Why Attending the Split This Rock Poetry Festival is About More Than Poetry by Diamond Pollard
“This shit ain’t a poem, this is me… it is the deepest kind of contradiction. If I could write this shit in fire, I would write this shit in fire.” – Dominque Christina, “Karma”
The Split This Rock Poetry Festival is a biennial poetry festival in Washington, D.C. The festival (and its parent organization, Split This Rock) “cultivates, teaches and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change.” This year’s festival took place from Thursday, April 14th to Sunday, April 17th in various locations around the Human Rights Campaign building, the hub for all things Split This Rock that weekend. I attended the festival on Saturday, April 16th with a group of Johns Hopkins University (JHU) students and local high school students a part of a program called Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS). The JHU students and WBS students collaborate in a community based learning course, Poetry & Social Justice, offered by JHU. This was my experience at Split This Rock.
Please be 3. Please be 3. Alright, if it is right before my 5:52 alarm, I will wake up.
I rolled out of bed to check my phone– 5:36AM.
It took me another 10 minutes to get out of bed and another hour to actually get out of my apartment.
In case you were wondering, nothing is open for breakfast at this hour on a Saturday. Nothing. I wandered around the Hopkins area before succumbing to the fact that my breakfast would be comprised of two bags of chips, Sprite, Captain Crunch (with no milk), and candy.
I finally meet up with my professor, Dora, and some classmates, internally lamenting the fact that she requested we meet half an hour before our departure time. As we stood on Charles Street, waiting for the bus, we received a cat call: “GO TO SLEEP!”
Trust me… we want to.
We finally departed from Hopkins, half an hour late, hoping to make the first session at 9:30. Being as early as it was, the twenty or so of us in attendance kept to ourselves, plotting which three poetry sessions we would spend the next six hours in (minus an hour lunch break). Scrolling through the app the festival so conveniently provided, of the 6-8 options in each session, I chose: POETRY + PASSION = PURPOSE, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and Anne Spencer’s Legacy.
Session 1: 9:30-11:00AM – POETRY + PASSION = PURPOSE
We arrived at the Human Rights Campaign building less than ten minutes before the first session. Of course, I chose the session that’s three blocks away. I was accompanied by a JHU grad student and map as I set out to find my session. This session took place in a multipurpose room in the basement of the Foundry United Methodist Church. When we arrived (late), there were two other people in the room, the session leaders. This would’ve been less awkward if there weren’t twenty chairs set out for the session. After a few minutes of waiting, Richard, the leader, paused his guitar playing to greet us and start the session, deciding that the two of us was as good as it was going to get.
During the session, Richard, AKA Testimony, had us share our passions (music, poetry, Jesus, and more poetry), then we drew our passions, and then we wrote each wrote a poem about our passions. After writing our passion poems, we shared them with the world on Periscope and were encouraged to follow Testimony and his community organization, Teens With a Purpose, on Twitter.
The map in my festival guide was ultimately useless in finding my next session. After getting lost trying to find the Human Rights Campaign building to reorient myself, I then wandered around the block three times before finding the Charles Sumner School where my next session would be. Little did I know, it was right behind the HRC building.
Session 2: 11:30AM-1:00PM – #BlackPoetsSpeakOut
My next session was an open mic featuring poems written by black poets about or in response to police violence. Not only did I hear great poetry from talented poets and spoken word artists, including the WBS students I was traveling with, but also from well-respected “Big Deal” poets like Alish Hopper, Ocean Vuong (Festival Headliner), and Dominique Christina (Festival Headliner). Dominque Christina closed the session with her poem “Karma”, quoted above. The open-mic is best summarized with the statement each poet was instructed to introduce themselves with: “I am a Black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders Black people. I have a right to be angry.”
An hour long lunch break with my Hopkins classmates. I had Shake Shack for the first time and would definitely recommend the Salted Caramel Shake.
Session 3: 2:00-3:30M – Anne Spencer’s Legacy
This next session was supposed to be the most special for me as Anne Spencer’s house and museum is located in my hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. And yet, it wasn’t. The session was supposed to held in the Charles Sumner School (which I now knew the location of), but was moved back to the HRC building due to a technical failure, i.e. there was supposed to be a projector and there was not one. I was probably the only person in attendance under the age of 30 (or at least it appeared that way). But, the real drawback of the session was post-lunch slump that made me fall asleep during the presentation. In my defense, they were showing pictures of the Anne Spencer House & Garden, which I have been to twice and can visit at any time when I return home.
Between the Anne Spencer session and the first total festival poetry reading of the day, the JHU/WBS students were supposed to meet for a snack break. However, since the entire festival had this hour long break, it turned into a dance party.
4:30PM – Featured Poets Reading 1
Our next session was the first total festival, “big deal” poets reading, featuring Dominique Christina, Martha Collins and Dawn Lundy Martin. We crowded into the Grosvenor Auditorium at the National Geographic Museum. As one of the WBS students pointed out, it looked much like a TED Talk stage, with its blue and purple lighting.
Henri Lozano: A member of the DC Youth Slam team recited his piece as the opening, a poignant, Spanglish tribute to an immigrant grandmother.
Dawn Lundy Martin The most memorable part of her reading was the video included with the last few poems she read. The video, which featured a male dancer in high heels rolling on the floor, clips of police and other types of violence, and quotes, was very disconcerting and distracting. My eyes were glued to the screen and I struggled to connect what she was saying (which I couldn’t pay attention to) to what was being shown.
Martha Collins: Her reading left our poetry class polarized. She read from her latest collection Admit One: An American Scrapbook which chronicled the history of race in America beginning at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Many of the pieces she read followed the story of Ota Benga, an African Pygmy who had been brought to the world’s fair to serve as a human exhibit. While I found her poetry elegant and haunting, my classmates felt that her reading lacked emotion and were made uncomfortable by the way this White woman writer told the story of an oppressed Black man,
Dominique Christina: After hearing her speak earlier that day, I was excited to hear Christina’s poems again and hoped she would reprise “Karma”. Alas, she did not. Instead, she recited gripping and personal pieces about herself, victimized women in America and abroad, and finally the plight of Black mothers. The final line she recited — a plea with God to care for Black mothers whose sons were unjustly killed like His — echoed in my mind until we boarded the bus home hours later.
6:00PM – Dinner
The JHU-WBS students headed just a couple blocks away for dinner at Fuel Café, a small pizza franchise. The “Café” was decorated with memorabilia affiliated with old-time fuel stations, hence the name. The pizza was decent, the garlic knots were a little hard, but the cinnamon knots were great (though they could’ve used a glaze). Most of our discussions were debriefing on the festival so far. With only one event left, we had all seen and heard a lot.
8:00PM – Featured Poets Reading 2
We were back in the Grosvenor Auditorium for one last event. At this point, most of us were tired and a bit drained, physically and mentally.
Gaelyn Smith: Another DC Youth Slam poet opened the reading. She recited her poem about not discussing police violence in her poetry with conviction, igniting the entire auditorium.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: A current student at Yale Law School, his reading combined stories of his experiences at Yale and his poems. Much of what he read was concerned with being a Black man raising Black sons in a “post-racial” America that seems far from being “post” racism.
Ocean Vuong: Since he didn’t read one of his own poems during the #BlackPoetsSpeakOut session, I was eager to hear what his own poems were like. The audience listened to his soft voice with rapt attention as his poems described his relationship to his immigrant mother and his life experiences. He even garnered a few chuckles from the crowd with his “Ode to Masturbation”
Nikky Finney: The final poet of the evening was probably the biggest “big deal” poet, having received the National Book Award in 2011. Her poetry detailed her life experience being a Black woman raised and living in South Carolina. She ended her reading with an unfinished poem heralding all of what it means to be a Black girl.
10:00 – Return to Hopkins
Boarding the bus home, we had a lot to think about and process after nearly 12 hours of poetry. While the first few minutes was filled with chatter about the festival, music, and the leftover pizza from dinner, we all soon fell into retrospective silences. The hour long trip back to Baltimore became a time of reflection of what had occurred and preparation for what was to come next.
For me, the festival wasn’t about activist poetry as it had been presented to me but about activism through poetry. Everyone whose work had been presented used their poetry to shed light and express feelings toward the rampant injustices that exist across the world. These poets work hard at exposing the ugly truth, often through pretty words, and encourage others to do the same so the world may be a better place.
“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.” – Langston Hughes
Diamond Pollard is a Virginia native, currently residing in Baltimore. She is primarily a fiction writer.