“You poets, get busy!” David, my late brother, a non-poet, told me on New Year’s in 2017 when I, like so many, was saddened and outraged that Donald J. Trump would soon become president, “your poems’ll cut through the bullshit.”
Say the word poet, and you might think of scribes on Mount Olympus gazing at the clouds. But, you’d be wrong. David, in his earthy way, nailed it. Poetry isn’t other-worldly, it’s mired in the muck and mire — the struggle for justice — in this world.
Split This Rock, a D.C.-based, national poetry organization that works for social change, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Its poetry festival, Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018, will be held in venues throughout D.C. from April 19-21; visit splitthisrock.org for details.
Poetry isn’t an elite, ethereal art form. It’s as essential as food, water or having enough air to breathe. Poets have always challenged the powerful and told the suppressed stories of those with little power, Split This Rock executive director Sarah Browning emailed the Blade.
“Which is why our words are on the lips of revolutionaries and why tyrants don’t much like us,” she said.
Plato blamed poets for the problems in his Republic. Historically, to be a poet has been a political act. This is even more true, today, in the Trump era where the lives and civil rights of so many from LGBTQ people to people of color are threatened. “The most marginalized – LGBTQ poets, people with disabilities, poets of color, undocumented poets, poets whose lives intersect these identities,” Browning said, “are the most vital at times of crisis such as these.”
During the week when Trump was inaugurated, Split This Rock posted six poems on its website. One of the poems posted, “Declaration of Inter-Dependence,” a poem by gay, Latino poet Richard Blanco, is a powerful call to action against injustice. “We’re the living who light vigil candles and the cop who didn’t shoot./We’re the inmate with his volunteer teacher diagraming sentences, the/Buddhist alongside the stockbroker serving soup at a shelter. We’re the/grandfather taking a selfie with his grandson and his husband,” Blanco wrote.
As a lesbian poet, I sometimes feel somewhat isolated at poetry readings. At some events, it seems as if the sensibility is too hetero. At other times, like other queer poets, I’ve encountered outright or subtle homophobia. Once, when I was in an online poetry workshop, the teacher said I should “warn readers that there is same-sex attraction in this poem.”
Split This Rock has been a haven for LGBTQ poets. From its beginning, queer poets have been an integral presence at Split This Rock. Lesbian poet Adrienne Rich sent STR $1,000 and a note when the group was organizing its first festival. “May this gathering inspire and affirm the spirit of many, especially younger poets and teachers, who have felt betrayed by corporate government and media, by broken promises and opportunism,” Rich wrote, “thank you for your belief in the freeing power of language and action.”
In 2012, STR dedicated its festival to the memory of the late black, queer poet June Jordan. The group’s T-shirt that year quoted the line “We are the ones we have been waiting for” from Jordan’s poem “Poem for South African Women.”
Local LGBTQ poets from STR board co-chair Dan Vera to Kit Bronson to Charles Doolittle are an integral part of Split This Rock. I’ll never forget what it was like to read with queer D.C.-area poet Venus Thrash at Busboys & Poets. Hearing Venus read (“There will be no parchment certificate/stamped with any state’s approval/confirming we’re married or in love”) from her poem “Uncivil,” knocked the socks off of me and everyone in the room.
Queer poets Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, who co-edited the iconic early anthology of women’s poetry “No More Masks!,” Terisa Siagatonu and Paul Tran will be featured at this year’s STR festival.
Whether or not we’re poets, we aren’t LGBTQ in a vacuum. We live in the midst of the wider culture where many identities and many forms of oppression intersect. This year’s STR festival will offer wide-ranging readings, workshops and events from an “Arabic/English Poetry Game Workshop” to “Sister Love: Celebrating the Letters Between Pat Parker and Audre Lorde” to a Deaf Poets Society reading.
Do you want to speak truth to power? To keep on keeping on? Check out Split This Rock’s 2018 festival.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.