March 31, 2014

Split This Rock Poetry Festival, Thursday March 27 — Workshops/Panels

I’ve been going to this fabulous biennial festival since the first one in March 2008 & have enjoyed every exhausting minute. And as I checked my email this morning before heading out from the Harrington Hotel, I got my morning poem from A Year of Being Here, “Gate 4-A” by Naomi Shihab Nye, a piece I heard her read here at Split This Rock in one of the past festivals — what better omen for the next few days!

I walked up through a cold DC morning to the Human Rights Campaign Equality Forum on Rhode Island Ave., Split This Rock’s headquarters for the festival, a new location after years of being in the U Street neighborhood. I picked up my name tag & tee-shirt, said hello to old friends, like Susan Scheid, Kasim Ali & Sarah Browning, met the new official Festival photographer Kristen Adair, & headed off to my first workshop in the historic Charles Sumner School.

Crossing the Boundaries of the Self: Writing Through Other’s Stories

Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives
The panel was moderated by Kyle Dargan. The first speaker was Yvette Neisser-Moreno who began with a poem about a Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki, a victim of Hiroshima who struggled to make a thousand paper cranes. Yvette said that she had read 2 books & did other research to write this one short poem. But “that’s my gain,” she said. Her 2nd poem was titled “So This is How they Decided to Take Him,” about an 80-year old man kidnapped in Mexico, a friend’s grandfather. In contrast to her earlier poem, she said that she had little facts, did not know the man, & what information she didn’t have she made up.

Joseph Ross, Travis Roberts, Yvette Neisser-Moreno, Kyle Dargan
Joseph Ross first read what he described as “a love poem to David Cato,” who was a gay activist murdered in Uganda, then a poem about the mother of Emmet Till who decided to show his badly beaten body at his funeral. Joe emphasized that he didn’t know David Cato & that he, obviously, was neither black nor a woman, but said that in writing such poetry of bearing witness he was “acknowledging our inter-connectedness,” that such writing “disrupts the dominant narrative.”

Travis Roberts, a former student of the moderator, Kyle Dargan, has been a human rights worker in Rwanda & his 2 poems reflected his experience there, “What the Translator Doesn’t Tell Us” & “Say the Skulls” (set in a memorial to the victims of a massacre in a church). He said he wrote “about hope” & resisted the urge to over-dramatize the poem to get people to act, that one must respect the story for what it is.

Kyle Dagan’s poem “6:35 Mississippi Time” was a persona poem from the point of view of Medgar Evers’ wife, Myrlie, a poem he wrote as an assignment a number of years ago, that he wasn't sure he could write such a poem now as a more mature poet. His second piece was “Mugabe’s Glasses,” about Robert Mugabe, who he had heard was an avid reader, imagining the details.

The discussion explored the ethics of using someone else’s story, but came back to the issue of respect, in this grey area of art & history.

Rethinking the City: Poetic Strategies for Renewing Urban Space

Jennifer Karmin, Pireemi Sundaralingam
Later, on to the Wilderness Society around the corner on M Street for contrasting/complementary panels. This panel paired Chicago poet & activist Jennifer Karmin with poet & scholar Pireeni Sundalalingam. Jennifer, who has performed in Albany with the Yes, Poetry & Performance series, discussed & showed slides of some of the urban art & poetry projects she has been engaged in in Chicago & LA, such as her group “Anti-Gravity Surprise,” her famous 4000 Words 4000 Dead project, group actions at AWP when it was here in DC, & at Occupy LA. She ended with an Occupy-inspired audience-participation piece, "The Human Micro-Poem."  Jennifer’s work is the kind that makes one think what one can do back home.

Pireemi Sundaralingam is a poet & urban scholar & cited the interesting statistic that currently 82% of the American population lives in cities. She talked about the poetic challenge of making the familiar unfamiliar (cf. Shelley) & of becoming “a botanist of the sidewalk” (Baudelaire), concepts behind my own concept of “urban nature poetry.” She also described an interactive Google-map project in San Francisco that involves community people adding their own points of interest (i.e., where they first fell in love, had their first apartment, etc.) to a map of the city.

The Environment in Crises: Poetry & Action

This next panel took place in the same room (what I thought was a brilliant piece of planning) with Melissa Tuckey, a member of the Split This Rock Board of Directors, as the facilitator.  She began with a reading of June Jordan’s “Who Would Be Free.”

Anne Waldman, Ross Gay
After a brief plug for the Naropa Institute, Anne Waldman ran thru a list of current environment issues (the BP oil spill, the pipeline), then a machine gun flurry, as is her style, of concepts, quotes & ideas to document for the next generation that some of us now were not killing each other, urging us to find projects to inspire us rather than being paralyzed by the problems.

Ross Gray, who had started an open, community orchard, also had a list of questions & issues, & spoke of finding a “critical sorrow” & "an ethics of gratitude" which I found to be a useful suggestion for confronting the huge environmental issues that I, as an individual, often feel powerless in solving but still feel I must do something about.

Melissa Tuckey, Wang Ping
Wang Ping showed slides of & described her “Kinship of Rivers” project linking the communities of the Mississippi, Missouri & other rivers of the US with the communities of the Yangtze River in China. The project consists of creating “river flags,” like Tibetan prayer flags. She distributed pieces of cloth for us to create our own river flags. Later that night I used a red Sharpie to write the names of American rivers on a blue swatch that I gave to her the next day.

Melissa Tuckey proposed that we activists use eco-poetry as a way seeing & connecting “Nature” to the larger social-justice issues. She also announced that she is seeking eco-justice poetry for a planned anthology.

It was a busy, beautifully intense start to the Festival that (spoiler alert) would continue unabated all the way through to Sunday.

More photos can be found at my Flickr! site.

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