Intern Karolina reflects on lessons from the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.
It was fitting that the last event of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival was held at the Carlos Rosario International School, located in a quiet residential community in Washington D.C.’s Columbia Heights, because much of the event had to do with reconnecting with your community and the world around you. Split This Rock is an organization dedicated to “celebrat[ing] the poetry of witness and provocation…in the United States” and “call[ing] poets to a greater role in public life.” Many of the poets featured at this reading spoke about or read poems about issues that touch us in today’s society. The event, which felt like an outreach, began with a warm round of applause for everyone involved in the festival, including the audience, and ended with everyone holding hands to recite Langston Hughes’ “Big Buddy,” the poem from which Split This Rock took its name.
At the beginning of the reading, Melissa Tuckey, the Master of Ceremonies, informed us that the word of the day was “gratitude.” And there was plenty of it at the reading, though perhaps a more fitting word would have been “compassion.” Not only was the audience full of compassion for each other, the readers and the topics they advocated, but the poems themselves spoke of compassion and the importance of community outreach.
The reading began with a moment of silence for the recent victim of a racist murder – Iraqi mother of five, Shaima Alawadi. Following the opening speech, there was a reading by June Jordan. She read a poem she wrote in reaction to the energy crisis. She warned, “all things are dear that disappear,” suggesting that we should care more for the things we have while we have them. Kathy Engel later echoed this sentiment in her introduction to a poem about friendship and a friend who “died a poet, with a tube in her throat,” telling her listeners that you should “never take for granted friendship and love.” The theme seemed to be active caring.
Kosi Dunn, a high-schooler from the DC Youth Slam Team shared a poem with a poignant message on community. He said that he thought the issue of a lack of community was “supposed to be a black thing,” but in today’s over-stimulated, high-speed, constantly logged-on society, it’s actually a problem that’s “a human thing.” The problem, he suggested, is that people have become too self-absorbed. Poet Constance Norgren shared a similar message about the lack of knowledge people have about war in this country and claimed that “we all come face to face with images of war. It seems in America we do not encounter them enough.”
The overall message was about the need for everyone to be more aware of their communities: the people we are close to, our local community and the world we live in. The poets’ voices came through in the words of their poems raising concerns about the world around us. One poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, spoke about language as a reflection of reality and noted that certain words like “terror” should not exist because the action should not exist. She suggested instead that we “need more words like ‘comfortable.’” Her play between words and the actions associated with them led me to reflect upon the poet’s ability to verbalize difficult truths through wordplay. Overall, this event not only made me more aware of the troubles we face in the world, but also reminded me of the power of words to reveal truths and the true power of the poet to use words to voice the concerns of a generation.