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Averse to War
Split This Rock's Army of Poets Marches Into Town and Raises the Anti

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

The poets are in town. Dozens -- no, hundreds. Hundreds of poets. Can you imagine? They are everywhere.

In long, disheveled columns, they are prowling Langston Hughes's old neighborhood around U Street NW. They are eating catfish at Busboys and Poets (where else?) and quoting Hughes, Shelley and Whitman back and forth -- "Through me many long dumb voices" -- over the hummus and merlot.

They are signing fans' battered paperbacks and shiny new ones bought on credit (autographs!). They are squinting from the stage into the cathedral depths of a filled high school auditorium, amazed at the turnout. They are sharing with preschoolers the miracle of closely observed turtles and infinity in a drop of water.

Also, to mark the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, they are getting ready to march on the White House.

Who isn't, right?

But poets?

The politicians have had their say, and the veterans, the military families, the kids getting arrested in the streets this week -- now it's the poets' turn. They decided to have a convention. Two years in the planning, the four-day Split This Rock Poetry Festival began Thursday and concludes tomorrow afternoon with the march to Lafayette Square. There, the poets -- who have come from California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Texas -- will speak a collective poem to President Bush, with each poet contributing one line of up to 12 words. Nobody has a clue how it will turn out, and everybody's a little nervous.

It's another round in the ageless pen-vs.-sword rivalry. But frankly, after five years of war, more than 100,000 lives lost, and the culture in general continuing its relentless sink into a distracted, easily-bored, Britney-addled coarseness, one side seems to be winning. A hard question must be asked of these poets:

Poetry, huh, yeah, what is it good for?

Mart¿n Espada pauses over his catfish. He's not afraid, he'll take the question. He has published 12 books, won multiple fellowships and awards, is an English professor and Neruda expert at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"People in this society are starved for meaning," he says. "In a time of war, the government divorces language from meaning. . . . They drain the blood from words. Poets can put the blood back into words."

Or, as he puts it later at Bell Multicultural High School, "No change for the good ever happens without being imagined first. . . . That's where poets come in."

Yet this poet, so good with words, is careful not to overstate his case.

"What I do is an act of faith. I put words out into the atmosphere. They become part of what we breathe. Hopefully that has some impact. But we shouldn't try to quantify the impact of a poem like it's a package of beans."

Remember the words of the veteran of the Spanish Civil War, that noble, if doomed, cause. "You don't fight the good fight just because you think you're going to win," Espada says. "You fight the good fight because it's the right thing to do, regardless of the outcome, which you can't predict anyhow. That's how I feel about the work that I do."

* * *

At the registration table, the poets fill out cards labeled "Write a Haiku to the President."

About 250 people sign up for the conference, paying as much as $85 for the four days.

There are two dozen featured poets, and the rest are poets, too, or students or lovers of poetry. (The schedule for today and tomorrow is at http://www.splitthisrock.org.)

The festival had its origins in the poets revolt of February 2003, when Sam Hamill declined an invitation from Laura Bush for a poetry event at the White House, because of the looming war, and instead launched a campaign of antiwar poetry writing. Out of that, local poet Sarah Browning formed D.C. Poets Against the War, which has been holding smallish readings ever since.

Browning led the planning for Split This Rock, supported by Sol & Soul, the local grass-roots arts group, and the Institute for Policy Studies, the progressive think tank.

"Poetry is what we have as poets, so we use it," Browning says.

Now E. Ethelbert Miller, sometimes called the dean of D.C. poetry, is onstage.

Humble, serious, ascetic in black, yet with his customary twinkle not absent, Miller launches into a piece by Hughes:

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.

The poem's original theme of worker solidarity lends itself to the task at hand.

"Split this rock. What rock?" Sonia Sanchez, the fierce, soft-voiced, veteran Philadelphia-based poet asks rhetorically at Busboys. "Any rock that interferes with progress. Any rock that attempts to kill."

Dennis Brutus, the revered South African poet with flowing gray hair who spent time in jail with Nelson Mandela, wades through the thronging restaurant wearing a hooded sweat shirt under his sports coat and greets Sanchez, who stands out with her red knit cap. Does poetry matter?

Sanchez: "Nobody is saying poetry is the only avenue, but it's a mighty powerful one."

Brutus: "I think of someone like Shelley. 'Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.' . . . These are the people I think will kick alive the spirit of anger and resistance."

Between readings and pilgrimages to Hughes's and Whitman's haunts, the poets attend panel discussions such as "Writing in a Warrior Culture" and "Personal and Political: The Difficult Art of Writing a Manuscript of Poems That Bear Witness."

In these intense seminars, the poets get down to the nitty-gritty of craft. Overheard:

"For me, the issue is always handling the narrative voice, the 'I.' "

"I wanted my 'I' to be the lens through which you saw what was going on but not to have the poems be about me."

The poets know that to matter, they must break out of the usual poetry circles. They'll grab any chance to read, anywhere: a boxing ring, a nursing home, a tortilla factory, the mall. Most important of all: schools.

Scores of D.C. schoolchildren submitted work to a contest hosted by Split This Rock. Amid all the adults grappling with heavy themes, it was refreshing to hear the simple and profound couplet of an 8-year-old:

My neighborhood is short and small

But we are not far from Hechinger Mall

San Antonio poet Naomi Shihab Nye dreams of poetry conceiving a different kind of neighborhood: "We could at least create in language a country within a country where we continue to emphasize humanity, and embrace-of-difference, and willingness to listen to one another. Poets, as these marginal renegades, have fulfilled a very important place in our society in these last years, because the status quo didn't feel as comfortable speaking out as we did."

Nye writes books for children, and saves her tougher political poetry for adults. She tries to humanize Arabs while confronting the U.S. reflex for war. From her opening-night reading, a poem called "Letters My President Is Not Sending":

Dear Rafik, Sorry about that soccer game you won't be attending since you now have no . . .

Dear Fawziya, You know, I have a mom too so I can imagine what you . . .

Dear Shadiya, Think about your father versus democracy, I'll bet you'd pick . . .

No, no, Sami, that's not true what you said at the rally that our country hates you, we really support your move toward freedom, that's why you no longer have a house or a family or a village . . .

Dear Hassan, If only you could see the bigger picture . . .

The next morning, she gives a reading for preschoolers, children still young enough to be shielded from the images she raises in her "Letters." They sit cross-legged on the floor before her, their upturned faces fixed on her as she reads to them.

She shows the children her pretty blue zippered pencil case, and her little plastic pencil sharpener.

"That's your power tool," she says. "As a writer, that's all you need."

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