Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Split This Rock! 2018: Three Days in a Poet's (almost) Utopia

I want to dedicate this blog to Terisa Siagatonu, a queer Samoan womyn poet and activist who read at Split This Rock! on the last afternoon, and who was the first person during the 2018 festival to acknowledge the Indigenous peoples on whose land she spoke, and from whom that land was stolen.  Nimasianexelpasaleki, Terisa.

Part I: Dipped in a salty sea of poetry.  Re-baptized in the glory of the poetic word.


On Thursday morning I went to a workshop titled “Affirm, Ground & Heal, In that Order.” The description read, A tenet of intergenerational trauma is silence. This workshop is a reflection on a project to collect and memorialize cultural and familial history through the storytelling of narrative poetry. The workshop leader will create and hold safe space for participants to: (1) understand the impact of daily trauma on each participant; (2) use a fusion of poetry, storytelling, oral history, and mindfulness to explore emotions such as anger, abandonment, and violence against our bodies; and (3) reflect on what the self needs. All of this draws from the tools that exist within and the generations of black women’s resilience, vulnerability, and power. We will leave with questions that elicit and transmit cultural and familial memory. Through selected poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Cheryl Clarke—as well as original pieces—the workshop will explore the themes of anger, abandonment, and violence that are prevalent with black women. This workshop aims to use “storytelling as a regenerative gendered act of creation.”

Unfortunately, Sequoya Hayes, the presenter, had cancelled the workshop, but we didn’t know that until the room was full.  So, in true Split This Rock! fashion, we proceeded to organize the session ourselves, with a deep, intensely caring discussion of intergenerational trauma, silence, and anger. A few quotes from participants:
“I don’t have PTSD. I’m not post-anything. It’s all still happening.”
“We need to talk about pain without it seeming formative. Pain is not all that we are.”
“Does speaking about pain not work for some people? Is it possible that there could be another way to process trauma?”
“Trauma is sometimes what’s not happening to you. Neglect. Touch. Trauma can be the absences in your life.”
“Because my family has known so much trauma, a heavy addition to my burden is caring for family members who are not as self-aware about their own wounds.”

During our free-write, I wrote*:
Split This Rock #1

The workshop promises to teach us
how to move through trauma,
from affirmation all the long ragged
way to healing. Our bodies come here
from Russia, California, New York,
from African and Middle Eastern skies,
from colonization and the uncivilized
terrain of European fears. 

By the time we find out
that the group leader has cancelled,
it’s too late: we have shared
our names with one another, started
stories about mothers, grandmothers,
war, rape, hope, joy. Now we want
to hear what comes next. 
Storytellers, we gravitate
toward the medicine
we need to go on.

(*Throughout this blog, I will use the term 'freewrites' for the work I produced at STR. These were originally hand-written material that have now been revised at least once since that time. I've included them because this writing was an important part of how I experienced STR, and a small measure of the tremendous creativity flowing through the air straight into our bodies.)
From this workshop, I went on to a panel titled Sister Love: Celebrating the Letters between Pat Parker and Audre Lorde.
Presenters Cheryl Clarke, Alexis De Veaux, JP Howard, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, along with organizer Julie Enszer, taught me more about Lorde and Parker, and taught it more eloquently, than I learned in any of my grad school courses.
Description: Pat Parker and Audre Lorde first met in 1969 when Lorde was on a book tour on the West Coast. Wendy Cadden, a graphic artist and member of the Women’s Press Collective, introduced the two women. Lorde was thirty-five years old (born February 18, 1934), and Parker was twenty-five (born January 20, 1944). Recently published, 
Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, 1974-1989, is the collection of the 26 letters of their extant correspondence. The letters between Parker and Lorde began in 1974 after Lorde’s second visit with Parker on the West Coast and continued until Parker’s death from complications of cancer in 1989. Parker and Lorde write about the business of poetry, the contours of their lives, cancer, lovers, and travel. The letters cover the most productive years of their poetic and intellectual production and provide insight into both poets’ interior worlds, as well as the larger environment in which they produced their work. This panel will read selections from the letters and discuss Parker and Lorde’s enduring legacies.
I could not wait to buy this book at the Book Fair on the last day.  The discussion about the friendship between Lorde and Parker was brilliant; I was captivated by the combination of excerpts and commentary by the panelists. One point that came up over and over again in this panel was the urgency of preserving, organizing, and digitalizing the archives of our literary ancestors of color, especially queer ancestors of color. “Give these amazing thinkers an after-life!” urged Julie Enszer, “Why are they locked up in archives? Or maybe not even gathered into archives?”
I took notes as if my life depended on it.
After a hasty but delicious lunch at nearby Nerds & Nibblers, we were back at the conference, splitting up according to our interests

Writing Climate Change: Environmental Justice & the Power of Storytelling
Presenter: Devi Lockwood
Description: What is climate justice storytelling? What language can we use to draw people into stories of climate change, rather than pushing them away? While numerical data is important, it is only part of the story of climate change. Women and people of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change. We can use our voices to speak up—and speak out. Poetry can help to elevate and express human stories that need to be told. In this workshop, we'll cover basic techniques of deep listening. After a brief intro, we'll break into pairs to practice listening to each other's stories of lived change. We'll be creating two poems: one individual story of lived change, and one collaborative climate change poem composed as a group.  Our president might erase swaths of climate data from government websites, but human stories can be even more powerful. We'll end with a discussion of the principles of environmental justice and ways to get involved with environmental activism in your community.
Our seminar room was built to hold about 20.  We packed 35 people in, around the edges of the table, then the edges of the room.  There was no room left by the time we started.  No matter how many people kept coming in, Devi received them with pleasure.  We made room.  There was never a question of would we let stragglers in – it was more a question of finding chairs. 
Devi’s packet of poems included “Remember,” by Joy Harjo, which I chose to read aloud.  Something about the anaphora, the simplicity (which is anything but simple) of her language in this poem, brings Harjo’s voice right into my head. We went on, reading poems aloud, commenting on the language, until Devi gave us this free-writing prompt: choose a writing partner.  Tell your partner a story about water.  After you listen, write a few words from your partner’s story down on index cards, drop them into the big communal bag provided, and then draw one or two cards out.  Either write about the words on the cards you drew, or about your partner’s story.
My writing partner had told me something I’d never heard from anyone before: she related the history of her life through the kinds of water she lived near, or the absence of water in her life.  She called it her “Water Journey.”  I’d never heard someone tell their life story this way before, as if water were the central character in her life – as it is, actually.  So when I began to freewrite, it was that relationship with water, that personal, vital relationship, that came to the surface.

Split This Rock #2

What is your relationship with water?
Because, you know, water is your relative,
your blood, your kin.  She has run through
your DNA faster than any genome-mapping
geneticist.  Hell, water created you.
Wasn’t she there when you were born?
Wasn’t she nearby, a river, a lake, a glacier
looming like memory over your mother’s
cries and labors?  Or was water an Ancestor
already, riding currents of air in search
of a cloud, a thunderstorm, a gray mist
allowing her to kiss the top of your head?

Tell me about the ways you learned to love
water in the pond behind your family’s barn
in August, when heat drove you to strip
off your jeans and t-shirt, dive down
into the cool hover of trout.  Tell me
about the first time water frightened you
with her weight, or her slick frozen surface. 

Do you remember when water schooled
you about thirst, withheld herself
from your lips, throat, your skin? Do you
remember that red desert only the Hopi
could make bloom, thousand-year-old songs
transforming buckets of water and faith
into ears of corn, tight kernels the color
of garnet, sapphire, honey?

In the last precious minutes, we composed our group poem from lines in our head, or from our own freewrites:

That evening, we arrived at the auditorium late, and ended up towards the back.  The seating was fairly level, so it was hard to see the readers (note: the Nat Geo auditorium, which was previously the venue, no longer rents to outside organizations - boo!).  Luckily, as long as we could hear their voices, lack of sight-line made no difference at all.  We hung on every word from Camille T. Dungy, Sharon Olds, Javier Zamora, and 2018 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest Winner Jonathan Mendoza.  Jonathan’s poem, “Osmosis,” knocked us out of our seats even before his elders uttered a word.  If you’d like to see and hear him read “Osmosis,” check out this video.

After a quick meal, we went back to our hotel room in that odd, happy, buzzy state of exhaustion and clarity: we couldn’t sleep, but we were beyond being able to go to the evening’s open mike.  Finally, after midnight, we drifted off.  I was already excited about our plans for Friday.

The first panel I went to on Friday nearly blew my socks off.  I seriously mean it when I say that I would have paid the full festival fee just to attend an editing workshop this good.
Tools from the Editor's Desk: A Revision-based Workshop for Poets and Poet-Editors.
Presenters: Anna Lena Phillips Bell (Ecotone) and Sumita Chakraborty (AGNI) – both also poets.
Description: Editing is an act of love—an effort to help writers find their work's best form and to help readers discover that work. Two editors who work with poets for publication in national literary magazines will offer writers fresh strategies for revising their own work and for offering practical feedback on others' work. With both existing examples and poems written during the workshop, we'll practice using tools from the craft of editing, including the art of querying as well as considerations of syntax, rhetoric, grammar, usage, and more. We'll explore strategies for providing feedback without furthering oppression around class, race, gender, place of origin, and sexuality. We'll discuss ways to engage compassionately, openly, and truthfully with both our own identities and those of the writers we work with. We'll consider the peculiar benefits and challenges of being a poet-editor, as well as ways to get started as an editor for those who wish to explore the field. Writers will leave the workshop with a packet of revision prompts and resources for editing.
By this time, my colleague Julie Phillips Brown, a poet and scholar teaching at Virginia Military Institute, had also joined us in D.C.  She and I attended this workshop together, and both came away feeling like we had been gifted a huge tool chest for editing both the work of others, and our own; and, as teachers of poetry workshops, some precision moves for responding to the work of students.  Both Anna Lena and Sumita spoke eloquently and passionately about editing the poetry of others, emphasizing such illuminating concepts as the inherent potential for resistance (nurturing a poet to go to uncomfortable places), the compassion of close-reading/listening, and stating that “good editing is something that wants to make a poem get closer to its goal.”  Both women also agreed that “if we are editing your piece, that means this piece is worthy of our attention and time. It is also not sheer self-indulgence on our part; it is necessary to make your work accessible, and readable; it leads to action and resistance. It’s a way of empowering your piece, and your voice.” Once again, I took copious notes.

Towards the end of the session, Anna Lena and Sumita gave us a writing prompt:  write about a mythological character; tell her story in her persona.  Afterwards, we picked a writing partner and practiced our new editing skills on one another’s pieces.  I found myself writing in the voice of an unnamed Chumash woman from the Santa Barbara Mission; she was a very real person, not a legend, and documented in the letters and records of the Spanish priests at the time.  Yet hers was the story that came to me.  My writing partner gave me powerful suggestions, some of which I’ve included below, and some of which I have not yet had time to consider.

Split This Rock #3

I don’t
remember my names—
not my tribal name or baptismal
Spanish name—I don’t
know my age or the place
I was born.

All I know is what I did.
What I said, after
I drank tea
made of the sacred root
hated by missionaries.
She came to me,
pure white blossom
of a goddess:
Chupa.  She said,
resist baptism.
If they have splashed you
with their lies already,
come to me at dawn
under indigo skies,
be re-baptized
with Tears of the Sun.
Then your power
will belong to you
again. Tell everyone,
she said.  I did.

The padre ordered soldiers
to take me out back
of the women’s quarters,
beyond the hearing of men.
the padre whispered: flog
her.  I learned a whip
could tear flesh
like claws,
that Spaniards were not men,
but a kind of monster
made by a Creator
not our own.

Whew.  After that, I headed to a session with the come-hither title, #RedStateWritersResist: Strategies for Writing and Living in a Red State.
Presenters: Jennifer Case, Meg Day, Miguel M. Morales, Wendy Oleson, Maria Vasquez Boyd
Description: With border walls, Muslim bans, and cuts in healthcare, education, and environmental protection, what can writers do to resist? This diverse panel of writers will discuss the challenges of writing and living in red states and in red rural areas. These social and eco-justice-oriented writers live in Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Washington, and West Virginia. They strive to publish multi-genre work rooted in these spaces, while giving voice to issues of women's health, reproductive rights, and immigration and providing accurate representation of marginalized communities, including disabled, queer, trans, and Latinx, among others. Panelists will also facilitate the discussion by intermixing examples of their work in the session. Panelists encourage participants who write and live in red states and in red rural areas to contribute their own resistance and coping strategies. In an effort to trump isolation, participants will also identify resources and network across state lines in an effort we call #RedStateWritersResist. In addition to using their voices and craft for provocation and witness, panelists foster and engage their communities. Examples include a radio program spotlighting creative marginalized voices, migrant youth writers workshops, presentations in classrooms and other public spaces, and forming community partnerships.
I loved this panel.  It was cathartic to hear my own experience with living in a redstate – Virginia – validated (I know, we went blue in the last election, but it was just barely blue, and more in Northern Virginia than my own Southwestern, rural area) – not just in discussion, but also in short excerpts or poems. 
During the Q&A portion, I asked, what do you do when your creativity is blocked or tainted by the endless drain on your energies, the pressure that never lets up?  The best answer I received came from Maria Vasquez Boyd.  She said, “When place and circumstance block creativity, sit and think about who you are imagining as your audience.  Are you trying to placate the community that is oppressing you, provoke activism and resistance from the community you identify with, or are you panicked, stuck in between, unable to pick a position or strategy because there is so much at stake?  Take the time to resolve your audience, reaffirm your intent, and I’m betting the creativity will loosen up.” 
Sometimes we just need people to point out the obvious!  But this felt like a light going on in my head: that’s exactly what happens.  I worry about not being radical enough for my own people, too radical for where I live and work, or simply worry that I am ineffective and not up to the work. This is about doubt, about the ways living in an occupied land, as a marginalized person whose choices are often between accepting invisibility or some form of self-destruction.
I felt something huge slide out of my path. I am so grateful.


From there, I went to a panel I had been looking forward to for a long time: Radical Traditions: tatiana de la tierra and Gloria Anzaldúa's Poetry.
Presenters: Sarah A. Chavez, Julie R. Enszer, Olga García Echeverría, Sara Gregory, Dan Vera
Description: Born in Colombia and raised in Miami, FL, tatiana de la tierra was a bilingual and bicultural writer, exploring issues of Latina identity, sexuality, and social activism. As an editor and contributor, de la tierra founded the Latina lesbian publications esto no riene nombreconmoción, and la telaraña. In 2012, she passed away in Long Beach, CA. Gloria Anzaldúa is now well recognized as a feminist, queer, and cultural theorist. Her book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) and her essay, “La Prieta,” are groundbreaking works. With Cherríe Moraga, Anzaldúa co-edited the landmark anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981). Less recognized is Anzaldúa’s poetry. The new collection Imaniman, edited by ire’ne lara silva and Dan Vera, begins new, intensive conversations about Anzaldúa’s poetry. The reissue of tatiana de la tierra’s Para Las Duras: Una Fenomenología Lesbiana/For the Hard Ones: A Lesbian Phenomenology in the Sapphic Classics series returns de la tierra to these conversations. Join us for readings from these two books, discussions of the lives and legacies of Anzaldúa and de la tierra, and reflections on publishing as part of radical literary work.
Dan Vera began the session with a seemingly small ceremony: he explained that he had recently made a trip to see Gloria Anzaldua’s gravesite, and visited a small salt lake nearby (I think this might be La Sal del Rey).  Normally, he said, the lake was mostly a dry lake bed, white with salt. But it had been raining heavily recently, and the lake had filled up.  He filled a small bottle with some of the water and brought it home with him.  Today, he had a small squeeze bottle of the salty water; he said, “I thought we could all share this, use it to bless ourselves with this essence from Gloria’s homeland.”  Without discussing any details, we created the ceremony on the spot: Dan put a drop in his hand, held out the bottle, and put a drop into the hand of the woman beside him. She took the bottle, turned to the man beside her, and put one drop into his hand, then passed him the bottle. And so it went: we each received a drop of this water in one hand, and gave a drop with the other. As for “blessing ourselves” – my instinct was to put my two hands together as if in prayer, rub the water into my palms, then “wash” my face with both hands, gently, from forehead to temples, over my eyes, my cheekbones, my nose, cheeks, lips, chin, and neck.
When the ceremony was over, the panel continued as usual, but I felt as if the room had gotten much more grounded, the clarity of words and thoughts heightened.
What happened over the next hour or so is hard to explain.  I listened to the presenters, paid attention to them carefully, but I also began to write.

Split This Rock #4

La Gloria

Bless these hands, my hands, my brown hands. 
Bless the lifeline that runs from stem to stern
on the right, but breaks in two like a promise
halfway down on the left.  Bless the whorls
and swirls of my fingertips, the scars like stars
shooting across galaxies; bless these Indigenous
woman’s fingers which have transgressed for the sake
of pleasure, for the sake of another woman’s
pleasure, for the sake of connection.  La Gloria,
bless these fingernails that have sung grief, ragged
and sharp with neglect, that have smoothed exultation
along the homeland of a lover’s hip. Bless these hands,
my hands, my brown hands, that they may protect
the past, sculpt a future, praise the luscious blossoms
of now; bless each knuckle, each dark teal vein;
La Gloria, I offer these hands up as tools for the work
you left behind, receptacles of your word, baskets
woven of clay, salt water, searing kiss of the sun.

la tatiana

I find a deep oval pool in the woods, water
so clear I can see each strand of pale grass
pressed into its hollow shape.  Floating inside:
dark tadpoles, fat fish with four legs curved
questions, flexed exquisitely webbed feet. 
I strip off my clothes, step into the pool’s mirror,
lay down as if in my own bath at home.  Tadpoles
scatter to the edges, wary and displaced, but
I put my head back on the soft straw-colored
edge, spread my long black hair on the earth.
I close my eyes, slow my breathing.
I imagine that I’ve left the scarred skin 
of a fifteen-year-old mestiza in a pile
on the forest floor, while my real body
stretches out in this honey’d water like a golden
carving from Pre-Columbian times. Soon,
the half-fish/half-frogs swim choppy
strokes around me, attracted to the warmth
of my thigh, rounded shelter of my small breasts.
Their webbed hands push off from my belly,
brush the hard humps of my knees, scrabble
between my toes like curious children.  Am I
their golden goddess, a holy land, rolling hills
of their mythology?  In truth, I want only
to join their tribe, be recognized as one of them:
neither land-animal nor water-animal—
amphibian, twinned soul, creature born
of collision and wonder.

Near the end of this session, we again turned toward the lack of an “afterlife” for so many of our writerly Ancestors.  In this case, we learned that only a small percentage of Anzaldua’s poetry has been published, but that her papers at UT Austin hold many more poems, seen by few, just begging to be collected, edited (that by itself is a daunting thought), and given a publication home.  Julie Enszer asked once more, “How do we bring other marginalized authors of color into conversation with their afterlives?” I asked Dan if he knew if anyone was working on that – it seemed such a tasty, tempting project, I couldn’t imagine that those poems weren’t already someone’s baby – but he said that AnaLouise Keating, who has done the majority of work with Anzaldua’s papers, stated that she has no interest in working with the poetry, as she’s not a poet.  No one else has stepped up.  I wished I could, but I have my own backlogged materials. So I’m throwing this idea out there to the winds:  I know you are out there, somewhere— that perfect person who can take this project and bring it home!
In the evening, our tired minds and bodies were cleansed by the voices and worlds of Elizabeth Acevedo, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Solmaz Sharif. My responses to these readers was, oddly enough, not something I could put into words at the time, or even now. Their voices, their images and intentions, the doorways they opened up inside of me, are reverberating, but I do not yet have the language to talk/write about them, just yet.  The readings left me stunned, shot through with happiness. Just to know that this kind of work exists. Just to know that . . . is a joy.

Saturday morning, I headed for Fantasy As Reality: Activism and Catharsis Through Speculative Writing, with presenters Rita Banerjee, Marlena Chertock, and Christina M. Rau.
Description: This panel will demonstrate how non-realist poems and prose can offer a space for political critique and empowerment. We will ask audience members about their own speculative writing and reading experiences and offer prompts to those who wish to work on similar future writing. Speculative and science fiction are often stereotyped as futuristic, extraterrestrial, and fantastical romps through universes using space travel, time travel, and super-advanced technology centered on white cis males. However, women, non-binary, and activist writers of speculative literature are purposefully subverting this stereotype, diversifying and owning the fantastical worlds that they imagine. Speculative literature, at its core, is about giving voice to “The Other.” Speculative writing, in prose or poetry, focuses on not only imagined realities of the future, past, and present but also gives voice to bodies and individuals who are disabled, alien, marginalized, menial workers, and other traditionally neglected voices. Sci-fi and fantasy characters and voices can—and should—represent the underrepresented to create a sense of community as well as to challenge injustices in our real world.
Confession: I currently have two speculative fiction stories going.  Both utilize Indigenous protagonists and the after-effects of drastic climate change.  I have not attempted speculative poetry, although I’m honestly not sure just where that particular line between genres actually lies.  But speculative/fantasy/sci-fi writing interests me deeply, especially where it intersects with cli-fi (Climate Change fiction, a term I learned, oh, about two days ago).
In this panel, Rita Banerjee gave a beautiful overview of early speculative writing, including “Sultana’s Dream,” by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, published in 1905; basically, Hossain imagined a feminist utopia in which women run the world, and men are secluded in purdah. The Moon-Mountain, by B. Banjeree, appeared in 1937; later, Indigo and other Stories by Satyajit Ray. Other titles that I caught: A Night with Kali,” “Treevolution, by Tara Campbell, “Ink,” “Crixa.” I haven’t verified them yet; I was just trying to write down what sounded interesting. 

A few panelist quotes that struck me:

“The non-fiction question: we must have a question in order to write, but an answer is not required,” 

“There’s a gorgeousness of writing you can experience when you are serving others”

and “Ask ‘what if’ and ‘why not’?” (all from Rita). 

“Hope is a way of serving,”

“When writing, follow your heart and the activism will follow,” (both from Christina Rau).

It was also at this panel that I learned about a service called “Sensitivity Readers.”  Panelist Marlena Chertock noted that she had employed a Sensitivity Reader while writing in order to avoid making offensive or inaccurate statements. “It’s wonderful for those times when you are writing outside of your own cultural experience, have done the majority of your own research, but understand that you can’t know everything,” she said.  She gave a couple of solid examples from her own writing process to prove the point.  Actually, this is a useful and important service.  But I have to admit that I also I thought to myself: Finally! when white people writing about Native Americans contact me, asking if I’ll read their manuscripts and give them the Indigenous Stamp of Approval, I can tell them where to go!

I also learned that I have been ignorant of work by Rita Banerjee herself, and that is a damn shame.  When the panelists read, she blew me away (I bought her book Echo in Four Beats on the spot); Rita also co-edited CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos & Sourcebook for Creative Writing that I can’t wait to get my hands on. 

Afterwards, we took time to browse the Book Fair, which featured many small presses doing the heavy lifting of publishing poets whose work is simply not considered marketable or canonical enough to get through the gatekeepers of Big Publishing. Then, too, there are many of us who prefer the love that small presses can give our babies. In addition to looking at the books, I also loved being able to pick up free past-issues of poetry journals from all over, fliers for contests and calls for poetry, postcards for books I want to request that my institution’s library order, and bits of bling – pens, post-its, pins, candy.  (Before, during and after the readings, Busboys & Poets also ran a small booth with books of featured poets.)  I had some of the best conversations with publishers there, was solicited for three journals, and marveled that I felt as if I were being seen as a human being whose craft has value, rather than a hungry fish trying to catch that dangling worm. 
In the afternoon, following lunch, I full intended to go to a panel celebrating Imaniman, an anthology of poets writing in Gloria Anzaldua’s borderlands, and in response to her beautiful work.  By then, I had going full steam from morning till late at night for two full days, and when I arrived at the building where I had thought the panel would be held, I discovered that it was actually happening in another building. The rush of emotional exhaustion that crashed into me was telling: I really needed a break, and even though it could not have come at a worse time, in terms of festival scheduling, I needed to take that break.  So I stayed where I was, bought a cup of hot tea, sat down, and journaled for a couple of hours.  Several acquaintances stopped by to chat, then moved on.  By the time Margo arrived for the 4:45 reading, I was revived.  

Split This Rock #5

Translate me. This means this.
Mostly. But sometimes not at all.
Translation is a kind of magic,
a mixture of knowledge, intuition,
and risk. Like a trio of voices,
three elements take turns
at center stage or back-up.
Translate me. Take measure
of my body language, words,
tone. Take my tears onto
your shoulder, taste them
by osmosis. Breathe in
my scent: abandonment,
shame, hope. Take buried
language of a buried child,
turn it into narrative.
Use simple words. It’s okay.
Help me build up
my vocabulary. Stay
in present tense – the past
is too complicated.
No dictionary, no grammar:
we’ll create it as we go.
A sleeping language,
isolated and soaked
in ancient idioms
no one uses anymore.
Take your time. Take
notes. Take my tongue
and translate me
into wonder.

On Saturday afternoon and evening, the last few hours of the festival, I stretched and stretched to embrace no fewer than six poets giving featured readings (Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Terisa Siagatonu, Ilya Kaminsky, Sonia Sanchez, Paul Tran). Fortunately, these readings were divided into two sessions, one just before dinner, and one immediately afterwards.
I wish I could give each one of these readers their due.  Something about Split This Rock! – the venue, the purpose, the intensity of commitment to social justice, to love – brings out the best in every single poet.  And these are already fantastic writers, to start with!  Let me just say that Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, and Ilya Kaminsky gave readings that shook me to my core – in good ways. Kazin Ali, a masterful trickster. Ellen Bass, a living legend.  Sonia Sanchez, a powerful elder whose tears tore us down, then built us back up. 
No wonder I was tired: Split This Rock! is not just a place, nor just a literary festival.  It is a crucible, an awakening, a cracking open of the heart that has been hardened by oppression, grief, fear, exhaustion. Poetry is the hammer.  My heart was the rock.

Part II: Not Quite Paradise

I found out about STR in 2016, when Anishinabe poet Heid Erdrich organized a panel of Native poets for the festival.  Unfortunately, it was not a good experience for any of us (the panel, that is – the festival was glorious).  We were crammed into a tiny room, jammed with sofas and folding chairs.  The walls were translucent, movable screens that did nothing to block the very loud noise from other panels and activities with booming mikes going on around us. We were told that because one of us required tech, this was the only space available. But given that planning for each STR begins two years in advance, and given the respect for the poetry itself, shouldn’t tech and a decent space be a little less hard to find? Our audience was also small; it seemed we did not have much of a following or name recognition. Some of the people who came to our event knew little to nothing about the history of Native Americans, other than some vague and pitying concept of genocide and erasure. We had the usual share of (white) people wanting to talk to us about their Indian ancestors or dreams or previous-life-experiences.  

There were other issues, but I won’t list them here. My main point is, as a venue for black, Asian, Latinx, Filipina/o, persons with disabilities, and Queer writers, STR totally rocks. However, our small group of Indigenous poets did not feel STR was a friendly place, or perhaps more specifically, not a very accessible place, for a panel by Indigenous peoples (I want to say that I am speaking here of North American Indigenous peoples, as tribal folks from elsewhere are sometimes present).  By this I mean the festival has a lack in both the inclusion of Indigenous poets as featured readers or on panels built around Indigenous poetry, as well as in any basic acknowledgment by Split This Rock! that it meets on the occupied land of Indigenous people whose claim to that land was negated, brutally stolen, while they themselves were being starved, hunted down, and murdered.

A metaphor might be good just about now. In discussing whether or not the United States can be decolonized without being destroyed (one of those Facebook conversations that keep me coming back to FB as a networking, intellectual meeting place – curate your FB communities, people!), I recently wrote, simply, “nope.”  After more discussion, I felt moved to add:

“I have often used the metaphor that if the U.S. is a house, then the foundation is built out of genocide and slavery, which is fast and dirty, but also unstable. So build a big rambling house on top of that, and then, years later, realize you have some serious rehab to do. The foundation is completely unusable - at the very least, you're gonna have to jack the house up and create an all-new foundation out of material with integrity and long-lasting substance. And then ... you have to go back and readjust the whole house: timbers, plumbing, wiring, etc - because it all shifted as the foundation collapsed, and lots of critters have gotten into the wood, walls, insulation. In essence, you are rebuilding the house, and probably, you'll improve and update it as you go, because now you have all kinds of ideas and new dreams, made possible by the stronger foundation. In the end, if you can actually accomplish all of this, will it be the same house? Nope. Creating a better foundation makes so much possible now that wasn't before. The foundation can bear more weight. The house can reflect that power.”

Heid Erdrich responded, “What about all that 'U.S. Government is based on Indigenous principles’ – does that not leave some base to build on? Just asking” – and I replied,

This discussion is useful in thinking about where STR can go in the future.  Let me be clear: I adore and need and revel in STR.  Nothing else quite like it exists, it is ground zero for training in community involvement and social justice, and a true demonstration of all that poetry can do to alleviate suffering, repair a damaged world, and empower oppressed human beings.  

Split This Rock! is, in fact, actively working to rebuild the rotting foundations of this country.

Yet even as I walk through the loving crowds and sit in the fabulous panels, I am just a little bit lonely.  Even though I was at the festival all day, every day, for three long days, I saw only one other Indigenous face this year – and it was Sherwin Bitsui, one of the featured readers.  I know that Coya White Hat-Artichoker, Lakota, also attended as a panelist in a session that conflicted with what I planned to attend, and unfortunately, I did not make contact with Coya at STR.  That said, if STR is doing the work of re-constructing the foundations of this country – and I believe that it is – then the festival needs to do more to include, nurture, and learn from, the Indigenous people on whose land we all live.  I understand that this is going to require more Indigenous participation, and that’s also problematic in some ways, as the Native poetry community is small, scattered, and frankly, for many, even less financially and psychically well-situated than the larger communities currently involved.

Even so, if STR invited Indigenous poets to read, to organize panels, and even provided financial help for travel and lodging, would festival goers attend our events?  This is a kind of visibility-ceiling that we had difficulty with during the 2016 festival, and which I, as a California Indian well-known on the west coast but almost unknown on the East, have also had difficulty breaking through.  One of the things I love so much about STR is the way the festival discovers, provides a stage for, and “grows” young or under-represented poets.  It isn’t true that no Indigenous poets have read at STR – Joy Harjo, Sherwin Bitsui, and Allison Hedge Coke have been featured readers in the first six biennial festivals, Bitsui twice.  But think about this: what if, in six events each spaced two years apart, a festival of poets working against oppression in the United States only featured black poets three times?

A lot more needs to be said about this situation, but I can’t say it all here, and mine is not the only voice that needs to be heard. Yes, I did speak briefly to Dan Vera, a poet on the board of STR, who was deeply receptive, and is clearly thinking about these issues. Because I did not even know about STR until 2016 (which is bizarre in and of itself – too busy surviving in Confederatlandia?!), and plan on retiring to the west coast in the not-too-distant future, I’m not sure what I can contribute as long as STR remains a D.C.-based entity. But here I am, opening a conversation. Who wants to join in?

Caveat: this blog post is simply and only my tiny view of Split This Rock!  So much else happens at this festival, I can’t possibly begin to cover more than my own fraction.  The creative energy generated in these three days is phenomenal!  You can view the entire program for Split This Rock! 2018 here.  The program alone is a wonderful resource of poets, topics, and events – more than enough to last you until 2020, when STR will return for year #11.  Prepare yourselves.  It’s gonna be EPIC.

Also, remember that STR is more than the festival.  Events, workshops, actions, open-mikes and more are on-going in the D.C. area throughout the year.  Check everything out at .  Don’t forget to donate if you can. Split This Rock! is growing the future heart and soul of this country, but it also nurtures and sustains many poets in the present, and provides space for us to honor our literary Ancestors.