What Is New, and News, About a Poetry Festival: An Invitation To Split This Rock

“They said we had nothing new,” said Sarah Browning after three exhilarating days at the last Split This Rock Poetry Festival. She was explaining why no local media had attended to report on the event, which lit up venues from Columbia Heights to the steps of the Supreme Court, and featured poets from local high school students to Sonia Sanchez and Alice Walker.

“They said we had a conference two years ago.”

This year, Split This Rock will attract more than 500 poets and literary activists from around the country to Washington, D.C. from Mar. 27-30, for readings, workshops, discussions and public action. Featured poets include Native American Poet Joy Harjo, International Slam Poet Champion Gayle Danley, and Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa.

Ok, my  reporters friends, I am sure you can think of a few conferences that the mainstream media covers every year—CPAC (Theme of media coverage: How will moderate Republican presidential hopeful X be received?) and Congressional Black Caucus (Theme of coverage: Which celebrity will attend which party?) Why are these events new every year, but poetry is not?

In moments of sympathy, I can understand why a busy reporter might think that a poetry conference isn’t worth covering. The thought of listening to sonnet after sonnet all day is appalling, even to me, a dedicated poetry aficionado.

And, after all, those spring days of the last festival, there was really new news to cover: The cherry buds were blossoming. The DC City Council members were squabbling. The Democrats and the Republicans were disagreeing.

So, news folk, let me break it down for you and tell you what is new, and news, about a poetry festival.

The poets are new. Thomas Hill, DC Youth Slam Champion, and Lauren May, host of the DC Youth Open Mike, are two of the many young poets who will rock your mind and world with their daring poetry and performances.

The poems are new. Don’t expect any sonnets or haiku. Expect radical new forms and radical new poems that will make your toes tingle with topics ranging from the life of gays in the Middle East to the Divine Feminine to our relationships with non-human animals.

The politics are new. Last festival, the poets were on the forefront of LGBT issues; in two short years the issue has become so mainstream that gay bashing can cause boycotts and hit show cancellations. This year’s Split This Rock poets will address today’s hottest political issues, from a discussion of Israeli Boycott, to a poetic exploration of torture, to a street protest of the surveillance state.

Pablo Neruda wrote “We need to sit on the rim/Of the well of darkness/And fish for fallen light”

Come fish with us, journalists.

Join us, you huddled masses of local reporters, yearning to be free from another report on low literacy in our schools, come listen to a presentation about Using Poetry Created by Teens in Wartime to Bring Activism into the Classroom.

Sports writers tired of thinking of another synonym for “won,” come see the DC Youth Poetry Slam team at the National Geographic stage. The fierceness of these competitors will bend your basketball bracket into an arc.

Come to the Festival, national political reporters, searching through the wonkiness for another punchy quote about gridlock. Visit Split This Rock Festival to hear the poet’s prophetic voice about the politics of possibility.

Raise high the roof beams, Arts reporters, because the open mike venues will explode with the performance art of Split This Rock poets of all ages.

Every spring the cherries blossom. Yet each year, we see the event with new eyes. The trees are different. We are different. The world is different. When we witness the chorus of buds opening, writers find new stories.

That’s poetry. That’s new. That’s the news.

 Split This Rock calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets. Festival program is at http://www.splitthisrock.org/festival2014.html


About Zahara Heckscher

Writer, educator, social justice advocate. Co-author of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas (Penguin, 2002) and forthcoming Volunteer Travel Reimagined: The Learning Service Guide. Instructor at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD and co-inventor of The Poetry Game. Mom, wife, cancer thriver, advocate for a world of justice.
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