from Beloit Poetry Journal, Summer 2014
The room: full, but not crowded, perhaps sixty people. Relatively comfortable armchairs curl in a wide arc. At the front of the room, a moderator. I’m in the second row, an arm’s length from him, as he introduces the four poets to his left. Each reads her or his poems, some from manuscripts, some from a special March 2014 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. No amplification, no raised platform, no lectern. No physical separation from the audience. I hear lines I love, images I will remember, sounds that soothe or stimulate my ears:
My father. . . . learned English
by listening to the radio. The first four words . . .
he memorized: In God We Trust. The fifth:
Percolate. . . .
—Eduardo C. Corral, from “In Colorado
My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”
I know a dried-up riverbed
& extinct animals live in your nightmares
sharp as shark teeth from my mountains. . . .
—Yusef Komunyakaa, from “Envoy to Palestine”
When the stranger asks, Why do you care? you just stand there staring at him. He has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers. . . . He is holding the lidded paper cup in one hand and a small paper bag in the other. They are just being kids. Come on, no need to get all KKK on them, you say.
—Claudia Rankine, from “Citizen”
Cinderella left her slipper in Iraq
along with the smell of cardamom
wafting from the teapot,
and that huge flower,
its mouth gaping like death.
—Dunya Mikhail, from “Tablets”
(trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid)
The poets’ voices resonate. Komunyakaa’s elegant pace and timbre musically complement Corral’s. Mikhail writes in Arabic; her accented voice brings us back to the “quotidian” that Rankine insists is essential to her own work. Some of the poems make political statements; some do not. The tone shifts at times from comic to heavy, as in the Starbucks reference with which Rankine begins “Citizen” before she moves to the racial slur central to the passage she reads.
Soon questions come from others in the room: “What is your relationship to the audience?” Corral responds: “I changed from being a young writer when I began to pay attention to audience . . . . My job is to listen.” Mikhail adds: “I’d like to be understood by everyone, just not by the censors. That’s why I write a lot of metaphors. I write from right to left, then from left to right. I care so much to make it interesting.”
Another audience member inquires: “How do you write?” Komunyakaa comments: “I try not to be false to myself. It is a dialogue with myself. . . . I try to surprise myself with language . . . . A jazz musician performs around a melody. . . . A writer’s melody is his existence. . . . Poetry is a kind of beckoning . . . an attempt to make ourselves whole.” Someone else contributes: “We feel every word we speak.” And remarks the importance of reading work out loud, both in public settings like this one and while originally crafting the poem.
Rankine summarizes: “It’s just that we are sitting in a room, talking, all listening to each other.” And we are, listening not only to ourselves, but also to each other. It feels like an evening gathering of friends, neighbors you recognize but haven’t yet met. One last question, a closing comment from the moderator, chairs push back and the audience disperses, though some linger to chat with the poets, ask a few more questions. The room slowly empties, concluding this Saturday morning session at the March 2014 gathering of Split This Rock. The next one begins in ten minutes.
* * *
Split This Rock celebrated its first full festival in 2008. At the BPJ we had become aware of the organization a year earlier at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the AWP. Within fifteen minutes, serendipitously, Ann Arbor, Lee Sharkey, and I individually met three of the original organizers: Regie Cabico, Melissa Tuckey, and Sarah Browning. Late the next evening we attended a session announcing the formation of “a major gathering of poets of conscience,” a response in part to the continuing presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. A coming together of poets committed to politics, political poetry, and political change? Sounded good to us! We arranged to meet the organizers for dinner, offered to publish a chapbook of their featured poets, struck a bargain, headed for Washington, D.C., the next spring to talk poetry, create a communal poem in front of the White House, participate in workshops, and listen to poems read aloud.
Poems read aloud. Sometimes we forget the oral/aural dimension that gave birth to poetry. Homer, the bards of many regions of Europe, Asian court poets, the singers of both then and now. To say nothing of hip-hop, spoken word, or slam.
Split This Rock reminded us. Harkening back to Langston Hughes and his injunction to join him in his attempt to “split this rock” of racism and power, pulling poets from around the United States, from around the world, hosting the celebration in the historic U Street neighborhood of Washington, centering on the new bookstore/coffeebar/hangout Busboys and Poets, the festival provided aural treats: Sonia Sanchez welcoming us, chatting and chastising in the down home open space at Busboys, advertising that evening’s reading by Martín Espada, Ethelbert Miller, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Alix Olson. From Espada’s rumbling “Carabanza” to Olson’s funky spoken-word “Dear Diary,” the mood was set. The next day added more youthful energy from sharp-edged work by Ishle Park to winners of the Youth Poetry Contest. A buzz of energy emanating from the spoken word. When we weren’t listening to poets read we feasted in the back room of Busboys, talking poetry, talking politics, talking with each other.
On the last day, Sunday morning, Galway Kinnell stood in front of us, pulling together many of the themes others had presented during the previous four days, as we readied ourselves to march silently to Pennsylvania Avenue, where hundreds of us gathered then contributed a few words of poetry each to a long cento, or collaborative poem, read in front of the White House. I doubt Mr. Bush was listening. But our words were in the air.
* * *
Much of my love of poetry comes from hearing language spoken aloud. Poetry readings I attended in my twenties were often conventional: the poet, introduced by a friend or mentor, moved to the lectern, stood behind it, read poems from his most recent book. When he finished, there was polite applause. Exceptions existed: Dylan Thomas had mesmerized audiences in the early 1950s with his bardic recitations. At a Modern Language Association convention in 1971 Adrienne Rich transformed a keynote speech into poetry that I listened to with new ears. In the early 1970s the poets the Worcester County Poetry Association brought to read, including Kinnell, Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, and Robert Bly, made fresh music with their words.
I met Bly for the first time in 1971, attended his initial Conference on the Mother four years later. During the first decade of our acquaintance I attended many of his three- or four-hour readings—sometimes as much performance as reading, moving from a monster-masked chant of the Campbell’s soup jingle while he charged through the middle of an audience, to a Shakespearean sonnet accompanied by the dulcimer, to a falsetto recitation of his anti–Vietnam War poem “Counting Small-Boned Bodies,” this time in the mask of a shriveled scraggly haired crone. Reciting, rarely looking down at a page, Bly convinced me of the power of the spoken word. For him a strong connection existed between oral tradition and political expression. With Kinnell and others, he had traveled the country doing public readings in opposition to our war in Southeast Asia, had published anthologies and poems of his own that condemned it. Bly was invited to the first Split This Rock gathering in 2008 but could not attend.
The original STR program booklet stressed the political element— “Poems of Provocation and Witness”—but also by its very design the event emphasized the performative dimension of poetry. The common effort envisioned by Langston Hughes, the location of the festival in an historic neighborhood known for its political oratory, the public readings, the White House cento all drew attention to the spoken word.
Mere presentation, however, is not enough. Contrast the frequent discrepancy at events such as the AWP conference between venue and size of audience, between distorted amplification and the resonance of an unaltered human voice. Even at some STR events during the early years watching a featured poet read to a partially empty high school auditorium could undermine our sense of a unified political community. This spring, a shift of venue and increase in attendance helped to create a strong sense of shared vision and values. Although I missed the mood at Busboys and the U Street neighborhood, I welcomed the atmosphere at the National Geographic Grosvenor Auditorium, where we were greeted by recordings and large photos of poets such as Amiri Baraka, Juan Gelman, and Adrienne Rich, all of whom had died during the previous two years. Each featured reading included spoken-word poets—local competitors and/or those with national reputations. The presence of the D.C. Youth Slam Team immediately in front of the stage transformed these presentations, for poets implicitly shared the podium with their entire community, often to comic effect:
Poet: You can buy my chapbook in the hallway for ten dollars.
Slam Team (many voices): Only ten dollars?
Poet: That’s right: ten dollars.
Slam Team (many voices): You can’t afford not to!
Instead of Robert Bly taking his words to his audience, here the audience made its own (vocal) way to the stage.
One evening moved from the high energy of Slam Team member Malachi Byrd to the 2014 STR Poetry Contest winner, Karen Skolfield, to Tim Seibles to Anne Waldman. For my taste Seibles handled the format best. A big man with huge hands, he half stood, half hunched on a tall stool as he almost whispered a single long and astonishingly wide-ranging poem, “One Turn Around the Sun.” Bitter lines morphed to sweet ones, trenchant political commentary jousted with personal anecdote. Some images, however, remained constant.
Time . . . running like ants all over the afternoon
and where are they going with so many legs—
as if it made sense to live in a frenzy. . . .
boxes full of work to be done, bosses / drones—
bizzy, the word repeated . . .
until it becomes a city itself—everyone
zigging to the zag. . . .
When I was a boy I threw ants
into webs and watched / didn’t know
it was a preview of my life. . . .
while the ants, the trillion-trillion
hum just beneath us: do you think
they think we know something?
As in the Saturday morning session described earlier, Seibles made us feel as if he were reading the poem in his living room to a small group of friends.
Even more than such strong large-scale readings I long for what the BPJ tried to do with a panel we organized for the 2012 Split This Rock. We asked three featured readers, Douglas Kearney, Khaled Mattawa, and Minnie Bruce Pratt, to read and talk about a few poems in a relatively small setting. We allowed time for comments and questions, attempting all the while to make the audience feel an intimate part of the poetry. This presentation, Sarah Browning reminded me later, became a model for this year’s Saturday morning panel.
And as that panel ended, another was about to begin: “New Vietnamese Poetry: A Group Reading & Discussion.” I had selected this one over five alternatives because of Ocean Vuong. Although I had not met him, the BPJ had chosen him for last year’s Chad Walsh Prize. Often we make this award for a “big” poem—long, complex, ambitious. We had chosen Vuong for a powerful but relatively brief lyric. Meanwhile he had won accolades everywhere: poems in Poetry, a new book, a Pushcart Prize, a number of fellowships. I wanted to see him read, to meet him, to urge him to send us more poems.
At the same time, the subject of the panel drew me in. For my generation what we call the Vietnam War was transformative. Many of our fathers had fought in World War II and had not returned, or returned scarred but victorious, or had served, like many of our mothers, on the home front. Triumphant, confident of our nation’s rectitude, even of the decision to annihilate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they seemed satisfied at the remarkable power their country had amalgamated. Vietnam changed that. The power of song/poetry, the opposition of Bly, Rich, Kinnell, and others, the teach-ins of the mid-1960s changed that. Moving to Germany in the fall of 1965 I was stunned by the massive anti-American rallies opposed to our presence in Southeast Asia. As anti-war sentiment increased back home, affiliating itself with various civil rights movements, from race to gender, my view of my country changed forever. To hear three young Vietnamese Americans read their poetry and talk about what they called “the American war” was irresistible, especially given the power of poems I had seen from Ocean Vuong.
One could not easily imagine three poets more different in appearance, voice, and writing style. They had met at an Asian American poetry festival, had shared their stories. On the surface they had little in common except their national background. And what could be more important than that? Especially given the presence in their country of the United States military on the trumped-up charge of a naval attack in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Cathy Lin Che began, describing their first encounter, their shared values/goals/experiences. She introduced a topic that ran through the session: a generation of fathers who, because of the American war, were not present, deeply troubled, or dangerous.
Then came Paul Tran. Twenty-one, a bit pudgy, his black shirt studded on the shoulders, tied only at the neck, his entire back exposed to the audience, he first created the world of his mother, who, like many Vietnamese women unemployed and often unemployable in their new country, survived by doing nails. His voice pitched like hers, his hands echoing her actions, his words (now not hers, though in her voice) cutting the polite air of the audience: “I will make you drop-dead gorgeous.”
Tran’s mother, however, was only the prologue. In his next poem he sharpened the knives, and cut deeper. He became his father. His father who had fought in the Vietnamese army, who had fathered five children by women other than his wife without her knowledge, who had abused Paul, and presumably his siblings, who now ran an ice cream truck selling goodies to young children in California: “I was always into giving people what they wanted.” As Tran narrated the poem in his father’s voice we saw the father flash back to war memories, shake one off in the middle of a sentence, come back to the present, smiling seductively, freed (on the surface) from whatever demons beset him, distributing from his shattered self demons of his own for his young imagined audience, and for us.
We had arrived at the core of Tran’s work: poetry as performance, poetry depending on the power of language but heightened— through pitch, through gesture, through costume—to theater, but theater that remains poetry. As he sat down, I observed the third poet at the other end of the table: slender, short, with large dark-framed glasses obscuring much of his face, apparently deferential. How could they have agreed to let him go last?
But poetry is not merely a matter of performance. As Ocean Vuong stood and began his introduction, there slowly emerged from what looked like a twelve-year-old boy the poised, polished, professional twenty-five-year-old poet.
First, the father: “You move through me like rain through another country. . . . I wrote a better world onto the page and watched the fire take it back. From men I learned to praise the war. From women I learned to praise.”
Then with a glance at a self-referential poem by Frank O’Hara, he addressed the issue of identity, of self-worth, that all three young poets asserted as central to their concepts of themselves as poets, as humans, as Vietnamese: “Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong.”
Returning to the theme Cathy Lin Che had introduced, he spoke quietly: “Rather than investigate the lack of fatherhood, I want to investigate the power of motherhood. For me men were myths, women with their love and flaws were human. Women taught me we would survive. . . . My father’s very absence raised me. I know what I had when he was there, and I know what I had when he was gone. . . . [In Vietnamese] the word for ‘to remember’ is the exact same word as to be missing someone. To say ‘I miss you’ means ‘I remember you, I bring you back.’”
* * *
Split This Rock has moved beyond its first days, both physically and creatively. But the fundamentals remain the same: political commitment, the oral tradition, joining forces in the belly of the beast. Whether it manifests as the generation of Kinnell and Sanchez or the dozens of young slam poets who energized the stage without being on it, Split This Rock, simply, rocks.
* * *
About the Author
John Rosenwald is Emeritus Professor of English at Beloit College and co-editor of Beloit Poetry Journal. He has published his own poems in numerous magazines. During four stays in China, he founded the Beloit/Fudan University Translation Workshop, a leader in providing access to contemporary Chinese poets.
Beloit Poetry Journal
Editors: John Rosenwald, Lee Sharkey