April 6, 2014

Split This Rock Poetry Festival, Saturday March 29 — Afternoon Featured Reading

2count ‘em: 2! — Featured Readings today! The first at 4:30, with Teri Cross Davis as the host, & the tribute poet Amiri Baraka (1934 - 2014), a recording of him humming (& me humming along) Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk” & a poem, & the line “we are the Blues ourselves…” oh yeah.

The opening reader was DC Youth Slam Team Member Lauren May, who read from the podium a simply-stated poem beginning “I’m stuck in the middle of the ocean…” about seeking peace, being scared of the unknown & escaping her mother’s anger. It was an emotional reading without Slam stylizing.

Eduardo Corral stated that he freely mixes untranslated Spanish with the English in his poems, & began with a poem in which he did just that, a poem about the many jobs his undocumented father had. From a series of poems each titled “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” he read one about being a gay man worried about death, & later ended the reading with a little poem with the same title. In between he read “Watermark,” a poem for his mother, & “Caballero” about a lover. He dedicated his reading tonight to the memory of poet José Montoya (1932 - 2013).

Gayle Danley gave the most performance performance of the evening beginning with an over-the-top piece about attending a high school reunion, telling the story as much like a stand-up comic as a poet. She is a former National Slam Champion from the ‘90s & can still strut her stuff. Next she read her poem in Poetry about having “The Talk” with her daughter. Then on to an emotional poem rich in detail, a thank-you list about her daughter’s suicide attempt, read from her notebook. She ended with a piece about teaching in a juvenile detention center, “I Am Just Like You.” It was a loud, energetic Slam performance but often laced with modern black stereotypes such as are common on TV sit-coms that left me uncomfortable.

In stark contrast Claudia Rankin’s reading showed how powerful good poems can be just in the power of the words themselves without all the spit & acting out. She read her 2 poems from the podium, almost hidden behind the massive wooden structure, her words ringing loud. The first piece was a meditation on life (“you fighting off the weight of non-existence…”) in a quiet, pared down language, using repetition, echoes & playing on “you.” The second piece was a cinematic montage of a black man being arrested after a traffic stop, the poem twisting & turning in on itself, a quietly read, but powerful commentary on racism.

Myra Sklarew is a Jewish research scientist turned poet, who began her reading with a brief tribute to Sarah Browning & the her work for Split This Rock. The first poem she read was written 16 years ago she said, but still is apt, on the new Millennium & the uselessness of war. Then she read about freeing a stag whose antlers got caught in branches (“Pursuit”) & another anti-war poem “Infinite Regress of War.” “Violation” was a poem in questions about rape, while “Safety in Our National Parks” was a funny & ironic comment on permitting guns in our National Parks. Her poem “Exchange” was about children in a Greek village teasing her by giving her the wrong names for things. She ended with Sterling Brown’s “After Winter.”

Another fabulous reading by 5 poets new to me before this Festival — & there were 2 more readings to go!  Stay tuned for the rest -- & check out other photos from Split This Rock Poetry Festival here.

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