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March 11, 2010

The Syntax of Split This Rock 2010

March 10, 2010, marked the start of the second Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC. The Dresser who has been laying low studying Mandarin has made room for this important event. You may remember she covered the first Split This Rock that was made viscerally poignant by the participation of Dennis Brutus who split rocks with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island where they were both political prisoners of the South African government.

Because there are events starting early that the Dresser hopes to attend today, she will give you the skin of a reading delivered last night by prominent poets of social consciousness. The reading began with short deliveries by Holly Bass, Beny Blaq, and Derrick Weston Brown, poets-in-residence at DC's Busboys & Poets, a small restaurant chain whose owner Andy Shallal has generously supported the voices of poetry since 2005 when he opened the flagship location at 14th & V Streets, NW, DC. Shallal is also generously supporting Split This Rock 2010.


"Summer time in Brooklyn" was the line Beny Blaq crooned about a woman who had never been to his hometown but who seemed to have captured everything good about Brooklyn. The Dresser loved his musicality in this poem.

CIMG0348Brown.jpgDerrick Weston Brown generously opened with a poem by the recently lost Lucille Clifton. These lines became indelible in the Dresser's thoughts: "Remember each day is a draft. Remember to forgive yourself and then you can write."


Holly Bass followed suit with a poem Clifton wrote about the Jewish New Year celebration of Rosh Hashanah that puts apples and honey on the celebration table - "what is not lost is paradise." Bass got the Dresser's full attention with her own poems, including an odd and somewhat outrageous piece about having the "domestic" gene for cleaning. The Dresser will have to ponder what the big metaphor is and why it made her think of the Chinese who live in communal housing around the Forbidden City in Beijing. Bass also did an audience participation poem where the assembled were asked to respond to her signal and chant "In the District." In this jazzy, syncopated poem, we got a tour of Holly Bass's Washington, DC.

The featured readers of this program were: Cornelius Eady, Andrea Gibson, and Wang Ping. Here's the skin again in the order they appeared:

Wang Ping gave the audience a slice of China post Mao Zedong (jewelry workers dying from quartz dust, wild pheasants -- prostitutes--and blue houses--brothels) as well as a look at what a Chinese woman writing in English can achieve much to the negative review of Helen Vendler who says non-native speakers of English cannot write poetry in English.

2010_eadySM.jpgCornelius Eady gave the audience Aretha Franklin's inaugural hat and a view of Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem both present at Barrack Obama's inauguration.


Andrea Gibson sent emotional ripples across the bodies of her audience with poems about the damage being done to our soldiers in the current wars. The Dresser has not ever heard more compelling poems about this topic and Gibson's delivery was riveting.

Here's the poem Wang Ping wrote in defiance of literary critic Helen Vendler


She walks to a table
She walk to table

She is walking to a table
She walk to table now

What difference does it make
What difference it make

In Nature, no completeness
No sentence really complete thought

Language, like woman
Look best when free, undressed.

Wang Ping
from Of Flesh & Spirit

Copyright © 1998 Wang Ping


Split This Rock: Looking for Peace

Perhaps some of the Dresser's readers are wondering what distinguishes the Split This Rock Poetry Festival from other poetry programs. The Dresser thinks it would be fair to say these two words: social change.

On March 11, 2010, the Dresser attended three events: a panel entitled "The Peace Shelves: Essential Books and Poems for the 21st Century, " a panel entitled "Gay and Lesbian Poetry in the 40th Year Since Stonewall: History, Craft, Equality," and part of film program.


SMCIMG0374Marchant.jpgThe big questions raised by panelists on "The Peace Shelves" panel is what is peace and how do we appreciate it even among the relics of war. Among the poems offered by panelists Fred Marchant, Sarah Gridley, Jeff Gundy, and Philip Metres, the Dresser was most touched by Denise Levertov's "Making Peace," Lucille Clifton's "Slave Cabin," Li-Young Lee's "Immigration Blues," as well as short selections from Mahmoud Darwish's The Butterfly's Burden.


Jeff Grundy's discussion of Grace Jantzen's Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion added an interesting optimistic but existential layer in how to achieve peace. Jantzen's philosophy advocated working on "flourishing" as opposed to the trying to attain immortality. The Dresser found this panel refreshingly upbeat.


GLBTPanel.jpgLed by Joseph Ross, the "Gay and Lesbian Poetry in the 40th Year Since Stonewall" panel addressed three questions:
• Who are the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) poets who have inspired panelists Francisco Aragon, Janet Aalfs, Jericho Brown, Reginald Harris, and Dan Vera.
• How does being Gay or Lesbian affect your (these panelists) writing?
• How does your writing give witness to the GLBT civil rights movement?

The Dresser found the panel informative and generally applicable to all people who are marginalized, including poets. This was the first time the Dresser understood where and when gender rights in American began. She has often been in New York City when Gay Pride marches have taken place but she didn't realize that the Stonewall Inn was a bar in Greenwich Village where the homosexual community stood up against government sanctioned persecutions of sexual minorities.

Janet Aalfs emphasized the role of the body in identifying who a person is. She demonstrated this with a tai chi inspired movement piece that made allusion to Saffo and other feminist writers.

Reginald Harris and Francisco Aragon talked about competing identities and how that competition works when a person sits down to write. This conversation certainly transcended the GLBT community. While there still continues to be a certain level of discomfort and conservative approaches to daily life by the GLBT people, the Dresser sensed that this minority community is more willing to present a more open discussion about their needs and preferences than say 10 to 15 years ago. Recent social change in Washington, DC and Maryland are shaping this new sense of ease despite backward behavior from government officials in Virginia.


The Dresser saw the following short films "Chinese Cucumbers," "Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment," "Purple Lipstick," "Passage," and "I Am Not a Juvenile Delinquent." Subjects included A.I.D.S., Guantanamo Bay Prison, domestic violence, urban life in the 'hood,' and juvenile rehabilitation. The Dresser wasn't overly excited about any of these films, but maybe she is jaded and overly inclined to set high standards. Her tastes run to recent big screen films like Precious, The Hurt Locker, and A Single Man.

Here's an excerpt from Denise Levertov's poem "Making Peace." Levertov's poem seems to speak to the entire set of Split This Rock activities experienced by the Dresser today.

....................................... But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can't be imagined before it is made,
can't be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

Denise Levertov
from Making Peace

Copyright © 2006 Peggy Rosenthal

March 14, 2010

Splitting Rocks in China & Writing in the Dark

Is the gathering called Split This Rock a poetry festival, a literary conference, or political rally calling for social action on such issues as bringing our soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan or nailing down nationwide rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community? The Dresser brings this question up because of an anecdote told by Philip Metres in the session entitled "The Peace Shelves: Essential Books and Poems for the 21st Century." Metres said he spoke to his young daughter (the Dresser thinks she heard Ms. Metres is nine years old) on the phone and she wanted to know something about the "conference" her father was participating in. He told her he was at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. At the word "festival" she laughed and asked if there would be cake and a parade.

IMG_0435Friends.jpgWhile the Dresser takes note of the rally (entitled "Poetry in the Streets" in which participants were invited to contribute to a long poem envisioning the future of country and planet) that took place on March 11 at the upper Senate Park and the closing dance party March 13 (possibly these are the stand-ins for parade and cake), it is still hard to say what the Split This Rock offerings add up to. In part, it does have a party feel where good friends and new meet up on the sidewalks of the U Street corridor. Leading Split This Rock producer Sarah Browning made good choices when she landed venues in this section of Washington, DC. In part, Split This Rock can seem like a place where politicos and academics converge to read their cant. However, the part the Dresser likes the best is when she learns something new.


John Rosenwald and Arthur Sze in their session "Poetry in China: A Force for Change" provided a tutorial on Chinese poetry since the Cultural Revolution. In an intimate conference room in the Thurgood Marshall Center, a group of twenty or more attentive listeners heard about Rosenwald and Sze's acquaintanceship with members of the Misty Poets: Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, Yang Lian, Mang Ke, and Shu Ting. These poets write or wrote in the Romantic tradition and address or addressed human emotions, which is something few Chinese people do. Shu Ting is the only woman in the group of Misty Poets.

In 1978, Bei Dao and Mang Ke founded a literary magazine called 今天 Jīntiān (Today) where the poems of the Misty Poets were published. Bei Dao's poem "Huida" ("The Answer") was written during the 1976 Tiananmen Square demonstrations and carried on posters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Although Bei Dao was in Berlin during the 1989 protests, the People's Republic of China government refused to allow him back in the PRC.

CIMG0383Rosenwald.jpgIn the late 1980s, Rosenwald who was teaching in a university in China found out about the Misty Poets in a roundabout way. He asked the head of his department about contemporary Chinese poets. The man said there were none, but he went home and asked his teenage daughter who said, "Father, I have been waiting for you to ask." She produced a booklet of poems by some of the Misty Poets. CIMG0385Journal.jpg

Rosenwald talked about the practice among the young Chinese intellectuals of running books. This entailed receiving an unsanctioned book for a period of 24 hours that the recipient would read and then pass to another person. Those involved with book running hoped to avoid discovery by government officials. This discussion reminded the Dresser of Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a short novel loosely based on Dai Sijie's life where two friends sent into the countryside of China for re-education steal a suitcase of Western books and then set about to educate a local seamstress with these writings.


Rosenwald also told the story about Bei Dao who was sent to a reeducation camp where he continued to write at the risk of bringing down the entire group with whom he was working. (And by the way, what was Bei Dao's job? Breaking rocks!) Because his work team understood Bei Dao would not stop writing, one of them decreed that they must have a group photographer and assigned that job to the poet. Therefore Bei Dao could lock himself into the dark room and write.

CIMG0379Sze.jpgArthur Sze provided a glimpse into the writings of contemporary Chinese women. He read from a manifesto style document in his new book called Chinese Writers on Writing. "Black Night Consciousness" by Zhai Yongming was a very potent essay, particularly after John Rosenwald's wife told a story about a group of male Chinese poets being asked specifically to bring three female Chinese poets to a dinner she was making for the men. The men showed up without any women poets and then confessed that they didn't want the women competing with them for the possibility of getting published by her husband.

Invoked during this Split This Rock session was the name of Wang Ping who read the first night of this Festival but left soon thereafter for Scotland. Rosenwald said Wang Ping often talks about the "zigzag way" in China, which means to get something done, a person cannot proceed straight ahead because there are always barriers thrown up, forcing one to find another route to the destination. The Dresser who just finished reading Wang Ping's dark poetry collection Of Flesh & Spirit thinks this poet has much in common with Chai and her "Black Night Consciousness."

John Rosenwald and Arthur Sze whetted the Dresser's appetite for contemporary Chinese writings, particularly the work by Chinese writers who are women. If there is a parade for the Chinese women writers, the Dresser who dislikes big crowds will attend. She knows the Chinese have no appetite for cake.

In this poem, Shu Ting explores human emotions through the natural world. "To the Oak" was a shocking poem to the Chinese when it was published in Jīntiān in 1978.


If I love you - 

I'll never be a clinging campsis flower

Resplendent in borrowed glory on your high boughs; 

If I love you -- 

I'll never mimic the silly infatuated birds 

Repeating the same monotonous song for green shade; 

Or be like a spring 

Offering cool comfort all year long;

Or a lofty peak

Enhancing your stature, your eminence. 

Even the sunlight, 

Even spring rain, 

None of the these suffice!

I must be a kapok, the image of 

A tree standing together with you;

Our roots closely intertwined beneath the earth, 

Our leaves touching in the clouds. 

With every whiff of wind

We greet each other 

But no one can 

Understand our words. 

You'll have bronze limbs and iron trunk,

Like knives, swords

And halberds. 

I'll have my crimson flowers

Like sighs, heavy and deep, 

Like heroic torches, 

Together we'll share

The cold tidal waves, storms, and thunderbolts; 

Together we'll share

The light mist, the colored rainbows; 

We shall always depend on each other. 

Only this can be called great love.

Wherein lies the faith, true and deep. 

I love not only your stateliness

But also your firm stand, the earth beneath you.

Shu Ting
Copyright © 1978 Shu Ting

March 16, 2010

Marin Alsop's High-Wire Concert

Marin Alsop is a conductor who likes to take risks. The Dresser wants to know how many conductors would allow the possibility that contortionists, strongmen, acrobats, juggler, and aerialists would upstage her orchestra?

Alexander Streltsov & Christine Van Loo (Aerial Duo) 1SM.jpgBefore a sold out audience March 13, 2010, in a program entitled "Cirque de la Symphonie," Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Bethesda, Maryland's Music Center at Strathmore Hall in program of 20th century music that included (in the order of performance) Francis Poulenc's "The Does," Bela Bartok's "Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin," Erik Satie's "Parade," and Aaron Copland's "Suite from Billy the Kid." Except for the flamboyant Bartok composition, the front of the stage and its airspace had remarkably skilled circus performers moving with the music.

Without the performers, the Dresser was immediately drawn to Alsop's concert program and in fact (should she dare say this) had to pass up a concert by the 21st Century Consort that included a composition by Scott Wheeler, composer the Dresser knows is getting all sorts of recognition. During Poulenc's "The Does," which is a suite drawn from his larger work Les Biches, the Dresser, while mesmerized by a pair of aerialists who at points flew over the orchestra and the first several rows of audience, kept thinking but the performers are stealing the attention from the music, the musicians, and the conductor. However, the Dresser has seen the best in circus performances such as "O" by Cirque du Soleil and she had to admit that the combination of BSO and circus performers was tastefully executed.

Marin Alsop seemed to be having a lot of fun and at points turned to the performers to ensure they were where she expected them to be in the journey through the various compositions. Her introduction to the whacky "Parade," which includes sound effects from shooting guns, the striking keys of an old typewriter, and chains, was much in the tradition of Leonard Bernstein teaching his audience how to really hear the music and, in the case of Alsop's rendering of "Parade," the competition was fierce as two strongmen contortionists moved through a strange set of balancing maneuvers that looked like they were birthing each other. Jarek & Derek Promo 1SM.jpgThe end of the show had Copland's Billy the Kid entangled with a trapeze artist who could also tango and perform swing dance moves called air steps or aerials. There was nothing amateur about any of the circus performers in Alsop's concert.

Thanks to a gracious gift from a set of friends who hold BSO season tickets, the dresser had the best seats in the house and that being the first chairs in an upper level box positioned just a bit in front of the stage. From that height, every movement of the musicians, conductors and performers was in perfect view. What an unusual concert evening.

Here's a poem excerpt from Kristi Maxwell who celebrates parts versus the whole in a poem that begins with flying but is very much a philosophic meditation on logic and love and much in the spirit of Marin Alsop's circus concert.


A wing as a bird.

A wing that catches the wind like the end of a conversation

and responds this way.

When I say bring your arm to bed

the invitation's extended to the not-arm of you.

My body is less polite.

A wing as a mouth you con me with.

I enact a minnow-shaped cabin you press into.

We plane.

Whose resistance feigns air flight demands?

Kristi Maxwell
from "log of dead birds" in Hush Sessions

Copyright © 2009 Kristi Maxwell

Photo #1: aerial artists Alexander Streltsov and Christine Van Loo
Photo #2: hand-balancing artists Jarek and Darek of "Duo Design"

March 26, 2010

Watch Out for Those Island Getaways

If you can't get away to an island, maybe the next best thing is to pick one of the island movies recently offered in your neighborhood theaters. The Dresser has seen Shutter Island--Martin Scorsese's film that is set in a mental institution on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, The Ghost Writer-- Roman Polanski's who-dun-it set on Martha's Vineyard, Precious--Lee Daniel's award-winning indie film set in Harlem (come on, Readers, New York City is on Manhattan Island), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--Danish director Niels Arden Oplev's noire thriller set on Hedeby Island off the coast of Sweden. While she finds much to admire in The Ghost Writer and Precious, she's not so fond of the storyline in Shutter Island though the acting Leonardo DiCaprio and the scenery holds the attention up to a point. However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo compares in the Dresser's experience to Chinatown, the classic film by Roman Polanski. (Sorry, Roman, The Ghost Writer was good but it pales in the long shadow of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) In other words, Tattoo is worth seeing multiple times.lisbeth_E_20091204105216.jpg

If you have been resisting Tattoo because it is in Swedish, the Dresser says don't sweat that experience. The subtitles are short and to the point but the Dresser was amazed how familiar Swedish seemed. When they talk about murder, you hear in Swedish mörda. Daughter is dotter. Good morning, very similar to German, is god morgon. Then, of course, there is the toast--Skol.

Blomkvist-Salander.jpgWhat's the film about? It's about an investigative journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) who has been framed and will enter prison in six months time but he also has been tapped by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), a wealthy man who wants the disappearance of his niece solved. This is a 40 year-old cold case. The hook is the missing niece babysat the journalist because the journalist's father worked for the uncle back then. The spice to the story is a tougher-than-nails computer hacker who, after mostly cyber stalking Blomkvist, gives him the lead that cracks open the case with unexpected horrors. The hacker is Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a.k.a. the girl with the dragon tattoo.

So, you are worried about breeching your film criteria? The Dresser will go down the list.

Action to the point of near death? Check.
Sex that leaves you gasping? Check.
Love story? Check.
Psychological depth? Check.
Focus on gender issues? Check.
A young hottie? Check.
An attractive older man? Check.
Contemporary innovations? Check.
Historical references of current day interest? Check.
A Hitchcockesque drawing room scene? Check.
Revenge in the name of justice? Check.
Outcomes that surprise but do not dupe? Check.
A storyline so engaging, you never look at your watch. Check.

There's more but you will have to check out the acting, the original music, and cinematic details yourself so the Dresser doesn't have to rave about that too. And one more thing, there is no thread left dangling. While this movie has the psychological wallop of Precious, the viewer goes home unfettered. No worries about leaving with a load of Ingmar Bergman bleakness and despair. So this is the island movie the Dresser recommends if you can't get to the Caribbean or some other place of redemption.

Ned Balbo's poem "Queenright" provides a metaphoric flavor to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.


A thriving hive is "queenright." But not
any queen will do. Problems in a hive
are often traced back to the queen and,
still further, to the errors of the beekeeper.

Perhaps in haste you caught and killed your queen
Then acted slowly while the colony
Moved fast to fill her place. Or, having split
The hive, one queen for a diminished realm,
None for the rest, you brought to those abandoned
One they drove off, forced down, or devoured.
Many mistakes are possible. Think hard.
Perhaps your queen is missing, lost in flight,
Murdered before she mated, fallen ill
Without your knowledge, while some lookalike
Successor rules the court. Or else you sought
Unwisely--she seemed young and vigorous--
Some queen of doubtful lineage to serve
This hive desperate to thrive queenright again.

by Ned Balbo
from Lives of the Sleepers

Copyright © 2005 Ned Balbo

About March 2010

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in March 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2010 is the previous archive.

April 2010 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.