Poetry magazine joins with D.C.’s Split This Rock festival

The March issue of Poetry magazine focuses on the Split This Rock festival coming up in Washington, March 27-30, 2014.
The March issue of Poetry magazine focuses on the Split This Rock festival coming up in Washington, March 27-30, 2014.

For the first time, Poetry magazine has collaborated with Washington poetry festival Split This Rock. The March issue of the venerable journal includes 16 contributions from poets who will speak at the biennial festival, March 27-30.

In her introduction to the issue, Split This Rock Executive Director Sarah Browning explains that the festival “calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets.”

This year’s theme is “Poems of Provocation and Witness.” Among the featured writers will be Guggenheim fellow Anne Waldman, Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa and Eduardo Corral, who has won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize.

This unique collaboration between the festival and the journal arose after Eliza Griswold assembled a special issue of Poetry in June 2013 featuring work by Afghan women poets. In November, Griswold won Split This Rock’s first Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism. Poetry magazine editor Don Share and Browning realized they should work together.

(Courtesy of Split This Rock.)
(Courtesy of Split This Rock.)

As an old New Critic, I’m pathologically skeptical of activist poetry, but Share reminds me that there are many valid modes and roles for poetry.

“Maybe we’ve had the luxury in this country of being dubious about political poetry,” he says, “but the news everyday obliges poets to action, just as it does everyone else. I don’t see the work by the poets in our March issue as any kind of ‘propaganda,’ though. Keats says that we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, but these poets aren’t composing editorials or bumper stickers. They’re reflecting and reflecting upon — as all good poets do — the world they live in. There’s nothing shallow or hollow in their voices, and they’re not trying to convert anybody to a cause. Quite the contrary, they’ve composed work in a variety of voices that I find both rich and resonant.”

If the label “protest poetry” seems limiting, Share points out that “you can find protest in almost every poem there is, even the sweetest love poem, because poets implicitly challenge the world as we know it, and conjure possibilities.”

Writer Venus Thrash at the Split This Rock festival in 2012. (Photo by Jill Brazel.)
Writer Venus Thrash at the Split This Rock festival in 2012. (Photo by Jill Brazel.)

Split This Rock — which is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts – began in 2008 as an outgrowth of the Poets Against the Iraq War movement, and the organization’s activist spirit is still strong. Browning and her fellow board members insure that the festival’s featured poets represent a wide variety of styles, races, ages, sexual orientations and classes.

This year’s festival will include readings, panel discussions, open mic performances and writing workshops at several locations in downtown Washington around the Farragut Square neighborhood. (For a full schedule click here.) About 500 people attended the festival in 2012.

Full registration for all events is $120; $45 for students. (If you want to go but can’t afford it, submit a scholarship application.) The readings, held at the National Geographic Museum, will be free and open to the public.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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