Few things mystify people more than poetry. “What do you do?” a woman asked me recently at a gathering. “I’m a poet,” I said. “Oh, that’s your hobby,” she said, repeating, “what do you do?”
Plato blamed the problems of his Republic on poets and, centuries later, renowned queer poet W. H. Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing happen. To many, we bards are, at best, hopeless romantics and playful dreamers or, even worse, kooks who do little that is useful.
Next week, these misperceptions of poetry will be blown to smithereens! From March 22-25 in venues throughout Washington, D.C., the biennial Split This Rock festival (splitthisrock.org) will celebrate poetry — especially, the poetry of social justice and community building. The festival will present “poets who believe in the power of poetry to restore hope in the possibility of change,” Split This Rock director Sarah Browning told the Blade, “we live in a golden age of American poetry, in the midst of a gorgeous flowering of poetry of conscience.”
“Queer poets have been on the cutting edge of this revival,” Browning added.
Split This Rock will feature workshops, panels and readings on topics ranging from “Poetry from the Homefront” (featuring the poetry of military families) to “Intersecting Lineages: a Solidarity Showcase of African-American and Asian-American Poets” to “Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.”
There will be a significant queer quotient at the festival. Several events will honor June Jordan, the renowned bisexual, African-American poet, teacher and fierce advocate of LGBT rights who died in 2002. Minnie Bruce Pratt, whose book “Crimes Against Nature” about being a lesbian mother of two sons was the Lamont Poetry selection of the Academy of American Poets in 1987, will be a featured reader at Split This Rock.
Other queer-themed events will include readings by Julie Enszer, editor of “Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry,” local poet Venus Thrash, Kevin Simmonds, editor of “Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality” and Philip Clark, co-editor, “Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS.”
“‘Political’ poetry isn’t this…hackneyed genre…,” Simmonds emailed me, “lasting poetry comes out of a struggle against power structures that have oppressed women, minorities and LGBTIQ people.”
Jordan wrote poems that were searing in their depiction of injustice. In an age when women’s reproductive rights are under attack and the 99 percent struggle against economic inequality, Jordan’s poetry rings truer than ever. “Alone on the streets/alone not being the point/the point being that I can’t do what I want/to do with my own body because I am the wrong/sex the wrong age the wrong skin,” she writes in “Poem about My Rights.”
The diverse voices that will be present at Split This Rock reflect the festival’s commitment to “advance” Jordan’s “declaration of ‘poetry for the people’ which claims poetry can change the world and save lives,” Thrash emailed the Blade.
“For LGBT poets, changing minds and saving lives is a stark reality,” Thrash added.
Far from being ethereal — something that’s out there in the clouds — poetry can help energize and unify communities. “I had that experience in the early years of women’s liberation, when crowds of hundreds would come to poetry readings as part of lesbian community building and community organizing,” Pratt e-mailed me.
Poetry was one of the earliest forms of gay and lesbian self-expression from the time of Sappho and the poems of the Greek Anthology, Clark told the Blade. “Every cultural moment … LGBT people have figured prominently has had a poetic current,” he said. “Gay poetry anthologies were key books for many gay men in the 1970’s, during the flush of gay liberation.”
Today, in the midst of the recession and the marriage equality fight, we need poetry as never before. Good poetry “concerns itself…with laying aside…divisive bullshit,” Simmonds said.
Cut through the BS. Check out Split This Rock.