Split This Rock: Celebrating 10 Years of Poetry, Witness, & Resistance
Sarah Browning | November 2018
When a group of poet-activists based in Washington, DC, began dreaming of the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival more than ten years ago now, one of our mentors in the work—the dean of DC’s literary scene, E. Ethelbert Miller—told us, “Pay attention to what you are doing. Keep notes and records. You are making history.”
No doubt we nodded sagely. But then we went back to the frantic work of raising money and desperately trying to secure venues—the hardest part of event organizing in DC, home of gorgeous and inaccessible edifices. And we returned to the work of inviting poets to feature, those poets who’d inspired us as activists and writers and sustained us through the difficult years of struggling at the fringes of the literary landscape, when “political poetry” wasn’t considered Real Poetry, when poetry that told the stories of marginalized people was itself profoundly marginalized.
And it turned out that this work—driving out to the suburbs of northern Virginia to track down Naomi Shihab Nye reading at a children’s bookstore in a strip mall, armed only with an invite letter and a verbal recommendation from Ethelbert—was the easiest and most joyous work of all. It was the summer of 2007 and we were looking ahead to a March 2008 festival, timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. We were deep into the dreary second term of George W. Bush.
One by one, the poets gave us an enthusiastic yes. Naomi, in the muggy night in the strip mall parking lot: “My goodness, we have to gather, don’t we?” Lucille Clifton, in a one-line email: “I’d be honored.” Martín Espada. Sister Sonia Sanchez. Galway Kinnell. Dennis Brutus, who’d been incarcerated with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Adrienne Rich’s health prevented her from traveling, but she sent $1,000 and encouraging words that we used for marketing and outreach. Jimmy Santiago Baca. Sharon Olds. Coleman Barks. The list goes on. (Sadly, Clifton and Olds became ill and were unable to attend, but we read their words from the festival stage. And happily, all these years later, Sharon Olds featured at the tenth anniversary festival earlier this year.)
We were motivated in our organizing by the urgency of the moment—seemingly endless war, the 2008 presidential election season—and from the growing sense that the time had come to find one another, to gather. Poets Against the War, sparked and led by Sam Hamill five years earlier and the movement that had initially brought some of us together in DC, had been but the latest manifestation of poetry on the barricades. We knew we were part of a long tradition in the nation: poets in the Civil Rights, feminist, Chicano, LGBTQ+, and anti-war movements, to name just a few. We had learned from those poets, we were those poets, we wanted to unite those poets with younger generations coming up.
But we had no idea how prophetic Ethelbert’s words would prove to be. Every day, as we put the word out about the upcoming festival, we were hearing from poets all over the country who were like us, working in prisons, teaching poetry in low-income communities, using poetry to tell suppressed stories. To name and claim ourselves, to celebrate our rich tradition—these were revolutionary acts.
For so long, we had not been widely visible to one another, let alone in the broader literary culture. Our poems were missing from the established literary journals and our books from college syllabi. We weren’t winning the prizes or teaching in the universities. Our poems could be found in issue anthologies, when they existed, and anthologies dedicated to specific communities, but not in the Norton Anthologies of the world.
I want to pause for a moment to give one example, as it’s hard to imagine now, in 2018—amidst the incredible flowering of poetry by people of color, LGBTQ+ poets, and others—just how recent the change has been. In the twenty-two years from its founding in 1993 to 2015, only three people of color had won the Kingsley Tufts Award, given to a mid-career poet: Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, and Afaa Michael Weaver. But then—glory be!—Ross Gay won in 2016; Vievee Francis in 2017, a year when all the finalists were people of color; and Patricia Smith this year.
We got our first sense of the spark we were lighting when we went to the 2007 AWP conference in Atlanta and formally launched publicity. Andy Shallal, the owner of DC’s now-legendary restaurant, bookstore, and performance space Busboys and Poets, had donated our first $1,000 so we could buy an ad in the program book and a table at the book fair. I was sitting at the table the first morning when someone spotted our sign and rushed over. She’d seen the ad in the program and had immediately sought us out in order to say, About time! Sign me up!!
Everywhere we went at that conference, we were mobbed by poets eager to respond to the call. At a reception we organized, people couldn’t get in the door. Four poets who had already agreed to feature at the festival read a few poems each—Pamela Uschuk, Alicia Ostriker, Mark Doty, and finally Patricia Smith, who left us weeping with her poem to a class of sixth graders who had all closely experienced death, “Building Nicole’s Mama,” a poem that is itself a call to poets to wield our poems for justice. Here are the last lines:
as we pick up our pens,
as we flirt and sin and rejoice behind microphones—
She knows that we are here now,
and she is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.
And she is waiting.
And she waits.
We were done waiting. And so were the hundreds of poets answering Patricia’s call. When the festival finally touched down a year later, we heard it again, over and over: “I’ve waited my whole life for this.” “This can’t be a one-time event!” The excitement and relief and joy were palpable. Many of the 250 who came from all over the country (Florida, Alabama, California, and Maine come to mind, as well as, of course, a healthy representation from DC and the surrounding area) felt that their full selves—as poets and activists—were being seen and treasured, often for the first time.
Once the euphoria wore off, we set about the work of establishing Split This Rock as a permanent nonprofit organization and began raising money and planning the next festival for 2010, after deciding we couldn’t pull off an annual event if we ever wanted to write another poem ourselves. A big shout out to Melissa Tuckey, who spearheaded much of this necessary but not necessarily glamorous organizational work.
Split This Rock leaders have always believed in and practiced inside-outside strategies for making change in the literary culture and therefore in the understanding we have of ourselves as a people: Build our own institutions and storm the gates of the existing ones, the institutions that have traditionally excluded socially engaged and other marginalized poets.
In our ten-year history we’ve accomplished both. We’ve built Split This Rock into a powerhouse organization, adding programs at a rapid clip. As we sought ways to publicize the second festival in 2010, which would feature poets who were at the time not quite as well-known as those who read at the first, we thought to send out a poem by one of those featured poets each week. It was so popular, we decided to continue after the festival, soliciting poems by anyone who’d attended either of the first two festivals. Thus, Split This Rock Poem of the Week was born. The first poet chosen from this call? Ocean Vuong!
In 2011, DC poets Regie Cabico, Lisa Pegram, and Jonathan B. Tucker approached us: Would Split This Rock take on the DC Youth Slam Team, which had lost its institutional home? In about seven seconds, we said yes. Jonathan and his successors hustled and fundraised and organized and now the youth programs are a major part of Split This Rock, placing teaching artists in after-school poetry clubs in ten DC-area high schools and presenting a monthly open mic and two areawide teen poetry festivals, Louder Than a Bomb–DMV and the Hyper Bole. We also recently launched an alumni performance troupe to give employment and performance opportunities to poets ages 19–26.
In 2015 we launched The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database, gathering all the poems published in the Poem of the Week series, as well as contest winners and others. The database, now at over 500 poems, is searchable by social issue, making it a valuable resource for anyone looking to enhance their rally, meeting, newsletter, worship service, potluck dinner, or indeed their soul with the invigorating and restorative language of poetry. Other programs include an annual contest, renamed in 2017 the Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest; the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism; a monthly reading series at Busboys and Poets, Sunday Kind of Love; bimonthly drop-in writing workshops; and campaigns at the intersection of the imagination and social change. We’ve coedited four special issues of POETRY magazine.
Meanwhile, we’ve also worked to bring poetry of provocation and witness and the poets who write and perform this vital work into other, larger venues and organizations so their words can touch the readers and audiences we might not reach through our own networks alone.
These strategies have been successful beyond our dreams. In the ten years since our founding, the poets and poetries that Split This Rock champions have moved from the edges to the center of literary culture, as the Kingsley Tufts Award and many others demonstrate. Many organizations and social forces—as well as the poets and poems themselves—have played a role in this shift, but Split This Rock’s impact has been significant, and, as noted by the National Endowment for Arts last year, out of proportion to our age and size.
When literary historians look back to try to understand the colossal disaster of these times, to discover what we still held dear, they will look in part to the poems Split This Rock has published and to the poets Split This Rock has championed. They give me hope. They remind me over and over that poetry is a lifeline, a buoy, a joy.
Split This Rock poets are all ages, from our teens to our 80s. We come from many parts of the country and from urban, suburban, and rural areas. We are people with a variety of disabilities, as well as the able-bodied. We represent a great diversity of racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, and religious identities. We write all different kinds and styles of poetry. Perhaps, then, this is America, and we are its chroniclers and its visionaries: Poets. Activists. Dreamers.
This year, Split This Rock celebrates its tenth anniversary and I am stepping down as Executive Director in January, handing the baton to the next generation of leadership. While we’ve made a huge difference in the literary culture and are reaching unprecedented audiences with the challenge and solace of poetry, there is much work to do. The forces of reaction are striking back at cultural and political change, hard. We live in times of extremity and peril. We’ll need all the comfort and strength that poetry offers.
Split This Rock requires an enormous community of supporters to help shepherd this necessary work. My fervent hope is that the community will continue to expand and to reach all who hunger for meaning and connection. We’ll need to listen to each other, all of us—the sometimes-raucous cacophony of American voices, in all our variety—if we’re to tell the story of what it is to be alive today, if we’re to survive these days, if we’re to preserve beauty and create a new world, one based in the principles of justice and joy.
Sarah Browning, the daughter of a war refugee, is the author of Killing Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017) and Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007). She is cofounder and Executive Director of Split This Rock and an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. She is the recipient of fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Adirondack Center for Writing. She has been guest editor or coedited special issues of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Delaware Poetry Review, and POETRY magazine. Browning cohosts the Sunday Kind of Love poetry series at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.