April 2, 2014

Split This Rock Poetry Festival, Friday March 28 — Political Action & Panels

A regular feature of the Split This Rock festival is a political action at one of the (smelly) seats of government for the creation of a cento, a collaborative, poem made up of random lines of poetry, each no more than 12 words, a group poem of protest. Today’s theme was “Stop the Spying! End the Surveillance State!

It was a drizzly morning, what the Irish call a “soft rain” as I walked over to Lafayette Park in front of the White House. The poets & the press were gathering, even a couple of folks from Code Pink joined us. We all took our turns at the mic to read our lines, the serious, the spurious, the humorous, the magical, from the famous to the unknowns & kids joining in for fun. I’m sure we were being watched — I mean, that’s the point.

My contribution was from my poem “Now, Listen” which is also a tribute to the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky:
we can’t trust poets
we must listen
it makes us safer —
Then we wandered back up to M Street & the day’s panels & workshop.

Re-Imagining the Nature Poem: Post-Pastoral, Post-Colonial, Eco-Spectacle, Eco-Justice Poetry

Natalie Diaz, Ravi Shankar, Greg Pardlo, Maria Kelson
Back to the Wilderness Society conference room, but first a few minutes to take in the large exhibit of Ansel Adams photos in the gallery. I was attending this panel in my ongoing exploration of what I call “urban nature poems.” While I enjoy wooded walks to the lake or poking around in the sand or the water at the ocean I spend most of my time in urban settings; are my walks around Lark St. any less “hiking” than climbing the paths in the foothills of the Berkshires? The panelist had varying approaches to the topic, as much from their personal aesthetics & their place in academe as from where they came from.

Natalie Diaz, perhaps because she is Mojave, had the most immediate/direct connection to the land, focusing on how violence has shaped the land & our bodies, quoting the Native concept, “Body is Land, Land is Body.” As an example she said in the Mojave language “amat” is the word for land, “emat” is the word for body. She also read her poem from Poetry “It Was the Animals.”

Ravi Shankar had the most academic approach, reading excerpts from a prepared paper (& he still went too long) about “the post-pastoral.” He traced the history of the pastoral from Hesiod to the modern age, then read a couple poems (“Fireflies” & “Mohican Sun”) from one of his chapbooks.

Gregory Pardlo (who is a visiting poet at the College of St. Rose MFA program in writing in Albany) began with comments about “in-between-ness” & the false dichotomy between Man & Nature, & wondered if anything can be external to anything else. The 2 poems he read, “Brooklyn Parakeets” & one about a whale caught in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn were the closest to what I think of as “urban nature poems.”

Maria Melendez Kelson read the most poems of the group, using as her theme “the Mother is the first environment.” She read a mother & daughter poem, “Green Corn Season” by Deeane Garcia, then her own poem, another mother/child piece “In the Early Month of Snow Melt 1997,” followed by Pat Moira’s “A River of Women,” & ended with a new poem of own addressed to her children, about not being a “perfect” mother, “A Nest in Thorns.”

The panel facilitator, Melissa Tuckey, discussed “eco-justice poetry,” citing the 19th Century English poet John Clare’s writing about the enclosure of the English countryside. She developed the link from agrarian capitalism through colonialism & commodification. In her discussion she cited, among others, Mahmoud Darwish & Margaret Walker, & talked about “alienation from the natural world,” causing me to wonder if urban life is part of the natural world? Her poems that she read were the anti-war nature poem “Times Arrow” & “The Wheel” based on Buddhist texts.

An interesting thread of ideas from yesterday’s panel through this panel today.

Women and War/Women and Peace II

Lisa Suhair Majaj, Kim Jensen, Samiya Bashir
So for something entirely different I attended this panel, a continuation (thus the “II”) from a similar panel held 2 years ago, also facilitated by Kim Jensen. This one focused as much on “cultural policing” as it did on other forms of violence against women. The present panel members were Samiya Bahir & Lisa Suhair Majaj, while absent members Melanie Graham & Robin Coste Lewis were represented by Kim reading their poems. Among the poems read by Lisa were sad poems about escaping Beirut during the fighting, “Good-Bye” & “Asphodels.” Samiya’s poem “Transparent to Invisible Life” was about family trip to Kenya to visit family members who had escaped the killing in Somalia; she also read sections from a longer piece where the clit is on trial, “Clitagation.”

Perhaps the most compelling poem, the woman that elicited the most comments, was Melanie Graham’s “Many Happy Returns” where sections from a US Air Force guide for families of returning military personnel from war zones were poignantly juxtaposed with accounts of violence by ex-servicemen. Kin Jensen was also persuaded to read some of her poems, “Northward,” “The Mystery” (with its images of sequins & snowflakes) & “Shutdown.” It was the kind of panel that generated a lot of informal conversations afterwards, & exchanges of business cards.

[Just a word on the workshop/panel schedule so that you don’t get the wrong idea about the range of subjects: there were over 50 separate panels during the Festival & I attended 5. At any one time there were 6, or 7 or as many as 9 panels going on at once. To fully appreciate the range of subjects please check out the Split This Rock website for a full list of the events, as well as bios of each of the presenters. I did get to all the Featured Readings, but the late night open mics Thursday & Friday nights were just too much for this (aging) body; besides there are plenty of open mics where I come from.]

More photos can be found at my Flickr! site.

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