“And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea:
we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
― June Jordan
I’ve just returned from Washington, D.C. a few days ago from attending the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. I’ve just flipped through my notebook searching for the cherry blossoms I pressed between the pages. “Treyvon Martin is my son,” says Sybrina Fulton on Democracy Now, “and he’s your son, too.” On Facebook, I re-post a status about Shaima Alawadi, the Iraqi woman beaten to death in El Cajon, CA, and solidarity. Adrienne Rich passed away yesterday. I found out through Facebook.
What does Adrienne Rich’s “dream for a common language” look like in the face of violence, hatred, racism and war? The Split This Rock Poetry Festival is necessary to the formation of a common language, the realization of Rich’s dream. Below is a summary of events, readings and encounters I experienced at the festival, which tries to capture everything but is inevitably insufficient.
On Thursday, the first day of the festival, Martin Espada howled “Alabanza” in tribute to Sam Hamill, poet and editor of Poets Against the War. I ate pupusas with Sonal Malkani, K. Bradford and Rachel McKibbens. Doug Kearney embodied the horrifying violence enacted on a Black man from the South (I’m kicking myself right now for not taking down this man’s name!). Sonia Sanchez improvised a jazz elegy for June Jordan (“Junejunejunejune, look at the road, June!”).
On Friday, I attended a panel entitled “Poetry of Resistance: Poets Take on Reasonable Suspicion (Arizona SB 1070) and Xenophobia” hosted by Francisco Alarcon and Odilia Galvan Rodriguez who spoke about the power of social media and poetry; the thousands of protest poems from around the world posted on the “Poets Respond to SB 1070” Facebook page. I wrote found poems in Cathy Linh Che and Laren McClung’s workshop on writing poetry of resistance and using the news as a source for text. The rest of Friday was spent breathing in the cherry blossoms around the National Mall, breathing and listening.
Saturday morning was chockful of Kundiman. I organized a reading between Cave Canem and Kundiman (“Intersecting Lineages: a Solidarity Showcase of African American and Asian American Poets”) with Ching-In Chen, a fellow Kundiman fellow. Kazim Ali, Kevin Simmonds, Alan King, Monica Hand, Ching-In and I read a poem or two from an ancestor poet before reading our own work. Monica spoke of Sei Shonogan, Kimiko Hahn and the zuhitszu form; Kazim invoked Lucille (“shore, shore”); Ching-In read a two-voiced poem by Sharon Bridgforth with K. Bradford; Alan King praised Li-Young Li’s deftness and subtle power in writing about his father. I read a few sections from Dionne Brand‘s book, No Language is Neutral. Brand, born in Trinidad and Tobago, now living in Toronto, is a poet introduced to me by Suzanne Gardiner, a teacher and mentor of mine. I remember telling Suzanne that I wanted my poems to be “ferocious” (whatever that means!) and she searched on her shelf and placed a finger on Brand’s poem, and said, “look, look.”
“I have tried to write this thing calmly
even as its lines burn to a close. I have come to know
something simple. Each sentence realised or
dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a
side. What I say in any language is told in faultless
knowledge of skin, in drunkenness and weeping,
told as a woman without matches and tinder, not in
words and in words and in words learned by heart,
told in secret and not in secret, and listen, does not
burn out or waste and is plenty and pitiless and loves.”
-Dionne Brand, “No Language is Neutral.”
I wanted to say “look, look” to the folks who came to our reading, to the folks a few miles away in the White House and Congress, to the folks wearing hoodies in protest and remembrance of Treyvon Martin. Look at the beauty of these ancestor poets, their survived, living and writing. Marilyn Nelson said, “To be human is to be a stranger, and not a stranger.” Look and listen to these strange and not so strange voices; all of them belonging to us. Look at the beauty of risk and dreaming.