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SPLIT This Rock: A Poetic Strategy for Audience

The conclusion of the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival was a deluge of poetry readings which were all free and open to the public. The Dresser thinks this is brilliant strategy because toward the end of any conference audience dwindles because there are matters of life--and death--to address. Here are the lineups but the Dresser, being only human, will focus on the Saturday night event, which turned out to be a surprising show of creative energy.

#1 Saturday afternoon March 29
DC Youth Slam Team Member Lauren May
Eduardo C. Corral, Gayle Danley, Claudia Rankine, Myra Sklarew

#2 Saturday evening March 29
DC Youth Slam Team Member Thomas Hill
Franny Choi, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wang Ping

#3 Sunday morning March 30
DC Youth Slam Team Member Reina Privado
Sheila Black, Natalie Diaz, Shilja Patel

RegieBackbend.jpgSaturday night, the sui generis performance artist and poet Regie Cabico moderated--well, no, there was nothing moderate about his flamboyant style of dancing the poets on and off the stage. RegieCabicoClose.jpgThe young spoken word poet Thomas Hill opened with his performance of "Sunday Morning," a piece about his mother that includes this devastating line "I keep her company in the art of hating herself."ThomasHill.jpg

Next up so as not to be upstaged by the performances that followed came the scholar, professor, and prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Standing at the lectern, he began with the poem "Ode to the Oud," that "gourd shaped muse." He closed with:

by Yusef Komunyakaa
For Derek Walcott

An island is one great eye
... gazing out, a beckoning lighthouse,
searchlight, a wishbone compass,
... or counterweight to the stars.
When it comes to outlook & point
... of view, a figure stands on a rocky ledge
peering out toward an archipelago
... of glass on the mainland, a seagull's
wings touching the tip of a high wave,
... out to where the brain may stumble.

But when a mind climbs down
... from its high craggy lookout
we know it is truly a stubborn thing,
... & has to leaf through pages of dust
& light, through pre-memory & folklore,
... remembering fires roared down there
till they pushed up through the seafloor
... & plumes of ash covered the dead
shaken awake worlds away, & silence
... filled up with centuries of waiting.

Sea urchin, turtle, & crab
... came with earthly know-how,
& one bird arrived with a sprig in its beak,
... before everything clouded with cries,
a millennium of small deaths now topsoil
... & seasons of blossoms in a single seed.
Light edged along salt-crusted stones,
... across a cataract of blue water,
& lost sailors' parrots spoke of sirens,
... the last words of men buried at sea.

Someone could stand here
... contemplating the future, leafing
through torn pages of St. Augustine
... or the prophecies by fishermen,
translating spore & folly down to taproot.
... The dreamy-eyed boy still in the man,
the girl in the woman, a sunny forecast
... behind today, but tomorrow's beyond
words. To behold a body of water
... is to know pig iron & mother wit.

Whoever this figure is,
... he will soon return to dancing
through the aroma of dagger's log,
... ginger lily, & bougainvillea,
between chants & strings struck
... till gourds rally the healing air,
& till the church-steeple birds
... fly sweet darkness home.
Whoever this friend or lover is,
... he intones redemptive harmonies.

To lie down in remembrance
... is to know each of us is a prodigal
son or daughter, looking out beyond land
... & sky, the chemical & metaphysical
beyond falling & turning waterwheels
... in the colossal brain of damnable gods,
a Eureka held up to the sun's blinding eye,
... born to gaze into fire. After conquering
frontiers, the mind comes back to rest,
... stretching out over the white sand.


Franny Choi opened with To the Man Who Shouted 'I Like Pork Fried Rice' at Me on the Street." This poem was published in the March edition of Poetry magazine which featured poets presented at Split This Rock. She concluded her out-on-the-slender-limb of confrontational poetry with "Pussy Monster," a deconstruction of rapper Lil Wayne's "Pussy Monster."

Closing the show, Wang Ping brought to the stage a musician who provided flute, drum, and guitar accents. She opened with "A Hakka Man Farms Rare Earth in South China." WangPing-musician.jpg

by Wang Ping as edited by Melissa Tuckey

First of all, it's not earth nor it's rare, as they say

It lies under our feet, sparkling the soil we farm

Red, green, yellow, blue, purple, sky of grass

And buffalos, patches of rice, bamboos, sweet yams

We came here as guests--Hakka--fleeing from angry

Lords. Year after year, we bent over the earth

Feet and hands in the neon soil, our sweat

Fertilized the fields, children, ancestors' graves

Our stove cooked the fragrance from the sun and moon

Now we dig, deep in the mud, our boots

Rotting in the rainbow sludge...Dig, and we dig

Hoes, pickaxes, guns, explosives, acid wash

Ten Yuan a sac, this red dirt speckled with

Blue and yellow. Home, we say, a small haven

Painted with green. Now the mountains are lifted

Deep crates in the fields, blood and pus in rivers

Streams...all because the world wants this earth

"Vitamins" for I-pods, plasma TVs, wind turbines

Guided missiles--things that make the world

Cleaner and more beautiful, as they say

And here we are, in the waist-deep sludge

A sac of mud--a tail of greed leached in our stove

Fire licks my wife's slender hands

Acid fumes her lungs, liver, stomach

Can't even sip the porridge laced

With the thousand-year-old eggs

In the iron wok, we exhume

Dysprosium, Neodymium, Promethium

All the names of Gods, they say

If gods have eyes, why didn't they see us

Slaves of this world that no longer holds?

In the distance, a mushroom of dust--Boss

And his Toyota Prius, powered by the sludge

That chokes my eyes, ears, nose...One Rich Field

25 pounds of metal, ten thousand sacs of earth

Ripped under our feet. We're slipping

Our chests soaked in blood, backs broken

Digging, pulling, no food or water

Our quota still short, the boss will be mad

But no matter. I light a cigarette, each puff

Is the last. Tomorrow is gone, like our village

Here and far away, where horses ran wild

Under the sky, where we, children of

Genghis Khan, return every night in our dream

That is gone, too, they say. Mongolia

Our origin, now a rare earth pit for the world

Oh, Hakka, Hakka, forever the guests

Wandering on this bare earth

Hakka: Nomads from Mongolia, scattered all over China and world. Most of them now live in Guandong, where the rare earth metals are mined and leached in stone-age methods. Inner Mongolia and Guangdong produce 95 percent of the rare earth supplies for the world.

Toyota: the Chinese name is FengTian, meaning Rich Field.

What is important to know about the work of Wang Ping is that while she writes both in Mandarin and English, she does not hold back in her English language poetry. Two poems in this STR reading that knocked the breath out the Dresser dealt with Chinese nannies caring for the adopted Chinese daughters of wealthy middle class white couples. Both of the poems were set in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. In one poem, the nanny was a former neuro-surgeon who rants about how these pampered adopted girls are nothing but peasants with flat back of the skulls, that these girls will be intellectually and artistically inadequate. The other nanny of the second poem is more sympathetic, but is still tough, saying the child she is caring for belongs to her culture and to her, that she, the nanny, is the true mother.

And so it was for the fourth Split This Rock Poetry Festival that anyone with any issue could find a home or battleground for his/her beliefs. Kudos for another well run festival where conversation mattered.


Comments (3)


what a spectacular write- up


Thanks, Karren, for all of these great postings on the fabulous SPLIT THIS ROCK Festival. It was a great place to be on a wet Washington weekend!


Thnx Dresser for all your reports! it was great to read your thorough coverage on panels I missed and it's fun to sift through the pictures of that high energy Saturday night reading! great seeing you and see you soon!

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