as Animal Rights, Environmental Justice and Police Brutality” and by “ the writer’s identity from a checklist that includes Disability, Race, Gender, Religion and Class.” 

Charles worries, though, that while “It’s a curious idea, helpful on its face,” it may run the risk “of reducing poetry to polemics and biography?”

Bringing poetry to the center of public life means that while we think of it as poetry – indeed, one of our goals at Split This Rock is to expand the notion of what a “political poem” can be even as we think of it as messages to the society, about all its peoples and ways of life. 

So under a category like “LGBTQA,” you’ll find poems that address mild and violent kinds of homo- or trans- phobias, but also vibrant celebrations of love and sex and self and humor from inside the LGBTQA communities, and by their allies, or poems that touch on a number of themes just one of which has to do with identity.

But, Charles’s hesitation is a frequent and common one, that is to say -- real. Political poetry, poetry that does a job like point to injustice or witness human resistance must sound like politics – like argument, like spin, like propaganda. It can, of course. And those poems have their place. Sometimes at the rally, we just need the point to get across. 

But, some poems make their point not by argument, but by affect, by appeal directly to our human being. The recent poem of the week, “Blk Girl Art” by Jamila Woods is one of these, coming as it does in response to the everyday, every day pressures of surviving while black in America:

Poems are bullshit unless they are eyeglasses, honey
tea with lemon, hot water bottles on tummies. I want
poems my grandma wants to tell the ladies at church
about. I want orange potato words soaking in the pot
til their skins fall off, words you burn your tongue on,
words on sale two for one, words that keep my feet dry.

It admits in the same breath that poems need to do work in a world of hardship, and that comfort and kindness are possible in that work. 

Or take the mini-epic of Tim Seibles’s “One Turn Around the Sun,” read at the 2014 poetry festival, which blends the necessity and courage of resistance, “of biting something ten thousand times your own size as if to say ‘get off me!’” into the whole heart of human being.

As the Poetry & Social Justice Fellow at Split This Rock, it was my job, honor, and pleasure to archive and categorize each of these poems, and I know that they are polemics in the way excellent poetry is polemic, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, which meant to “teach the ways of God to Man” by making of the truth an art. There’s more than one clever argument made about power and rebellion in that poem.

The poetry of social justice is poetry. Social Justice poetry exhibits its craft and art on the page, and on the stage.  When Split This Rock says its taste in poetry is catholic, we mean that. Social Justice Poetry comes to us in the lineage of the traditional canons like Forchés “poetry of witness”, from the experimental traditions like the work of Anne Waldman, from the street and spoken word traditions, from the stories of Indigenous peoples…. 

When we begin to look at poetry as people who live for justice, we begin to hear the themes in poems we never thought were so radical, so committed.

These are your poems. You wrote them. Or you will read them. To learn craft. To seek comfort. To confront danger. To learn from difference. To celebrate the radical act of staying alive, joyful, fierce. You will share them with friends, declaim them at demonstrations, croon them at memorials. You will use them to center and inspire your colleagues at work, in community organizing, at worship. 

They are yours. Go, imagine with them. 

M. F. Simone Roberts is an independent scholar of poetics and feminist philosophy, a poet and activist. She is co-editor of the anthology Iris Murdoch and the Moral Imagination: Essays and author of the monograph A Poetics of Being-Two: Irigaray's Ethics and Post-Symbolist Poetics. Descendant of aristocrats and serfs, she adventures with her consort, Adam Silverman.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Poem of the Week: Cacayo Ballesteros


Any Given Name

Chapas is what cops are called
in my country
who threw the too tortured
in the lion pits
of the Military Academy zoo
whose swampy foundation
now bears the weight of a gringo
luxury chain hotel
like a baroque temple on top a pyramid
let's say Incan
so we don't have to digress too much
about who really inhabited
the valley when the cassocked
of the bearded ones arrived.

With the quotidian metaphor
the temper of a chapa
our companions qualify us
get into the bags in our eyes
and search in those full moon shadows
for an empathetic caress
armed with the best French lingerie
so basically with hardly anything on
like the llucha of a moldy playing card.

My apologies,

llucha is what a naked woman is called
in my country.

They say we have a chapa's temper
that originated from having been someone
in the times encomiendas were given to generals
land where a young father and uncles hunted boar
land sold with Indians on it.

-Did you end up getting grandpa's sword?

-Not even the sheath.

From Lovedust/Polvo Enamorado (Izote Press, 2014). Used with permission.

Cacayo Ballesteros (José R. Ballesteros, Quito, Ecuador) is a Professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. He has a Ph.D. from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas. Ballesteros' poetry has been published in several journals and has been anthologized in Al Pie de La Casa Blanca: Poetas Hispanos de Washington,  DC (Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española, 2010). His first book of poems Lovedust/Polvo enamorado (Izote Press), was published in early 2014. He is the co-founder and chief editor for Zozobra Publishing (Hyattsville, MD; Brooklyn, NY), an independent press that publishes bilingual poetry in the US. Ballesteros is also a published translator of Latin American poetry. He is a co-author of the Spanish literary anthology Voces de España (Cenage, 2013) and has published several articles about the influence the contact with the "New World" had on Spanish letters of the XVIIth century.

Please feel free to share Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks! If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

It's Almost Here! The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database | Come Celebrate 6/25

Today our hearts hurt to breaking from the pathological war on Black people - from Charleston to the Dominican Republic to Fairfield, Ohio and beyond. At Split This Rock, we're preparing to go live next week with a new resource, The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database, in which we've gathered all the astonishing poems we've published in our Poem of the Week series over the past 5 years, along with contest winners, video from the four Split This Rock Poetry Festivals, and more. 

You'll be able to find poems that speak grief, love, rage, hopefulness on days such as these. We are so grateful to the brave, visionary poets for their words.

Searchable by social justice theme, author's identity, state, and geographic region, The Quarry will go live Wednesday, June 24, on Split This Rock's website:

If you're in DC, celebrate with us on Thursday, June 25 at 7pm at Busboys and Poets - Brookland. The party will include appetizers, poetry readings by poets and activists, music, a demonstration of The Quarry, and a fabulous silent auction to benefit Split This Rock. Details below. 

Can't join us? You can still donate to help sustain The Quarry and all of Split This Rock's transformative programs. 

MANY THANKS to all who have invested in Split This Rock and all who may still do so! A gift this June helps us start our next fiscal year strong on July 1. Learn more below. 

In peace and poetry,
Split This Rock

PS - Thanks to all who proposed names for the database. We didn't choose from the contest entries, but we're so grateful to all who entered and for the thoughtfulness and creativity of Splitistas!

Come Celebrate with Us!
Party to Launch 
The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database -
With Silent Auction!

Thursday, June 25, 7 - 9 pm
Busboys and Poets - Brookland
625 Monroe Street NE, Washington, DC

Wheelchair accessible. On the Metro Red Line.

Join us for the official launch of The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database, featuring DJ Phenomejon, poetry readings and performances by activists and poets, appetizers, a demonstration of the database, and a silent auction! FREE!

Here are some of the fabulous items you'll be invited to bid on at the party:
A week at Wellspring House writers retreat 
An hour-long massage, by Donald Norwood, LMT
Registration at Mariposa Poetry Retreat
A personal yoga session with Yael Flusberg
A tarot card reading by Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Karen Dolan
Split This Wok: An Asian noodle meal cooked in your home by Regie Cabico
Vegan meal cooked in your home by poet and Veg-Equality founder Chris August
Critique of up to five poems by Split This Rock Executive Director Sarah Browning
A personal coaching session by Anne Pellicciotto, MSOD
Copies of Digest, the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection by Gregory Pardlo, signed by the author
And more!
We are very excited for all of the festivities and cannot wait to celebrate with you! 

For more information:, 202-787-5210

Friday, June 12, 2015

Poem of the Week: Sheila Maldonado

great blood

you come from greatness

remember that

you are the descendant of great kings

remember that

the descendant of great brutal kings

great big violent kings
who forced hundreds of slaves to make temples
still around to this day

you are from great big brutal kings
who tore out hearts
if they had to

who got big buildings made
that people who can afford it
still visit

remember that

if you have to
you can make people your slaves
and get your building up

you can tear out a heart

if you have to

you have kings in your blood

remember that

Used with permission. Photo by Gabriel García Román.

Sheila Maldonado is the author of one-bedroom solo (Fly by Night Press/A Gathering of the Tribes, 2011), her debut poetry collection. She grew up in Coney Island across the street from the Atlantic. Her family hails from Honduras. Her poems have appeared in Rattapallax, Callaloo,  Hyperallergic, Aster(ix) Journal, and Me No Habla with Acento: Contemporary Latino Poetry. She has been granted awards from the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance as well as residencies at the Rockefeller estate in New York and Fundación Valparaíso in Spain. She also served as a Cultural Envoy to Honduras for the U.S. State Department. Maldonado teaches creative writing for The City University of New York and Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She holds degrees in English from Brown University and poetry from The City College of New York. She lives in uptown Manhattan above the Hudson.

Please feel free to share Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks! If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Poem of the Week: Aracelis Girmay


When the boys are carnivals
we gather round them in the dark room
& they make their noise while drums
ricochet against their bodies & thin air
below the white ceiling hung up like a moon
& it is California, the desert. I am driving in a car,
clapping my hands for the beautiful windmills,
one of whom is my brother, spinning,
on a hillside in the garage
with other boys he'll grow old with, throw back.
How they throw back their bodies
on the cardboard floor, then spring-to, flying
like the heads of hammers hitting strings
inside of a piano.
     Again, again.
This is how they fall & get back up. One
who was thrown out by his father. One
who carries death with him like a balloon
tied to his wrist. One whose heart will break.
One whose grandmother will forget his name.
One whose eye will close. One who stood
beside his mother's body in a green hospital. One.
Kick up against the air to touch the earth.
See him fall, then get back up.
Then get back up.

From The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015). Used with permission. Photo by Sheila Griffin.

Aracelis Girmay is the author of the collage-based picture book changing, changing, and the poetry collections Teeth and Kingdom AnimaliaGirmay is on the faculty of Hampshire College's School for Interdisciplinary Arts and Drew University's low-residency MFA program. For the past few years, she has been studying texts and other materials that, through form, language(s), diction, and gesture, perform and think about place and loss of place (or displacement), and what this sometimes has to do with the sea.

Please feel free to share Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks! If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.