Introduction: Split This Rock 2014
Split This Rock calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets. From our home in the nation’s capital we celebrate poetic diversity and the transformative power of the imagination.
Don’t you hear this hammer ring?I’m gonna split this rockAnd split it wide!When I split this rock,Stand by my side.
Langston Hughes wrote this poem, “Big Buddy” — from which Split This Rock draws its inspiration and name — during the Great Depression. It was a time when artists and writers felt especially called to help split the rock of injustice, wherever they found it, and to stand in solidarity with others who were attempting the same.
Poets today find themselves similarly called. They are giving name to the injustices of this world and exploring alternatives to war and violence, to the mad pursuit of material gain, to the impoverishment of the many, and the destruction of the earth. As another of our great role models, Adrienne Rich, has written:
When poetry lays its hand on our shoulder . . . we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum “There is no alternative.”
Indeed, poetry can remind us of the true stories of our lives, rescuing those stories from the forces bent on shaping us to their purposes: that we become silent, fearful, distracted by mass entertainment and celebrity culture. Split This Rock celebrates and promotes poets doing this important work.
The sixteen poets presented in this special portfolio will be featured at this month’s Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 27–30 in Washington DC. The festival is a national, biennial gathering of poets who work and write in the public sphere, who believe that poetry is for everyone, that poetry and the world tussle and jostle and struggle with one another endlessly, attempting a way forward. This year’s festival will be our fourth; the first — an outgrowth of our work in the Poets Against the War movement — took place in March 2008 to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War. The festivals combine readings, panel discussions, and workshops with activism — an opportunity to use poetry to speak out publicly for justice and peace.
Split This Rock’s programs have grown rapidly since that first festival and now include poetry training and performance programs for DC-area youth, a monthly reading series, workshops, contests, online publishing of poetry, criticism, and features, and projects that integrate poetry into movements for social change. In 2013 we launched the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation. The first recipient was Eliza Griswold, recognized for her work collecting, translating, and disseminating — in this magazine — the folk poems of rural Afghan women, who write even at great risk to their lives.
The poets you’ll read here represent the great stylistic variety of poetry being written and performed today: lyric, spoken word, narrative, avant-garde, and hybrid styles. They also represent the glorious and riotous diversity of American poets themselves, of the country itself: women and men, lgbtq and straight, poets with disabilities, poets of all races and many ethnicities — speaking several languages — and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Poetry can tell the true American story — the one not heard from the pundits and the dynasts — but only if we listen to all its voices, its multitudes.
We chose these writers from an ever-growing list of poets of provocation and witness whom we wildly admire. Every day we are astonished by this richness that reaches us through new books, in literary journals, and on the web. Surely we are living in a golden age of American poetry. And at its glittering center, leading the way, are poets of conscience such as those gathered here.
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.