Washington poets: Split This Rock festival brings world-class poets to D.C.

Friday, March 5, 2010; WE22

When poet E. Ethelbert Miller launched into his rapid-fire rendition of Langston Hughes's "Big Buddy" at the first Split This Rock poetry festival in March 2008, it was nothing less than a rallying cry for the wordsmiths and poetry fans who had converged.

Split This Rock celebrates the power of well-chosen words of protest, and at that moment, the crowd had much on its mind. It was an election year, wars had raged for half the decade, the economy was flagging and the air in Bell Multicultural High School felt electrified as Miller read out the refrain: "I'm going to split this rock/And split it wide! When I split this rock, stand by my side."

Next week, the festival returns to Columbia Heights and U Street, but don't expect that time has quelled that sense of urgency.

"It was a moment of protest in 2008, but it was also a moment of celebration of the voices of resistance," said Sarah Browning, the festival's co-director. And, she added, "it's obvious from the first year of the Obama administration that change does not come from electing a certain president."

"We need vibrant, well-organized social movements," Browning said, "and Split This Rock is aiming to be part of that."

What to expect: Poetry that addresses hot-button political issues, including health care, war, sexuality, the economy and the environment. Featured readings bring in world-class poets of both page and stage, including professor and Pablo Neruda scholar Martín Espada; National Book Award finalist Cornelius Eady; one-time slam champion and Pushcart Prize nominee Andrea Gibson; and poet Quincy Troupe, who co-wrote the memoir "The Pursuit of Happyness." Poets will also find workshops and panels.

If you go: Back-to-back featured readings on March 12 (with Espada, Troupe, Patricia Smith and others) make for one fantastic night. Open-mike events, Wednesday through March 12, should attract a rare mix of Washington's finest performers and poets who are in town for the festival.

Venues include Busboys and Poets (2021 14th St. NW) and Bell Multicultural High School (3101 16th St. NW). Day and all-festival passes range from $15 to $85. Admission to readings is $8, students are $5. Open-mike events are $5. For details, visit http://www.splitthisrock.org.

-- Lavanya Ramanathan

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