The Split This Rock Poetry Festival took place for the fifth time over the weekend from Thursday, April 14 to Sunday, April 17 in Washington, D.C. The festival, which has been held at the nation’s capital every other year since 2008, centers around poetry of provocation and witness.
Its name is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes entitled “Big Buddy,” which contains the lines “Don’t you hear this hammer ring? / I’m gonna split this rock / And split it wide! / When I split this rock, / Stand by my side.”
Drawing from the legacy of Hughes and other socially engaged poets, Split This Rock aims to celebrate and teach the ways in which poetry can bring attention to issues of social importance and, in turn, enact change. This year’s festival included workshops, readings, discussion panels and special events.
Busboys and Poets, a restaurant, bookstore and community gathering space (similar to Red Emma’s), hosted open mic events on Thursday and Friday evening. The venue also co-hosted a party on Saturday night with multiracial, multi-genre spoken word group The Dark Noise Collective.
Other special events included a flash-mob-style public poetry reading in the streets of D.C. Friday morning. Participants broke into small groups and spread throughout the city, reciting poems of welcome and compassion to passersby. Those who participated were invited to read their own poetry or work by poets they admire. The public event was both a literal and symbolic stand against hate speech and exclusion, including but not limited to the xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric taken up by politicians.
Busboys and Poets set up a pop-up café to sell coffee and snacks on Saturday morning. Also there was a Social Justice Book Fair on Saturday, which lasted from 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. It featured an array of socially engaged writers, publishers, magazines and other media-producers.
Well-known local publications such as The Baltimore Review were represented alongside national favorites like POETRY Magazine. Lesser-known publications and presses were also well-represented at the fair. Take, for example, D.C.’s Flying Guillotine Press, which publishes limited-edition handmade books of poetry.
In addition to the large, interactive events, there was at least one featured reading and book signing each day. The readings, which were also free and open to the public, highlighted accomplished, engaged poets. One member of the award winning D.C. Youth Slam Team performed at each reading.
Saturday afternoon’s featured readers included Dawn Lundy Martin, who has penned three books of poetry as well as three chapbooks. Her latest collection, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, was published by Nightboat Books in 2015.
In addition to being a poet and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Martin is part of a performance group and an art collective. The art collective, HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, garnered attention in the art world when members withdrew their work from the 2014 Whitney Biennial, citing the museum’s prejudiced curatorial practices.
Martin is also working on a memoir, part of which appeared in The New Yorker as the essay “The Long Road to Angela Davis’s Library.” Martin is just one example of the incredibly accomplished, engaging readers who rounded out last weekend’s lineup of 20 poets, which also included five members from the Slam Team.
To encourage community building, networking among poets and exploration of more specialized topics, there were small-group breakout sessions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Festival attendees chose from a wide variety of workshops, discussions, readings and talks.
Small-group sessions included Contemporary South African Spoken Word, Translation Ethics in the Digital World and Unlanguaging White Supremacy: Toward a Solidarity Poetics Practice. In total, festival attendees had about 10 titles to chose from for each hour-and-a-half-long session.
Several Hopkins students from Dora Malech’s Poetry and Social Justice course attended the festival. In the class, part of the Writing Seminars department, students read, write and discuss poetry of social and political engagement. Students also work with high-school-aged writers from the Writers in Baltimore Schools program.
Junior Ruth Marie Landry, a member of Malech’s class, commented on a workshop she attended on Friday titled “The Space to Create: Designing Successful Poetry Workshops for Communities.”
“One of the workshops I went to was with Sarah Kay, who got pretty famous after she preformed her poetry at a Ted Talk a few years ago. The workshop was really great. It was about conducting workshops, and we talked about how to scaffold lessons so students don’t get overwhelmed,” Landry wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Helena Chung, another Writing Seminars junior and one of Hopkins’ most widely published undergraduates, attended several days of the festival.
“I went on Thursday because I had a friend speaking at the conference then about eco-feminist poetry, and it really feels good to go out and support poetry that I believe in... poetry that I feel like we don’t necessarily get to read in class,” Chung wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
She also spoke about the experience of listening to live readings by poets who have influenced her.
“I loved being able to meet poets who have really inspired me and influenced me in a lot of ways, and to hear them read live was really an incredible/unforgettable experience!” she wrote.
Although the Split This Rock Poetry Festival only occurs every two years, the organization is active year-round, holding events and advocating for poets’ engagement with contemporary social concerns.
Split This Rock co-sponsors a monthly reading series called Sunday Kind of Love at Busboys and Poets. The event features two established or up-and-coming poets followed by open mic readings. “Sunday Kind of Love” takes place every third Saturday from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. and has a $5 admission cost.
Split This Rock also has youth programming, several poetry competitions and a Poem of the Week series. Those interested in learning more about Split This Rock and their programming should visit www.splitthisrock.org.