What the Dresser loved about Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2012 was the time poets had to talk to each other. For example, the Dresser started STR Day 3 (March 24) by engaging in a conversation on the street with Minnie Bruce Pratt. This was an extension of Minnie Bruce's talk the day before during the panel Poet's Forum: How Political Engagement Affects the Writing Process. For Minnie Bruce, the writing process, starts at a personal level moves into a social context and concludes with the large worldview.
ADVOCATING POEMS THAT FEATURE NUMBERS
Based on comments made by JoAnne Growney on STR Day 1 in the panel Writing to the Media/Writing for the Media regarding how one gets poets to pay attention to the power of numbers in their work, the Dresser decided to drop in to JoAnne's workshop Counting On. While the Dresser only participated in the initial head count that included individuals making introduction of themselves with numbers significant to their personal life, she wanted to support JoAnne's premise that use of numbers create vivid specificity in the poetry of provocation and witness.
LEARNING NOT TO DISCOUNT DISABILITIES
So, the Dresser took her leave from the conference room in the Thurgood Marshall Center housing the numbers workshop and hurried over to the True Reformer Building for readings from the anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. With this new imperative to find the power of numbers, the Dresser perked up when Kathi Wolfe read from her poem "Blind Ambition,"
"If you were Helen Keller,"
my teacher says,
"you'd get a gold
star in arithmetic."
It turns out this poem is Kathi's declaration that numbers were not her childhood friends and that Kathi, with her condition of low vision, was not particularly happy to be compared to "Goody-Two-Shoes Helen." However, Kathi overcame her disdain of Helen Keller, wrote a collection of poems about this blinddeaf woman who, in her childhood, was known as Spitfire and Little Bronco, and has elevated this legendary hellion to personal guru. Most Americans know only of Helen Keller through the play The Miracle Worker. Keller, a 1904 Radcliffe graduate, went on to achieve status as an author, political activist, and lecturer. In Beauty Is a Verb, the Dresser was pleased to note these lines by Kathi in Helen's voice from "The Sun Is Warm: Nagasaki, 1948,"
teachers scorched, doctors decapitated,
patients incinerated. And they say
America won the War? I do not want
peace that passes understanding: I want
understanding that brings peace. Mr. Nagai,
I touché your singed, nearly skinless face.
I don't have much time left, you say,
but I a well for the sung is warm.
In this reading from Beauty Is a Verb, editors Michael Northen and Sheila Black generously promoted other writers in this 384-page book with a graphically breath-taking photo on its cover. For example, "Excavation" by Kenny Fries who was born missing various bones in his legs and feet.
Tonight, when I take off my shoes:
three toes on each twisted foot.
I touch the rough skin. The holes
where the pins were. The scars.
If I touch them long enough will I find
those who never touched me? Or those
who did? Freak, midget, three-toed
bastard. Words I've always heard.
Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words
I was given.
Both Kathi's and Kenny's poems bear numbers of profound loss.
Also participating were Ellen McGrath Smith and Kara Dorris. Here's an excerpt from Kara's prose poem "Wanting to Be a Girl." Notice how Kara particularly emphasizes numbers by using their symbols as opposed to spelling them out.
When I close my octopus eyes, I see 4 arms, 4 legs lift. I want only 2 of each. The sky said stay, meant to be, this parasitic twin, a bleed to what a girl should be. But I ache for what my body is--fused spines, one heart dissolved in another, doubled ribs protecting lotus flower lungs.
Here the Dresser will say hold onto that image of conjoined twins.
PALESTINE/ISRAEL: FINDING THE LEGS TO STAND ON
The Dresser broke for lunch with Alicia Ostriker and Barbara Goldberg. Both poets have new books that speak to Jewish culture. Alicia's The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems combines her studies of Midrash (commentary on scripture--Biblical stories and teachings) with her own brand of feminism. Scorched by the Sun by the Israeli Moshe Dor is Barbara's translation with the author into English. This collection deals with the love of the land Israel versus the love of a flesh and bones woman.
Lunch was a prelude to Before There Is Nowhere to Stand--Palestine/Israel: Poets Respond to Struggle, a streaming reading from a forthcoming anthology (Lost Horse Press) by many poets who interleaved their voices poem by poem--Grace Beeler, Rick Black, Joan Thaler Dobbie, Edward Morin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Alicia Ostriker, Willa Schneberg, Ingrid Wendt, Carolyne Wright. Subject matter included the tragic mishap of the young American woman Rachel Corrie crushed by a bulldozer in the Gaza Strip who became a Palestinian martyr, a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, a Palestinian father (Naomi Shihab Nye's father) on dialysis writing on separate slips of paper his dream to plant olive and fig trees on his former land. After this program, "Utopia, another name for a smiling prison," a line from Alicia Ostriker stuck in the Dresser's memory as she continued to ponder the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Dare the Dresser say there were no Israeli voices present in this reading? Certainly the challenge for future Split This Rock Festivals is to embrace the stories of all sides of social justice issues.
FINDING THE TRUTHS AMONG THE DISPARATE
For the Dresser, Day 3 of STR concluded by a featured reading with the distinctly different voices of Khaled Mattawa, Marilyn Nelson, José Padua, and Minnie Bruce Pratt. To open this program came a recording of June Jordan's mellifluous voice reciting her poem about truth and chopping down cherry trees, eating the fruit, and spitting the pits into the Potomac. If a single poem has the power to heal, it has to be this one.
Now, Dear Reader, realizing that this was the third set of poetry readings of the Dresser's Day, you might be astonished by how much the Dresser was impressed by these readers. José Padua, said in his poem that recounts the horror his Pilipino mother saw during World War II--Japanese soldiers tossing babies in the air and then spearing them with their bayonets, "I needed it all." In other words, he accepted the world in its totality, both horror and beauty alike. Possibly what surprised the Dresser the most, since she had heard him speak in the STR Day 1 panel Page & Stage: What's the Fuss? and was aware of his reputation as a provocateur who has been published in such publications as Bomb, Exquisite Corpse, and Crimes of the Beats was how mild mannered and calm he was.
Khaled Mattawa's "Ecclesiastes" countered what José Padua called the "bayonet trick." Here's an excerpt from Khaled's poem that like the Old Testament Ecclesiastes hones in on the vanities of human life.
The rule is to create a commission system.
The trick is to get their number.
The trick is to make it personal:
No one in the world suffers like you.
After Minnie Bruce Pratt was arrested in a protest against state brutality, orders were barked at her by the police. In her poem "Breakfast Again," she answered, "If you spoke that much to Mr. Diallo, he would be alive today." [In 199, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African Immigrant, was shot 19 times in the vestibule of his Bronx home by four white policemen of the NYPD.]
Remember the conjoined twins in the prose poem by Kara Dorris? Marilyn Nelson based her entire reading on this topic as she read the seven rondeaux redouble that make up her poem "Millie-Christine," the story of the "two-headed nightingale." Here are lines that impressed the Dresser:
"Ask a freak where identity begins and ends: Is the midget his height? The fat lady her weight? No, we are each the horizon of a vast mind, each called to contribute something great to our united state."
"But much of history is a freak show, too. Freaks live openly, all over the map. Examine the things "normal" people do, and you'll recognize their essential handicap. Those who exploit innocence, who slay hope; liars and thieves; the greedy and the cruel; those who spend their lives inwardly asleep and who lack compassion are freaks beyond ridicule."
The next morning and the last day of the STR Poetry Festival, the Dresser ran into Marilyn Nelson in the Carlos Rosario International School Auditorium where the final event was scheduled. Marilyn, who is a Formalist when it comes to writing poetry, said she researched and wrote this poem at the Vermont Studio Center over a period of two weeks.
ON THE HORIZON OF THE INFINITE
Melissa Tuckey as master of ceremonies for the final STR event opened with June Jordan's poem "New Year's Eve," which has this intriguing line, "Infinity doesn't interest me anymore." Why? She wrote, ''and/ as I watch your arm/ your/ brown arm/ just/ before it moves/ I know/ all things are dear/ that disappear/ all things are dear/ that disappear.'' June died June 14, 2002, and she knew how fragile one is in the horizon of the infinite.
Next up was the young poet Kosi Dunn. The Dresser applauds STR for giving stage time to the next generation of poets like Kosi and Alexis "Wordplay" Franklin.
However, the final program belonged to Kathy Engel, Sherwin Bitsui, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Kathy opened with "I Will Not," that has this powerful last assertion: "I want to look back and write about the day/ the killing stopped, how we as animals rose."
If you asked Sherwin Bitsui who he is, undoubtedly he will say he is a member of the Bitter Water Clan and not acknowledge the larger category of American Indian. He unabashedly uses Navaho words in his poetry. The Dresser tried to hang on to his images of wildlife as it swam into her ears in torrential bursts, "everyone planted corn in his belly, deer ran out the..." She will have to follow him into his territory again to learn his language, how his images run together and have no end.
In her poems, Naomi Shihab Nye can knock you out with her ability to handle the English language. "War is raw whatever way you look at it." She says certain words should not exist--terror, enemy, massacre, slap in the face. "What we need is a graveyard for nasty words." She asks how about using bedrock, pillow, cake? She says if you are going to bomb a people, couldn't we at least pronounce their names right Arab not A-rab; Iraq not I-rock. Couldn't we make these people go to speech therapy till some sort of magic happens? She says it's good to sit down with a racist every now to sort these things out.
The next Split This Rock Poetry Festival is March 27-30, 2014.