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Split This Rock: The Expanding Language of Poetry

Day 1 of the fourth biennial Split This Rock Poetry Festival offered panel discussions on such topics as LGBT writing and publishing, children in wartime, bilingual cross pollination of generations, youth creativity emerging with spoken word, renewal of urban spaces and environmental concerns, caring for the physical body, human rights.

In this report, the Dresser will focus on two panels that incorporated poetry readings as the method for discussing their topics.

Beauty, Disability, Queerness & Body Politic
L. Lamar Wilson, Kathi Wolfe

Wolfe-Wilson.jpgIn this panel, poets Kathi Wolfe and Lamar Wilson offered their poems and stories about being differently abled. Wolfe and Wilson talked openly about their "hidden stories." She is legally blind but questions ironically as opposed to "illegally" blind. Wilson has a nonfunctioning arm from birth with a condition known as Erb's palsy. Coming from an athletically active family, he was not allowed to sit on the sidelines.

Wolfe who is known for comic quips said such things as, "I live on the Sapphic side of the street"--she writes about blind character named Uppity who is openly queer.



Even blind girls get the blues, 

I tell my mother when she wonders

why I expect to go to the senior prom

when no one would ask someone

like me, and why I can't be happy

spending Saturday evenings curled

up with a large print book. In southern

New Jersey with no wheels, I'm

hermetically sealed in the Pine Barrens.


At a gay bar on Christopher Street,

vamping like Tallulah on a tear, I'm

checking out the red-haired woman

who, surely, will be the next love

of my life. "I love Helen Keller!"

she says, "but what are you

doing in a place like this?"


In Cleveland, full of love

and kumquats, we leave our

favorite Chinese place. "You

should watch her! She might fall!"

a prune-faced woman growls. I do

and I enjoy it, you whisper.

--Kathi Wolfe

Wilson, who is a gay Black man, is ingrained with a hyper religiousity, which is what he considers his true disability. Poetically he described this:

God said let there irony.
Thank you god for this holy bum hand.
Thank you god I'm an unnatural beauty.
I wish some pervert had touch me at six so I could share this blame.

His book of poetry is titled "Sacrilegion," a word he made up to describe the condition under which he lives. Here is what may be his signature poem since he recited this one from memory as his opening offering.


I talk too much. I cannot tell a liar
from a preacher, so I tell you
what you want: I'm saved & sick
of this world, safe in God's arms. God,
give me this world in an honest man's
arms. An ego is hard to stroke. Or easy if
you know how to quiet it, let a man feel
his burn in your throat. I talk too much.
I'm sorry I'm not sorry enough. I'll dance
all over you. O liar. Preacher. Daddy-
o, your tongue lashing is never hard
or fast enough. When you lie still,
stroking your chalice, the quiet makes me
retch. I am a lone dandelion in a field,
waiting. Come. Blow me to bits. Still.
You'll die this way, saved by the lies
that burn like the ice water & alcohol
Mama sits me in to break the fevers
our silences brought. I'll die thrashing,
telling any body all my secrets.

-- L. Lamar Wilson

Claiming History: Writing Cliophrastic Poetry
Marilyn Nelson, Kim Roberts, Dan Vera

What is cliophrastic poetry? This is a term created by Dan Vera and Kim Roberts to describe poetry written about historical events and people. According to Vera, "It's a play on the word ekphrastic (poems based on a work of art) and created out of the Greek words Clio (the muse of history) and phrasis (speaking)."

KimRoberts.jpgFor Kim Roberts, her poetic interest in research-driven poems came as a reaction to all the confessional poetry being written. Cliophrastic poems turn to the outer world as opposed to the confessional which turn inward.


The Physick House, Philadelphia

I turn my head away as the needle

enters that delicate fold of the inner elbow,

then look back to watch the syringe

bloom with my dark agency.

Another lab test: again my doctors

want my fluids, want to know

what stories reside in my blood.

At the Physick House, I learned

we have a total of 166 ounces

in our bodies. Physick,

the "Father of American Surgery," assumed

twice that amount. A second-floor display

shows the knives he used,

the basin with the half-moon cutaway

where a patient could rest her arm.

Now his house is a museum,

all his tools and vials and paraphernalia

lined up in glass cases, and labeled.

I want to know what the labels don't reveal:

who were the patients who laid their arms

over this basin, while Physick leaned close

to cut their inner elbows, that same

fragile furrow, and let their stories flow.

I think I see a little left, a rusty stain,

a life there, hidden.

--Kim Roberts

For Vera, this kind of poetry means the recovery and renewal of historic details that people have forgotten. For a sampling of Vera's research based work, catch him on YouTube.


Marilyn Nelson said she began writing poetry involving research by starting with her family and by going through "that small door," she found a much larger world with subjects like George Washington Carver and the Black school teacher Prudence Crandall of the mid 1800's. For Nelson, her cliophrastic work is always personae poems. Here is a sample of her work:

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.49.55 AM.png

Questions and comments raised:
--How do you balance historical truth versus poetic art so the work won't become too didactic?

--How do you find your subject and then muster the care needed to do the work required to tell this story?

--How does this work make a meaningful contribution to the community from which it arises?

--What does it mean to supersede the erasures of history and to bring out these stories to the world?

The Dresser who, with Kim Roberts, helped sponsor and present a poetry workshop on research-driven poetry featuring Marilyn Nelson in 2001 is ecstatic that this form now has a name. This is what is exciting about a poetry conference--extending the boundaries of communication!


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 28, 2014 10:52 AM.

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