Don’t you hear this hammer ring?
I’m gonna split this rock
And split it wide!
When I split this rock,
Stand by my side.

– Langston Hughes

When we first began organizing the Split This Rock Poetry Festival about a year and a half ago, I told people that we’d chosen the date to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I can’t tell you how many asked us, “Oh, do you think the war will still be going on then?”

My first reaction was, “What are you smoking?”

But slowly it dawned on me that many people did not recognize what had happened in our country after September 11. Of the three wars the Bush administration is currently waging, the U.S. public is selectively aware of only the one that is devastating the country of Iraq, killing countless Iraqi civilians and thousands of U.S. service members. The public has a growing awareness of the administration’s second war – on U.S. foreign policy. The Bush administration and its neocon theorists have committed us to worldwide, perpetual, preemptive war. They have made the notion that we can bomb our way to “security” the main tenet our nation’s foreign policy.

The third war, however, has gone virtually unnoticed. The administration is at war with language.

Word War III

In this new paradigm the word is no longer valued for its power of negotiation, diplomacy, understanding, but only for its power to control, to pacify. It’s an age-old technique, to repeat the same flattened phrases over and over until they become accepted wisdom. But with a complicit mass media, propaganda is easier than ever to perpetuate. The latest “spin”: The surge is working. The surge is working. The surge is working. Repetition does not, however, change the facts on the ground.

Which is why we need poetry now, more than ever. We need poets to tell the complex human story. Poets cut through the fog of propaganda and remind us of the real consequences of our government’s actions. As the poet and essayist Martín Espada, who will be reading on the opening night of Split This Rock, says, we need poetry to give politics a human face. Poetry reminds us of what matters. It wakes us up. With its immediacy and idiosyncrasy and great heart, it shakes us from our despair.

Poets have taken up this challenge, uniting against the war in Iraq with unprecedented public action. Split This Rock originates in the Poets Against War movement, spurred by the leadership of Sam Hamill. Here in the capital city, DC Poets Against the War has been active for five years, reading at demonstrations, in schools, churches, libraries, community centers, night clubs, and cafes. We’ve published two anthologies and organized poets’ delegations to march in the national peace demonstrations, carrying lines of poetry through the streets of Washington.

As this election year approached and we were hearing more about the powerful activism of poets all over the country, we decided the time had come to step it up. Uniquely situated here in the nation’s capital, we felt it our obligation to provide a national forum that could bring poets together, celebrate and publicize their art and their activism, and build bonds across differences of geography, age, race and ethnicity, social class, gender, sexuality, physical ability, and poetic style. We hope to make Split This Rock a regular event – every other year, perhaps – and to nurture and support this nascent community that is just beginning to be born.

Poetry for Change

Split This Rock calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of activist poets. The festival will explore and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for change: reaching across differences, considering personal and social responsibility, asserting the right to free speech, bearing witness to the diversity and complexity of human experience through language, imagining a better world. It will feature readings, workshops, panel discussions on poetry and social change, youth programming, open mics, films, parties, walking tours, and activism. “The coming together of progressive poets in March 2008 underscores the fact that the circle of hope has not been broken,” says poet E. Ethelbert Miller. “Writers will come to Washington, not with their dirges but their jubilees.”

Some of the most prominent and important poets writing in the United States today will be featured, including Jimmy Santiago Baca, Robert Bly, Dennis Brutus, Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, Martín Espada, Carolyn Forché, Sam Hamill, Galway Kinnell, E. Ethelbert Miller, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, Alix Olson, Sonia Sanchez, and many more. These poets are part of a great tradition of poetry that is not apart from the world. They bring their whole selves to poetry, their observant selves, their compassionate selves, their visionary selves. They are our heroes.

Split This Rock honors and celebrates this tradition, which in this country alone stretches back at least as far as Walt Whitman’s wild, democratizing verses. Even while poets invent new ways of revitalizing our language and imagining other worlds, we are all Whitman’s nieces and nephews:

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

In a Courtyard

Fifteen years ago, I discovered how a poet’s words can indeed be a hammer against the rock of injustice. Sharon Olds’ poem “Solitary” describes a powerful act of solidarity with the Korean poet Kim Chi Ha. Sentenced to life imprisonment under the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship in South Korea, Kim spent many years in jail, several of them in solitary confinement. Many poets and writers around the world campaigned for his release. Poet Muriel Rukeyser visited South Korean in 1975 to bear witness. Kim was freed in 1980, several months after Rukeyser’s death.


for Muriel Rukeyser

I keep thinking of you standing in Korea, in the courtyard
of the prison where the poet is in solitary.
Someone asked you why not in the street
where you could be seen. You said you wanted
to be as close to him as you could.
You stood in the empty courtyard. You thought
it was probably doing no good. You have written
a poem about it. This is not that poem.
This is another – there may be details
wrong, the way variations come in
when you pass on a story. This is a poem
about a woman, a poet, standing in a courtyard,
feeling she is probably doing no good.
Pass it on: a poet, a woman,
a witness, standing
in a prison
in Korea.

From these acts of solidarity – sometimes solitary, sometimes in concert with others – Split This Rock was born. The festival celebrates the achievements of Whitman, Rukeyser, and Olds, the vision of Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, and Etheridge Knight, the courage of those poets who have gone before and of those we are lucky to still have with us.

From March 20-23, poets and activists will descend on DC, a city of the most crazy-making contradictions in American life. It is the seat of imperial power, a symbol of wealth and autocratic strength all over the world. But it is also the city with the greatest disparity of wealth of any in the country; the highest child poverty rate, the highest HIV infection rate, the highest adult illiteracy rate. And it is also a city of beauty, of liveliness, of warmth, of hope, grappling endlessly with despair, like poetry, our home. Writers “of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion,” to quote Whitman again, will flood our crazy city with poetry and make a beautiful ruckus.

FPIF contributor Sarah Browning is director of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival and coordinator of DC Poets Against the War. She is the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007) and coeditor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004). A recipient of an artist fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and a Creative Communities Initiative grant, Browning hosts the Sunday Kind of Love poetry series at Busboys & Poets in Washington, DC.

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