Poets of Split This Rock Festival put their words to work at Capitol

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; C01

These are not the poets you remember from high school who sit in lonely rooms writing maudlin words that few might hear and fewer might comprehend.

These are poets who arrive in public carrying fierce lines of poetry to say aloud from sharp slips of paper.

Unconnected, the lines of poetry seem odd. Fragmented. Desperately trying to say something. Like babbling babies.

Once the words are taped together in one long poem of antiwar protest, the question becomes: Will they do what the writers intend?

Will they be heard beyond this grassy open space? Will they effect social change, even a bit?

A poet with a blue headband climbs onto the stage in the Upper Senate Park: "Now is the time for poetry to storm the walls of Congress."

It's doubtful that anyone in the Senate could have heard her -- the Capitol is near, but still too far away. But this doesn't stop Frances Payne Adler, or the poets who recite after her:

"Don't forget those who want peace."

"We are citizens, not tools. Educate us, shelter us, feed us."

This is the scene of the creation of a cento, a spontaneous poem of protest, in this case written verse by verse by hundreds of poets who have arrived at the Capitol from around the country for the Split This Rock Poetry Festival, a gathering to celebrate "the poetry of witness and provocation."

Poets, you say? Aren't they those solitary creatures, slaves to pen and paper, pulling out strands of hair, beating on unforgiving keys of typewriters and computers, always reaching for the more perfect word?

You have heard that music has been the spark of revolutions. But poetry?

"Poetry reaches people in a way that speeches and punditry can't reach people," says Sarah Browning, co-director of the biennial festival, which began in 2008. "It reaches us in a deeper place. . . . That is how social change happens, first at the individual level, then at the collective level. The arts have always played a crucial role in social movements. . . . Poetry was very important in the black power movement and feminist movement."

The four-day festival, which began Wednesday and runs through Saturday, includes poetry readings each evening at Bell Multicultural High School, where poets will address political issues including health-care reform, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, government spending, the economy and sexuality.

Well-known poets featured at the festival include: Chris Abani, Lillian Allen, Sinan Antoon, Francisco Aragón, Jan Beatty, Martha Collins, Cornelius Eady, Martín Espada and Andrea Gibson, Allison Hedge Coke, Natalie E. Illum, Fady Joudah, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Richard McCann, Jeffrey McDaniel, Lenelle Moïse, Nancy Morejón, Mark Nowak, Wang Ping, Patricia Smith, Arthur Sze, Quincy Troupe, Holly Bass, Beny Blaq and Derrick Weston Brown.

The name, Split This Rock, is based on the Langston Hughes poem "Big Buddy": "I'm going to split this rock/And split it wide! When I split this rock, stand by my side."

Browning says: "At times of crisis, poetry that looks directly at our world and struggles to understand, to bridge differences, to imagine other possibilities than those endlessly repeated by politicians and pundits is more important than ever."

The mission of the festival is to invite poets into a bigger public role and create a network of socially connected poets who will give name to injustices and define avenues to hope.

But where is the power in poems?

Richard McCann, a writer and professor of literature at American University, says people tend to regard poetry as removed from life and politics. "As a result," McCann says, "it seems almost comic that people would go to the Capitol and say a poem. And it's comic to us because we think of poetry and literary language as having little efficacy."

Poets talk that way, "having little efficacy."

McCann recalls the famous line from W.H. Auden: "Poetry makes nothing happen."

A poets' protest, McCann says, is a way of challenging that line. "Many protests have behind them not the idea they will have an immediate or resounding influence on policy or manifest social change," says McCann. "But in fact, protests are often to bring people together to energize them, make a strong community among them and let those bonds move toward changes in policy."

One of the writers McCann says he has admired most is Grace Paley, the celebrated short-fiction author and peace activist who died in 2007. With all her gifts, Paley still "felt the need to climb the fence at the White House to make her voice heard bigger than it would have been otherwise as a fiction writer," protesting nuclear arms in 1978, says McCann.

Stories, words and poetry have a power that lingers. McCann was 17 when he first encountered the command of poetry. "I heard voices and language that complicated the reality of what I had been taught," he says. "And I heard voices and language that opened the prospect of what could be said aloud. And it wasn't polite."

The group poem, he says, has a value. "One of the benefits of that is you are in the face of new language, fresh language and language as surprise. The opposite of which would be political language, which George Orwell talks about -- the tendency of language not to be fresh, to be thought of in phrases so we never have an emotional connection."

Poets are unpredictable.

You never know what they will say.

Aragón, a featured poet, says it is impossible to find a consensus on the question of poetry as a form of social protest. "Some people will privilege poetry that tries to be social and political and is not as concerned with how well crafted the poem is," says Aragón, director of the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. "For some poets, the message of the poem is secondary. If the poem happens to be political, that is a bonus."

Aragón read with four other poets Thursday night. "I would not describe myself as a political poet," he says. "Some of my work is political in the way sometimes the personal can be political. Right now, one of the most pressing political rights in the country is gay political rights, whereas for me the ongoing war in Afghanistan may resonate less for me. "

Lenelle Moïse, a Haitian poet, has come to Washington to protest about "Haiti, women, the heart, homeland, hope and insecurity."

"Poems can protest, yes," says Moïse. "Poems can resist, reveal, affirm, awaken, empower and demonstrate. . . . I want my poems to provoke realization, solidarity and bravery," she says. "I want to share what I've fiercely decided to observe, to encourage readers and listeners to see their world for all its craziness, complexity, gorgeousness and fragility. I want to tell about endurance, triumph, failure and recovery."

"I am all for poetry as social protest," she says. "But I want my protests to be well crafted and irresistible. I want to make protest music, to make poems that call us to move our bodies into action."

There is a rhythm in the way poets talk.

A circle of poets looking on, Browning climbs onto the stage to recite her lines, the last in the poem.

"Onion and chocolate and all the stew of ourselves we can eat," she says.

She reads Hughes once more: "Don't you hear this hammer ring? I'm going to split this rock/And split it wide! When I split this rock, stand by my side."

Then the poets disperse quietly, leaving behind a stack of white paper with their poems.

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