May 22, 2018

NYS Writers Institute: David Tomas Martinez, May 1


There is a new regime at the NYS Writers’ Institute & while they continue to bring world-class writers to UAlbany they are reaching deeper into our own writing community to bring the talents there to the audiences that attend these free events. Tonight’s reading by prize-winning poet David Tomas Martinez was the next-to-last in the semester’s (& season’s) impressive lineup.

Courtney Galligan
Mark Koplik, the Writers Institute’s Assistant Director, introduced a string of Albany students to perform their own spoken word poetry before introducing the featured poet. The student readers were Alicia Bonnard reading the autobiographical “Stardust;” Maggie Gorman with the memoir “Grandpa;” Fetuma Diello read “Sin;” Ivy Portes' piece was the grim “Maggots;” Courtney Galligan, the managing editor of Compendium, read “The Pain of Childbirth;” Destiny Brown’s untitled piece quotes the murdered Eric Garner “I can’t breathe;” Amy Savage was invited up from the audience to read an excerpt from a story on bonobos in a lab experiment; & Laurin Jefferson said she introduced using her “government name,” her writing name is Laurin DeChae, & read “That Black Light is So Cliché.”

Under most circumstances that in itself would have been a excellent program, but the featured poet David Tomas Martinez was next, introduced by UAlbany professor Michael Leung. Martinez started with 2 pieces from his 2014 book Hustle, reading a section from the poem “Calaveras” a childhood story from when he was in school, & “The Only Mexican” about “baby-sitting” his Grandpa. Then on to his just-published Post Traumatic Hood Disorder, “They Call Him Scarface Because He’s Sad” with gang members reading Nietzsche, “Fractal” on marriage & drinking, selections from “Found Fragment on Ambition,” & “And Three” on minorities in lit class, a dictionary as a Bible, & becoming a poet. From there he went on to read 2 new poems: “Distract” which he said was the first time he had read it out, with intricate wordplay on the names of rappers, & a “A Letter from DTM for Matthew Oldman” a friend.

I for one am looking forward to the new season of the NYS Writers Institute, particularly if they continue under the Directorship of Paul Grondahl to bring in local writers to share the stage with the A-list writers that the Writers Institute is renowned for bringing in to our community. Check out their website & support the good work they do.

[Note: I recognize that I may not have gotten the spelling correct for all the names of the student readers; corrections are welcome & may be noted in the comments section of this Blog, from which I will make corrections to the text.]

Poets Speak Loud!, April 30


Fresh from the poetic intensity of Split This Rock I was glad to be back at the poetry venues I am used to, among the poets I enjoy, hearing their poems, & back at McGeary’s on the last Monday with Mary Panza keeping it real, or thereabouts.

I was first up for the open mic & read my homage “Golden Shovel for Split This Rock,” then, still on the poetry theme, “Dot Dot Dot” (the ellipsis poem). Joe Krausman’s poems were inspired by what he read in the morning papers, “Sunny Side Up” & “Lawrence Pope” about a former bank president who became a bank robber. Bob Sharkey read about the fairies on “Surrey Hill,” then a poem, “Siege,” influenced by one submitted to the DiBiase Contest reading.

The next poet has been reading out as G. Douglas Davis IV but was introduced as we once knew him D. Alexander Holiday; his first poem was a series of questions allegedly put before Donald Trump before he was President, them a poem on the trial of Bill Crosby as a long letter, “Poem for Camille Following the Conviction.” Julie Lomoe’s poem “Jigsaw Puzzles” can be found online on her website. Robb Smith read one of his salacious grannie-porn stories, this about retirees partying at a casino.

The night’s featured poet was Melody Davis who began with her latest book One Ground Beetle: A Year in Haiku (Bad Cat Press, 2017), with prints by Harold Lohner. It was Show & Tell with Melody reading a haiku or two, then holding up the book to show the colorful print on the facing page. There were haiku on, of course, trees, clouds, birds, round stones, but also on Albany & on meetings. Then on to her 2013 collection of poems Holding the Curve (Broadstone Books), reading the ekphrastic “Caillebotte’s Laundry,” “Walter, the Lawyer,” the villanelle “It Only Starts,” & “Jasmine Boy, Cairo.” She finished up with a “new/old poem” about having hors d’oeuvres at the top of the World Trade Center, & a poem for a trapeze artist, “8 Different Ways to Fall.” A pleasant reading of richly varied poems.

Back to the open mic, stalwart Sylvia Barnard read John Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to introduce her own poem based on a text from ancient Greek that she teaches, “The Owl on the Water Jug.” Shannon Shoemaker tried out a poem-in-progress (isn’t that what open mic are for?) “Straight Girl Blues.”

Annie Sauter read a couple of poems from a recent run of 30/30 (30 poems in 30 days), the first an alliterative hippie fantasy/portrait of a girl on a bus, then a poem about rain “Late Night in Central New York.” Next a trio of new readers, the first “virgin” Meghan who read a sad love story “Answers to the Question You Were Afraid to Ask.” Ava read a description of herself in images of food “Lemon Juice.”

Olivia read a short piece that could have been an response to Meghan's poem, “Questions I Wanted to Ask.” Sally Rhoades, no stranger to the local open mics, read a birthday poem “I Blew Out the Candles” a childhood memoir, then one about a memorial to World War II dead in the Netherlands. Karen Fabiane had also recently done a 30/30, read a poem to a musician friend “Wise Beyond Her Years,” & “Even This.” Tim Verhaegen read a story in progress, a sad autobiographical piece about the love of is life.

As so often happens when Poets Speak Loud! at McGeary’s on the last Monday of the month, a wonderful mixed bag of poets & poetry.




May 21, 2018

GOLDEN SHOVEL for SPLIT THIS ROCK 2008 to 2018 -- & Beyond



It’s Poems of Provocation & Witness Sarah & Melissa tells us, asks: Don’t

you want to join this poetic intervention in the public space? where you

sweat in morning yoga with Kazim, with Susan, with Yael the curly yogini, hear

poets you’ve only read, see poets you’ve never seen before, hear this

conscience of poetry Sister Sonia chant, I say Peace is my Hammer

poetry is a verb, Money’s not speech, Centos bounce off the pillars of power, ring

the bells of Congress, the White House, then love bombs I’m

dropping on Dupont Circle with Kelsey, John, Melissa, Martha, Katie & Sunu, gonna

be in 3 places at once to hear biker poets, professors, street poets, split

myself to hear Carolyn, Alice as if she were President, & share Naomi’s cookies, this

is how we leap from insight to the poem, how we buzzz with Tiffany’s bees, rock

with Regie wrapped in his boa, snap with the DC slam poets, and

worker poets, the poetic army of staff & volunteers, even poets who have split

to the beyond: June Jordan, Paul Weinman, Mahmoud Darwish, Jayne Cortez it

is always that there are more dead each year, gathered in words & photos wide

angle, close up from Jill in torn jeans & Kristen, & new tee-shirts when

we arrive from Susan, Jaime, I look for Greg, Sonja, mark my program & I

find old poets I never knew, new voices in print on stage, make River Flags, split

time for listening, find Nathaniel’s wall numbers, hear Martin say this

is a rant, because the title is long, these words meant not to rock

us to sleep but to shake us loose, disrupt Joe says, the old story, shout, stand

& applaud, hear Anne urge find projects to inspire, don’t be paralyzed by

the problem, Ocean: every poem a new beginning, Jennifer: my

whole life is a political poem — hammering with Langston by our side.



(The idea for this poem came at the 2016 Split This Rock from a workshop on the new poetic form invented by Terrance Hayes "golden shovel" & it was completed late in 2017.  The line of poetry which the end words form is from the Langston Hughes poem, "Big Buddy," from which the Split This Rock festival gets its name.)

May 20, 2018

Split This Rock, Part 8 — Saturday: Evening Reading, April 21


This was the final reading in this, again, fabulous festival of Poems of Provocation & Witness. Tonight’s hosts were Sarah Browning, who is stepping down as the Executive Director of Split This Rock, & Joseph Green, Director of Youth Programs, with Sarah doing a string of “thanks” & then paying tribute to the late Sam Hamill by playing a recording of him reading one of his poems (it was supposed to be “True Peace” but unexpectedly not, although that poem was read early in the festival at the tribute to the gone poets gathering).


The DC Youth Poet was Aniyah Smith who did a moving tribute to her Cuban grandmother, with some lines sung in Spanish, yet another stunning poem by a young poet in the DC Youth poetry program.


Keno Evol was the 2017 winner of the Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest, & he read his winning poem “on meeting a brother for the first time” on police violence & shootings in Chicago.

The first of the 3 featured readers was Paul Tran, resplendent in a white gown, who began with a family memoir “Elegy with My Mother’s Lipstick,” then read from a new series titled “Chrome,” which Paul introduced by saying “these poems are trash but thank you for being here,” poems about his Viet Namese family, a father who had molested them, trying to find a language for what we can’t describe. A poem about being at the Viet Nam memorial, “Facing My Reflection…” was inspired by a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa. Paul also read again the poem printed in Poetry, “Scientific Method,” & ended with a poem using the myths of Eve & Philomena “Against Redemption.”

Not only did Ilya Kaminsky have handouts of the 2 poems he read but they were projected on a screen behind him which I preferred to read from so I could watch the poet at the same time. He explained that it was because of his heavy Russian accent. The first poem was “We Lived Happily During the War” the shorter of the two. Then on to “Music Humana” an elegy for the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, described as:
"A modern Orpheus: sent to hell, he never returned, while his widow searched across one sixth of the earth’s surface, clutching the saucepan with his songs rolled up inside, memorizing them by night in case they were found by Furies with a search warrant."
It is a long poem, the equivalent of 8 printed book pages, rich in images from history, Russian poets & politics, read in a singing/chant adding even more magic to the words.

To top off 10 years of Split This Rock, in a neat bit of symmetry, the last reader was Sister Sonia Sanchez, who had kicked off the 1st Split This Rock reading standing on a table at Bus Boys & Poets. She is a mesmerizing performer, not just of her poems but of her stories, fables, not a preacher, but an Elder sharing the wisdom of her lived-life, as she said as she began, “I put everything in our youth…” because they continue what we & others have done. Jazz infuses her work, as in the blues sermon “Belly, Buttocks, & Straight Spines” for the work of a New York City artist, & the scat singing of her “10 Haiku for Max Roach” (she takes Haiku to a new, urban level full of the history of Black America & nary a frog to be found). Then read from “Sister’s Voice,” a long poem in rime royale (of all possible forms) to tell the story of her family in the musical voice of ancestors, her brother’s voice, that of her father, her mother, filling in the narrative with summaries between sections of the poem.

D. Vera, R. Cabico, S. Scheid, S. Browning, J Green
But it was not quite over. At almost the moment I first arrived at this year’s Split This Rock I was accosted by Susan Scheid & was asked to write a short love letter to Sarah to present to her with others tonight. Sarah was surprised by not only some folks on the stage honoring her role in creating Split This Rock with Melissa Tuckey but others like myself leaping on stage from the audience to thank her. My poem was


Sarah, Sarah
you brought us
all together —
like words forever linked
in the silken weave
of poems.

After all this, all these days, there was a late-night 10th Anniversary Party, with DJ Mane Squeeze, & a cash bar, & I was still meeting new people I haven’t met before. But this old poet was so full of these 3 days I needed to get back to the streets of DC, let the memory of the words & spirit & images soak in.

It will be a long 2 years until the next Split This Rock!

May 17, 2018

Split This Rock, Part 7 — Saturday: Afternoon Reading, April 21


The final day of Split This Rock ended with 2 featured readings, one in the afternoon & one later in the evening, & each deserve their own report. The afternoon readings were hosted by Clint Smith & Franny Choi, whom I remember from her electric performance at STR 2016. To begin they played a recording of the late Adrienne Rich reading one of her poems, with the prophetic line, “everything we write will be used against us…”

The DC Youth Poet was Kenny Carroll who performed a love poem, a memory of a brother, “back when something was good…” a tender, moving performance.

The first of the featured poets was Terisa Siagatonu, a National Slam finalist, Slam coach & mental health advocate, who taught us the correct pronunciation of "Samoa."  She read her contrapuntal poem in three columns, “Moana Means Home,” printed in the Split This Rock section in the April Poetry magazine. “Congregation” was a discursive, narrative piece about an aunt who died, & her grandfather, then on to a couple of environmental poems (she had been at the Paris Climate Conference in defense of Samoa), “The Day After American Samoa Was Underwater” which had been a Split This Rock “Poem of the Week”, & another from Poetry “Atlas.” She finished up with a piece dedicated to the youth open mic poets, a poem using a phrase from Lucille Clifton, “I’m still alive...” as a repeated refrain.

Kazim Ali also began with a poem from Poetry, the opening section of “The Voice of Sheila Chandra” inspired by the singer who has lost her voice, then the autobiographical (many of his poems are “personal” or spring from incidents in his life), “Origin Story,” then “John,” “Drone,” & “Check Point” (at each of which he gives a different response, making the personal political). “Inquisition” used a sex memoir to delve into history & violence. His poem titled Yannis Ritsos was not just about the Greek poet, but also referenced Mahmoud Darwish & Fadi Joudah. He ended with a poem he had read earlier in the festival, “Golden Boy,” & hearing it again I could appreciate more the intricacies of the weaving lines & the puns.

I had seen Ellen Bass at couple of the panels that I attended earlier in the festival; another thing that I like about Split This Rock is that the “stars” are often in the audience of the different sessions. Her poems are like story telling, or essays. She began with “Taking Off the Front of the House,” a humorous take on the everyday where she & her partner are like on a stage in their own house. A poem “Indigo” for her daughter began with a description of jogger, then imagined an alternative life. “God’s Grief" was a litany, while “Bearing Witness” came out of her experience working with victims of child sexual abuse. She also read the 2 Langston Hughes poems titled “Island,” & ended with “Jubilato Homo” taking the form from Jonathan Swift to write about transgender folk.

While sufficient unto itself this reading also served as a prelude to the finale of the festival, the reading later in the evening. So I wandered off to find The Pig, a pork-themed restaurant, for a quiet dinner.

May 15, 2018

Split This Rock, Part 6 — Saturday: Book Fair & Panel, April 21


When I arrived back at the National Housing Center Atrium this morning the Split This Rock Social Change Book Fair was in progress, 20 plus small presses were tabling. The last thing I need is more (unread) books on my coffee table, night stand, the table next to my reading chair, my dresser, you get the point. But as Oscar Wilde famously said, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it” — I picked up a couple of free-bees, bought an edgy zine from Melanationzine.com, &  books by Dan Vera & Sister Sonia from the Busboys & Poets store. Saw Albany poet Dawn Marar struggling with the same book-addiction demons.

Then I zeroed in on the panel/reading/discussion Poet’s Forum: How Political Engagement Affects the Writing Process, presented in partnership with the Poetry Foundation & Poetry magazine. As I think I already said, I had read received & read the April Poetry magazine with its special Split This Rock section before coming to the Festival & was looking forward to hearing the poets read their work & to listening to them talk about it. The panel, held at the Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives Memorial Hall, was moderated by the ever-present (& ever-lovely) Sarah Browning & by Lindsay Garbutt from Poetry magazine. Some of the poets I had already heard read & some I would see & hear again — it was like a gathering of the tribe, including the audience in that term.


Sherwin Bitsui read the selections from Dissolve that were printed in Poetry, rich images glistening from the natural world with “Scalp blood” & “pierced cloud” “crackling in the past tense.”


Sharon Olds read the very NYC “Poem Which Talks Back to Itself” (for Etan Paltz), & “How It Felt” looking back to being 12 years old, both from Poetry.


Paul Tran was certainly the most colorfully dressed, in a bright red dress with black lace trim; they read from Poetry the poem “Scientific Method,” written in the voice of a laboratory monkey.


I remember Sister Sonia Sanchez in a red beret starting off the 1st Split This Rock reading from a table top at Busboys & Poets, & 10 years later her energy was just as inspiring, reading her “Haiku & Tanka for Harriet Tubman” from the April Poetry, using the printed text like chord changes for a jazz tune, repeating lines, titles, singing, clicking & popping — when I grow up I want to read like her.

What followed was a lively back & forth with the panelists, moderated by Lindsay Garbutt, Associate Editor of Poetry, who asked about the politics in the poems coming in to the family thru the mothers. Paul talked about using English as a weapon. Sister Sonia commented that she never knew her mother, that she was raised by her grandmother in Alabama.

Sarah remarked that History is very recent. Sister Sonia said people do change, as time goes on, we do move forward.

Sharon talked about learning about rhythm & dance from inside the mother.

I was most comforted by Sister Sonia’s reply to a question from the audience about struggling to write, that we’re always writing, it’s just not always on paper (I often talk about my writing process being one of composting, or percolating, until the words burst forth on the page).

I was struck by the serious tone of the conversation, but a tone different from the discussion of academics & the vaunting of the role of the “Poet,” here the seriousness was about the issues & the work before us, so very Split This Rock.

May 12, 2018

Split This Rock, Part 5 — Friday Featured Reading, April 20


Back in the National Housing Center Auditorium for the night’s featured reading, with the co-hosts Sarah Browning & Katie Richey who is the host of the Split This Rock regular series Sunday Kind of Love. The reading began with a recording of gone poet Galway Kinnell reading his poem “St. Francis & the Sow.” & again a one of the DC Youth Poets set the fire under the audience, Mary Camara with an autobiographical “History Thru the Grades.” What a thrill it must be for these young poets to have their moment on the stage with this audience of activists & poets.

Again, all the featured poets were featured in the April Poetry magazine special section on Split This Rock. The first to read was Solmaz Sharif who began with the title poem from her 2016 Greywolf Press book LOOK, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, on military drones & naming, then another on war & death “Defender’s Immediate Family.” My favorite one she read was titled “Social Skills Training” which dealt with how we modify our behavior in the face of power, a similar poem was a conversation with a psychologist on violence & our reactions to it, & her poem from Poetry, “The Master’s House,” was another on the theme of power & violence.

Sherwin Bitsui had read at the NYS Writers Institute back in February 2016, where I was first introduced to his work.  He writes long poems, steeped in his native culture (he is Diné of the Tódi’chii’nii clan & is born for the Tlizillani’ clan). He began with an introduction in his native language, then a long, descriptive section from Flood Song (Copper Canyon). Then he read from a new work, Dissolve, coming out in October, another long piece, richly descriptive, with vivid, sometimes surreal images, including the marvelous phrase “to window the past … to door the future.” The poems were deeply connected to his family, his ancestors & the land upon which they live(d).

Elizabeth Avecedo, from NYC, had been the coach of the Split This Rock DC Youth Slam team in the past, & a National Slam Champion. As a result she was the most performative of the night’s readers. Her pieces were fiercely political, often drawing inspiration from pop culture, such as the poem titled “Self-Portrait of Eve as Cardi B.” or “One-Sided Conversation with Sosa” (as in the major league right fielder Sammy Sosa). Other social-justice themed poems were “Rat Ode,” “Iron” (on the bullet in a shooting), & a poem about teaching creative writing at a detention center. She is also the author of a young adult novel in verse The Poet X (Harper Collins, 2018) from which she read excerpts.

Kwame Dawes was the senior member of tonight’s reading, a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, editor at Prairie Schooner, author of over 30 books. He read in his marvelous deep, accented voice, a series of poems with similar titles, “Sometimes…” as in “Sometimes Prophesy,” “Sometimes a Poem,” (the one exception being “Crossroads” which was a response to August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences).  He continued with “Sometimes Death,” “Sometimes Reparations” (violence), “What God Says Sometimes Mercy” in the wife’s voice), “Sometimes Revelation” (a lynching), & for his wife “Sometimes Love.”

While these readings are part of the Festival, they are also free & open to the public -- what a great gift of poetry to the DC community from Split This Rock.




May 7, 2018

Split This Rock — Friday Panels, April 20


Back to the National Housing Center Auditorium for a panel titled Don’t You Hear This Hammer Ring? Stories from Split This Rock’s Founding, with Sarah Browning, Melissa Tuckey, Regie Cabico & moderated by Tope Folarin. Fortunately, this session was videotaped, because you can’t rely on me for a full report, I was so enthralled to hear these folks talk. Also there is a brief, informative summary of the history of Split This Rock in the program. Regarding the origins of STR in 2006, it says,
DC-area poet-activists — led by Sarah Browning, Melissa Tuckey, and Regie Cabico from DC Poets Against the War & Sol y Soul — began to imagine a national gathering, based in part on the overwhelming response from poets to calls for participation in national anti-war marches. They formed a festival coordinating committee, chose the date for the event — to coincide with the 5th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2008 — & found the name “Split This Rock” in the poem “Big Buddy” by Langston Hughes.
Organizing continued into 2007, including publicizing the upcoming festival at the AWP conference that year. Sarah noted that every poet they invited to feature at the inaugural 2008 festival said yes, 26 poets were featured, at a point where they had no money yet, & even a month before the start there were no venues. Over 250 poets & activists attended the festival in March 2008. The response was so positive that planning was started for a 2nd festival, as well as broadening the organization to one dedicated to the promotion of social justice poetry, not just the festivals. Sarah noted that Adrienne Rich was one of the poets invited to feature at the 2008 festival, but she was unable to attend. However, she made a generous donation to STR & threw her support behind it.

Each of the panelists also made a short list of poets who have inspired them in this project, & read a poem, admitting, as to be expected, that there was a lot of cross-over of their inspirations. Sarah mentioned Martin Espada, Lucille Clifton, & Sam Hamill, & read Naomi Shihab Nye’s “A Dictionary in the Dark.” Melissa’s poets were June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, & Lucille Clifton, & read Clifton’s “Blessing the Boats.” Regie talked about Essex Hemphill, his poem “American Wedding,” Sandra Cisneros, & read Joy Harjo’s “Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit.”

As a result of the Split This Rock festival I eventually brought both Sarah Browning & Melissa Tuckey to Albany for Poets in the Park, & met other wonderful poets, such as Karen Skolfield who read twice in Albany, Susan Brennan who also read, & more that I will try to get here in the future. & the festival has constantly reinforced my commitment to both the art of poetry & the necessity of activism.

Poetry of Praise: Reclaiming Religion and Spirituality for the Resistance was a panel held at the Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives Memorial Hall on 17th St. I chose this over others mainly because I like to think of myself as a spiritual, yet anti-religious, person (as a “Buddhist Anarchist Church-burner” as I’ve been wont to say).

Sunu P. Chandy
Ayari Aguayo-Ceribo served as moderator as well as participant, & explained that each of the participants were invited to write a new poem for this panel. She began with 2 poems, “Prison” about taking down the (various) systems of oppression, then another “We pray to you…” mixing Spanish & English.

Kazim Ali read his poem “Golden Boy” & talked about growing up in a remote Canadian town, being smart, & different.

Rose Berger
Rose Berger referenced both Ovid & the Psalms in her poem “On the phone with My Mother Saturday Morning.” Sunu Chandry’s gentle poem brought together walking in New York City & a woman at a yoga center with the memory of a childhood trip to India. Letta Neely began with a singing a spiritual then into an angry poem proclaiming “We who believe in Freedom cannot rest.” Temin Fruchter read “Prayer for Growing Closer” & “Prayer After Going to Poland.” Marie Varghese told the story of her family founding an Indian Christian church in New York City & read “Sunday Confessionals.”

Temin Fruchter
These stories & poems were often about the conflict between the family religions that the poets grew up in, & that they often still value, & their own emerging sexual/gender identity, in the constant conflict between established religions & the individual’s spirituality not bound by any one set of religious beliefs.

Letta Neely, Marie Varghese, Kazim Ali
In the questions that followed, Kazim Ali commented that we’re all inventing our ancestry, especially for the LGBTQ community. This was also brought out by the poems by others that these poets read, including Ayari Aguayo-Ceribo reading a long celebration by a friend about being queer, Marie Varghese’s list poem by her sister, & others, including poems by Fanny Howe, Joy Harjo, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, & Naomi Shihab Nye.

While I anticipated enjoying this panel discussion I was pleased with the unexpected directions to which the poems & conversation took me, & the cultural/spiritual diversity in which this took place. I guess this is why I keep coming back to this festival.


May 2, 2018

Split This Rock — Friday Action, April 20


At each Split This Rock festival there is a political action at one of the branches of government. Over the years we have been at them all, but most often at the White House -- after all it is the most stinky seat of power. This Friday morning we were back in Lafayette Park across from the White House on the day of a student walkout to commemorate the shootings in Columbine, CO 19 years ago today. We take our inspiration from the students & Split This Rock organized Louder Than a Gun: a Poem for Our Lives.

A stage was set up but due to regulations there was no step to get up on the stage so a willing stage hand lent a, well, a hand to each of us. A Cento is a poem composed of lines from other poems, each reader was asked to read a line of no more than 12 words on the theme of ending gun violence, either their own or by someone else, the lines gathered by a volunteer, & the finished Cento to be posted on the STR website.

We took our turns on the stage, then joined students who were gathering nearby in the park. After brief speeches, the students laid down on the grass under the trees, or sat & held each other for 19 minutes of silence for the years since Columbine & all the dead students since then.

There are no famous poets here, just the students, rising up, creating change. Which is what Split This Rock fosters.

May 1, 2018

Split This Rock — Thursday Reading, April 19


The evening readings at Split This Rock are open free to the public & are the only events where all the conference attendees gather together. Danez Smith (member of the STR Board of Directors) & Dan Vera (one of the planners of this year’s festival) had fun hosting the night’s reading.

Another feature of the readings is the inclusion of a poet from the DC Youth Slam Team & tonight Dani Miller wowed us with a poem that listed all the reasons why she was tired of writing poems on oppression (aren't we all!).

Each year, whether or not it is a festival year, Split This Rock hosts what is now called the Sonia Sanchez - Langston Hughes Poetry Contest & the winner gets to read at the featured reading. The 2018 winner of the contest was Jonathan Mendoza who read his winning poem “Osmosis” that begins with a description of the death of Prudencia Martín Gómez, who came from Guatemala & was trying to cross into California, the poem playing on water & “ICE.”

Another tradition is to play a recording of one of the gone poets & tonight it was of the Central American poet Claribel Algería, a great activist as well.

The first of the featured poets was Camille T. Dungy who began with an anti-war poem from 2003 “Daisy Cutter” (the deadly anti-personnel bomb), then one of her poems from the Split This Rock section in the April issue of Poetry “this beginning may have always meant this end.” In her poem “What We Know I Cannot Say” she thinks about the trees after the fires in the West, while “On Angel Island Immigration Station” dealt with the incarceration of immigrants here. She ended with 2 poems about children, “Frequently Asked Question #7” (on a plane with children) & a poem about her 1st year of having a child, life as a mother, poet & activist.

Javier Zamora’s poems were about being an immigrant, he having crossed the border in 1999. He began with “To Abuela Nellie,” later also a poem for his grandfather, & in between “2nd Attempt Crossing, for Chino.” He wrote about the homeless in Nogales, “Citizenship,” & a medical exam “Doctor’s Office 1st Week in this Country.” He ended with “Instructions for My Funeral.” He too has poems in the April Poetry.

Sharon Olds had been scheduled to read at the 1st Split This Rock, but she had had to cancel, & how here she is 10 years later. She also had poems in Poetry but saved a reading of one of them for later in the festival. Tonight she read from her 2016 book Odes, beginning with a poem inspired by the poet Evie Shockley “Ode to Whiteness.” Then on to some wonderfully sexy, titillating, but also tender, poems “Ode to the Hymen,” “Ode to the Clitoris,” & “Ode to the Penis,” with “Amaryllis Ode” tossed in. She ended with “For You” a poem that begins quietly enough describing her morning tray with coffee, her phone, then a bird outside, a martin, leads her to think of Trayvon Martin, everything is connected.

I could have left & come back to Albany at the end of the 1st day of Split This Rock, I felt so filled with the spirit of the festival, but there were 2 more days to come, I had to stick around.

April 29, 2018

Split This Rock, Thursday Workshops, April 19


It’s like returning home. Split This Rock Poetry Festival happens every other year & I look forward to it, but this year it fell exactly during Albany’s WordFest, including the Third Thursday Poetry Night that I host, but I had to be here. It was the 10th year of this festival of “provocation & witness,” & I’ve been to all of them.

As soon as I walked in to this year’s site for the festival at the National Housing Center, I saw folks I know & cherish from past festivals, Melissa Tuckey, Yael Flusberg & Susan Scheid, & lo & behold! another Albany poet, Dawn Marar. I settled in with the program booklet to plan my time, but this year I had already picked out possible workshops & panels on the new Split This Rock! mobile app. Each day there were 3 sessions with anywhere from 5 to 8 possible places to be for any session, on a variety of poetic/social justice topics. It is exhilaratingly over-whelming.

Tributes to Poets Lost since Split This Rock 2016 was my first stop, & it was hosted by Sarah Browning, STR Executive Director. She set the tone with a line from gone poet Monica Hand “We are like Lucille trouble in the waters can’t kill us,” written on the white-board, Monica one of the “poets lost,” the Lucille being Lucille Clifton.  It was an informal gathering, with folks speaking up as the spirit moved them, including reading poems by the gone poets. Sarah, Ann Arbor, Ellen Bass & John Rosenwald did a group reading of Ursula Le Guin’s “Fragments from the Women’s Writing,” others read poems by Monica Hand, & Sam Hamill’s “True Peace.” Sam had just died last week & didn’t make the list of gone poets in the festival program.

I was also shocked & saddened to hear from Ellen Bass that the NYC poet Jackie Sheeler had died, at the end of March as I found out later. Jackie had featured at the Third Thursday Poetry Night at the Social Justice Center in Albany in February 2011. Among the other poets mentioned in the workshop, from the sadly extensive list in the program, were Claribel Alegria, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Mari Evans, Zahara Heckscher, Lucia Perillo, & Derek Walcott. Another mentioned was peace activist Mary Helen Snyder. I paid tribute to Gerrit Lansing by reciting his line, “All things go underground with glee.”


Ghost Fishing Book Launch: Reading & Discussion
Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology (The University of Georgia Press) was just released, said to be “the first anthology to focus solely on poetry with an eco-justice bent.” It is edited by STR co-founder Melissa Tuckey. This session included 10 readers from the anthology,

Camille Dungy, “A Massive Dying Off;” Elizabeth Jacobson, “Almonds;” Purvi Shah, “After 2/3 of a Village is Papua New Guinea Is Decimated by Natural Disaster;”

Javier Zamora, “Saguaros;” Nancy K. Pearson, “Brazos Bend;” Katy Richey, “Recovery;” Tiffany Higgins, “Dance, Dance, While the Hive Collapses;” Gretchen Primack, “The Dogs and I Walked Our Woods;” Danez Smith, “summer, somewhere (excerpt);” & Melissa Tuckey, “Requiem.” My poem “Water” is also included in the anthology, although I wasn’t one of the readers. Get your copy through your independent bookstore.


Translators as Activists, Curators, and Cultural Interpreters
While I haven’t done any serious translations, I read a lot of writers who have been translated into English (& a recent Writers Institute reading by Rosa Alice Branco with her translator Alexis Levitin raised issues about moving a poem from one language to another). Katherine Young was the panel moderator; each of the panel members gave a prepared presentation on the project(s) they were working on, then the discussion opened up for the audience, which focused on gender bias among scholars & translators, about controversy over revelations about revered poets, & the necessity of translators providing cultural context to their subject’s work.

Francisco Aragón talked about the controversial revelation of letters he translated indicating that the beloved Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton was gay, or at least had a homosexual relationship. Aviya Kushner talked about translating the work of a working-class poet writing in Hebrew. Olga Livshin described the relationship of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova & the artist Olga Glebova Sudeikina, based on translating Akhmatova’s poetry. Finally, Ilya Kaminsky talked about translating poets as varied as Lyuba Yakimchuk, Paul Clean, & Venus Khoury Ghata.

A full start to the first day of Split This Rock 2018, with the evenings readings to follow.


April 27, 2018

Albany WordFest — A Night of Features, April 16


This was the only one of the week-long WordFest that I would get to, since I spent the rest of the week in DC for the semi-annual Split This Rock Poetry Festival. But this was a great way to start the week, with a cross-section of local writers here at the Hudson River Coffee House. Brian Dorn was our gracious host.

Not all the readers had arrived yet, but it was time to start. Harvey Havel read from his just released novel Mr. Big, a sports thriller about an injured football player & corruption in the NFL.

Joe Krausman read a string of short, sometimes rhyming, often funny poems, many on the theme of aging, such as “Losing It” (on forgetting), & “I Got Arythmia.” Some of his poems were inspired by stories in the newspapers, others by as ordinary things as bacon & eggs, or walking down the canyons of New York City streets. In “Picture at the Shaker Museum” he ponders the irony of the cult’s religious rules being the demise of the cult itself, & the poem “Limitations” was about the dilemma of making choices.

Danielle Pouliot was the one poet here tonight that I hadn’t heard read previously. She began with a tour-de-force “Punctuation-a-thon” then the buzzing “Barehanded Beekeeping.” For some reason she felt it necessary to say that her poem “What I Was Taught as a Girl Growing Up” was “not feminism” while it depicted the experience of many young girls growing up confronted by a patriarchal society.

This is exactly the topic that Liv McKee works so well on. By way of intro she sang her way into her anthem of poetry, then jumped into poems from her self-published/DIY chapbooks, poems full of women with honey dripping from their teeth, childhood memories in a synagogue, a trip to Palestine, Stormy Daniels & sex workers. Sprinkled in & about were haiku on sex & politics, a poem on sexual assault, & she ended with her satirical “Letter to the Hippy Man…”. She can be somewhat preachy but she gets her message across.

Speaking of which, some have called Poetyc Visionz “the Preacher of Positivity.” His first piece was an homage to Prince, & to performers & their audiences. Then on to familiar pieces such as his “9th cloud” piece & the 7 chakras. He puts himself out as as one of those personal development motivational speakers, spinning off images from pop etymologies, weaving in black history & apparent African proverbs. He also spun in a few haiku. He ended with a new piece on dreams & reality & the Disney super-hero myth of Watanga.

& WordFest was off & running. A Night of Features occurs even when it is not WordFest (or National Poetry Month) on an irregular basis at the Hudson River Coffee House on Quail St., in Albany, NY.