The thirteen poets gathered in this portfolio will read at Split This Rock Poetry Festival taking place April 19–21, 2018, in Washington, DC. Poetry — as ever — reminds us of what matters. When you’re feeling particularly despondent — Can it get any worse? Wait, it just did! — I invite you to read these poems. They are community and beauty and mourning and fierce hope and resistance, all. They are restoration.
The poets are all ages, from their twenties to their eighties. Three have been role models to us in this work for decades and I want to take a moment to thank them profoundly, to say that we built Split This Rock on their shoulders. They are among the poets who inspire us as activists and writers, and who sustained us through the difficult years of struggling at the fringes of the literary landscape. They are Sonia Sanchez, Ellen Bass, and Sharon Olds.
Sonia Sanchez has been a lifelong activist for peace and justice and Black voices. She was a preeminent member of the Black Arts Movement and one of the earliest and most effective advocates for Black studies programs in higher education. She opened the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival by standing on a table in the middle of Busboys and Poets, a noisy restaurant and performance space in DC, invoking the ancestors and calling us all to use our powerful voices for justice.
Ellen Bass coedited, in 1973, the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks!, a collection that ended the isolation of so many of us. When she was leading community writing workshops in the eighties she heard so many stories of childhood sexual abuse that she put her own writing on hold to focus on this horror and its healing. She produced one of the most essential texts on the topic, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988), which has sold over a million copies and has been translated into twelve languages. Bass’s poems published here may not seem particularly political to some readers, but in their frank portrayal of LGBTQ family life and love one can find them profoundly political, disturbing as her vision of queer normalcy is to some.
Sharon Olds, in her eleven volumes of poetry, has freed millions of women from the shackles of shame that society has employed to control our bodies and thereby our minds and our very selves. Women’s sexuality has always been policed, in every realm, including, of course, literature. Sharon Olds wrote the poems anyway; she stormed the gates. Additionally, over thirty years ago, she cofounded a program of writing workshops at a 900-bed state hospital for the severely disabled, at which she still teaches.
The poets in this portfolio represent some of the many stylistic strains of American poetry. They write lyrical, narrative, avant garde, formal, and elliptical work. The poets represent a range of racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual identities. They have disabilities. Two — Paul Tran and Javier Zamora — are the children of US-exported wars, in Vietnam and El Salvador, respectively. They write achingly of the generational impact of war, violence, and forced migration on families, on psyches. Their poems, as do the others in the portfolio, remind us that all issues are connected: war and family violence, gender equity and economic disparity, immigration justice and the struggle to save our only home, this earth.
The poems challenge us — and they challenge us to ask the same of our government: what matters to us now, in 2018? What are we fighting for? What do we treasure enough to preserve, to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren?
Split This Rock was founded ten years ago precisely to promote the poems that ask these vital questions. A national organization whose mission is to cultivate, teach, and celebrate poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes change, we’ve built Split This Rock from a single festival into a powerhouse, helping move this poetry from the margins to the center of our literary culture. The biennial national festival is our cornerstone program, but we also organize and present vibrant youth programs, an annual contest recently renamed the Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest, the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, readings, workshops, campaigns for social justice, a poem of the week series, and The Quarry: An Online Social Justice Poetry Database, housed on our website. We invite you to join us.
Sarah Browning is author of Killing Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017), cofounder and executive director of Split This Rock, and associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.