March 31, 2014

Split This Rock Poetry Festival, Thursday March 27 — Featured Reading

This was the first of the nightly readings held in the comfortable auditorium of the National Geographic Society. Sarah Browning, Executive Director of Split This Rock, used the opportunity as the official welcome & to take on the “poetry poo-bahs of the past,” as well as to attack the Government’s secrecy & data-gathering programs. She praised the editors of Poetry magazine for publishing in their March 2014 issue the unapologetic political poetry of so many of the poets on the Festival’s program.

As we gathered in the auditorium we were treated to a slide show of photos of some of the poets, the “Elders,” who had passed on since the last Split This Rock 2 years ago. Among those were Maggie Estep, Amiri Baraka, Juan Gelman, Seamus Heaney, Anselm Hollo, Bill Knott, Maxine Kumin, Patricia Monaghan, Jose Montoya, Adrienne Rich, Harvey Shapiro, Nguyen Chi Thien, Reed Whittemore, Jake Adam York, Chinua Achebe, Wanda Coleman, Jayne Cortez, & others. Sarah introduced this year’s tradition at the readings of playing a recording of one of these gone poets, tonight Adrienne Rich on speaking out.

Another feature at each of these readings was to start the event with a performance by a young poet from the DC Youth Slam team. Tonight it was a high school student, Amino Iro, performing 2 pieces, “The first thing I ever learned was to mind my manners…” & a poem from her chapbook (chapbooks already!) Things I Miss About Home, the poem about fighting with her cousin.

Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi journalist & poet who has been living in the US for a number of years, started with poems from a new collection about to come out from New Directions in May, The Iraqi Nights. She read “The Shape of the World” in Arabic, then in English, then ”Second Life,” & “A Debate” which was like a fable about which parts of a plant own the Earth. Then she read poems from her moving 2005 book, The War Works Hard, “Pronouns” in Arabic & English, “The Prisoner” & again in Arabic & English the title poem “The War Works Hard.” (Wish I had thought to bring my copy to have her sign it.)

Next was a heavy dose of Slam performance & acting out by Danez Smith, although he actually read the first piece “Dear White America.” I don’t know if the next was titled “Gene-Sissy” or if that was his description of the piece about black trans-genered women killed by their own community, & mixing in Biblical creation stories & hymns. The black church was again the subject of “Church,” in which he took on the persona of a black preacher (& we the audience his congregation) as he humorously ranted about shouting out “god!” while having sex. He ended with more over-the-top performance humor with “Dinosaurs in the Hood.”

For a complete change of pace Joy Harjo began with an honor song played on a wooden flute to pay tribute to her grandfather who had come to Washington, DC for justice, then she continued with a modern trickster tale in which Trickster is a rabbit who makes a clay man who wants to steal it all. “No” was also a political vision, & in “Conflict Resolution” she used the categories in a conflict resolution manual to ironically comment on the lies the White Man told, followed by her singing a song that was sung on the Trail of Tears to hold each other up. She ended with her poem in the issue of Poetry, “Everybody Has A Heartache.”

Quite a day & I stumbled back downtown to my hotel, exhausted & happy. More to come.

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