March 27, 2008

"What I Did on My Spring Break":
Split this Rock Poetry Festival

["What are those numbers?" I asked. "They're not numbers, they are ages," said Nathaniel Siegel, the ages of the U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq. Outside Busboys & Poets.]

That is if I had a spring break -- I can't say enough good things about this event: a great gathering of poets/activists/teachers in Washington DC for Poems of Provocation & Witness. There are a lot of poets out there who mouth the easy cliches of "Bush bad, freedom good" but who have never been seen at demonstrations, vigils, actions -- this was not the place for them. The people here are the ones who make things happen. I took 22 pages of notes, there was a helpful, detailed 35 page program, I picked up some handouts, clipped some newspaper articles & bought some poetry books, but you really don't want to read 25 pages of commentary, so I'll try to hit some highlights & you can check out the website & the Washington Post story

The kick-off event on Thursday, March 20, was a reading by Sonia Sanchez at the headquarters for the festival, Busboys and Poets, a cafe & bookstore on 14th St NW at the corner of V St. -- check it out, & the entire U St. area, next time you're in DC. Sonia was the perfect elder to open the event -- the figure of the engaged, activist poet. Her poem, "Peace," is in the Beloit Poetry Journal chapbook, the kind of poem that on the page is like trying to read a musical chart, but in performance takes you along to where the poet wants you to be. You need to check out The editors are Saints Lee Sharkey & John Rosenwald.

There were some Albany connections early on. Kazim Ali was a student at SUNY Albany in the early '90s & read at the Albany Art Gallery on Jefferson St., now has a poetry collection & a novel out & I've been reading his essays in American Poetry Review. He co-led a workshop titled "Yogic Path to Poetry and Conscious Action" with Susan Brennan (I found when I got home 2 photos of her reading at the QE2 in 1990) & Jeff Davis, who does yoga workshops & other community events in the Woodstock area. I also attended a workshop later, "Off the Page and Into the Streets -- Reports from the Field," run by Susan and fellow Brooklynite Nathaniel Siegel. Nathaniel gave out samples of his "tokens," small paper objects with messages, like a picture of Gandhi, or a "Declaration of Interdependence." He is engaged with an art project that is stenciling the ages, in chronological order, of the US military killed in Irag.

The panel on "Poetry, Politics & the Rant" was right down my alley. The moderator, Jose Gouveia, who had done his PhD dissertation on rants was also a fellow biker-poet with Colorado T. Sky, a one-eyed Viet Nam vet, who cited Warren Zevon & gave one of the best metaphysical statements of the event: "you gotta die of something, but what matters is the kind of skid marks you leave on the way out." Also on the panel were Martin Espada & Alicia Ostriker. Espada gave a wonderful reading opening night & here gave some examples of "good" rants: Neruda's "General Franco in Hell" & his own "For the Jim Crow Restaurant in Cambridge MA ..." (he said you tell a rant is coming because the title is long). Ostriker was our Jewish mother, quoting her "older brother" Blake about why we are doing this: "... to encourage those who do." Yes! She referenced "Howl", June Jordan & Grace Paley. In the Q&A, a discussion developed about what was called the "war on content" & Alicia told the joke of the week: Q: what do you get when you cross a member of the Mafia with a Language Poet? A: a offer you can't understand.

I would be remise for not mentioning the workshop I attended with Sarah Massey, from Massey Media, on Media Skills: at other conferences such valuable information, advice, encouragement would have cost 4 to 5 time as much -- an invaluable fine-tuning tool -- thank you, Sarah.

I can't comment on, or even mention, every great poet I saw famous or otherwise, but will try to run quickly through the field: DC icon E. Ethelbert Miller the great-uncle of the DC Poets Against the War; Naomi Shihab Nye leaving everyone wanting a cookie after her poem "Gate A4." Bopping, pierced, everybody's lesbian daughter, Alix Olson (check out "Dear Diary" in the BPJ Chapbook). DJ Renegade aka Joel Dias-Porter, & on another night, Patricia Smith, seminal slam poets who read good poems well without the slam-poet posing, back when "performance poet" simply meant reading your poems well & not droning on with your voice rising at the end of each line -- no histrionics, no spastic hand gestures. Stephen Kuusisto, a DC poet who is visually impaired & read with the assistance of an earpiece plugged into his laptop, adding a new level of self-referential comment. Pamela Uschuk, Kenneth Carroll & Belle Waring were a couple of other poets I hadn't heard before, but was glad to be there for. Mark Doty is at lots of festivals but that is because everyone likes him, he can be sensitive & intense & shares the poets he likes. And Carolyn Forché was as beautiful as I've ever seen her, & moved us with "The Lost Suitcase," "The Museum of Stones" (in the BPJ) & the new poem, "What Comes" (she said, "to be exposed to the coming of what comes" as grand a statement about her recent health problems as anyone our age could make.)

[Reading poems by Lucille Clifton: Coleman Barks, Pamela Uschuk, Sarah Browning at mic, Belle Waring, March 22]

The closing reading on Easter Sunday was at an auditorium at George Washington University with a reading by Galway Kinnell & DC poet Naomi Ayala. Throughout the event there were gaps where scheduled poet had cancelled for health reasons: Sam Hamill, Lucille Clifton & Sharon Olds (Kinnell, in a moment of inadvertent pornography said Sharon had bronchitis & "we had to practically screw her down into her bed to keep her from coming"). So DC poet Naomi Ayala filled in admirably with a fine reading -- I regret not knowing her work, but will (Curbstone Press).

The last event was a silent peace march to Lafayette Park across from the White House for a "cento" (as explained by Sarah Browning, meaning "patchwork"), a group poem where each person could read one line of no more than 12 words. At some point this may be up on the website. I doubt that George or Laura were listening or watching, but somebody was as evidenced by the antennas & cameras mounted on the roof of the White House.

During the festival there were a couple of open mics run by Regie Cabico but they were marred by in-group early signups & late insertions of buddy poets. But that was about the only negative thing I can cite from the festival.

I must commend the festival organizers for a wonderful, fruitful, inspiring experience. I regret that I never found a chance to tell Sarah Browning how beautiful she is but I expect she know that. Melissa Tuckey gave me her chapbook (from Pudding House Press) & Jaime Jarvis was always there. I kept bumping into Yael Flusberg, a curly yogini.

And then there were the poetry friends from elsewhere, & the new friends who just happened to sit down at my table, or next to me at the bar, or those who just exchanged smiles, or notes, or advice or directions. See you on the line.