In a few weeks the Split This Rock Poetry Festival will be held in Washington, DC. This event will bring together poets and writers committed to activism and social change.
The directors, Sarah Browning and Melissa Tuckey, consider their event a public opportunity to hear poetry of provocation and witness. The first Split This Rock Poetry Festival was held in 2008. I was a participant, along with poets like Martín Espada and Naomi Shihab Nye. I consider us to be believers in the expression of speaking truth to power. On the last day of the festival a number of writers walked down to the White House to protest the war in Iraq. I’m certain that poets visiting Washington in March will have something to say about the foreign policy of the Obama administration and the war in Afghanistan. Our poems–and yes, our chants–always seem to be on call. Once again, our New Year’s resolutions contained prayers for peace. The year 2010 represents not just the start of a new year but also the beginning of a new decade. Might it be a prelude to the "terrible teens" of this century? If so, what might poets and writers be doing? What do the times demand?
I think our first challenge is "language work." How has language distracted us from defining ourselves as well as our work? Words enter our vocabulary often acting like predators. They circle what we do with the capability of creating havoc. How often have I sat in meetings listening to someone use the word "transparency"? I’ve become suspicious of this term; as someone reminded me, transparency might be the beginning of totalitarianism. Words are luggage for our politics, and those of us who are writers have a special responsibility to prevent the erosion of their value and meaning. I want to compose poems with words that can wear pants and shirts without creases.
As we witness the rapid transformation of our society, from the vanishing daily printed newspaper and independent bookstores to the declining use of snail mail, what will become of the poem and novel? It appears people will have more access to what we write. This should mean writers in the future will bear greater responsibilities. I now post many of my poems on my blog, E-Notes. My audience is no longer limited to the 500 copies of a chapbook or a few students in a college classroom. I write a poem today and discover that someone has placed it on his or her blog or on Facebook. Is my first concern with copyright, or do I first ponder why the person placed certain graphics around my work?
In December I visited a Washington high school. I was standing in front of students talking about my work while their teacher sat at his desk pulling up relevant material on his computer and projecting it on the screen behind me. I remember how in the old days someone would accompany me on bass or maybe a percussion instrument. Today’s technology permits us to create new music. Once again, it’s back to how we sound.