Sunday, August 30, 2009


Who Gets to Write Political Poems - A Riff Off Eileen Myles on Harriet

I woke up this morning intending to weigh in on the Poetry Foundation blog, Harriet, about Eileen Myles' response to Sean Patrick Hill's review in Rain Taxi (not available online) of State of the Union, the anthology of political poems published by Wave Books. I haven't seen the anthology yet, or read Hill's review, and I certainly don't have time to read the hundreds of comments generated by Myles' opinion piece. Still, I have a lot to say about political poetry and Myles makes good points in her critique of Hill, who apparently voices the tired position that in order to have the standing to write a political poem one has to have directly experienced war or some other form of violence and persecution.

But every time I try to go to the site today my browser seizes up - I can't scroll, I can't do anything. And the Wave Books page on the anthology seems to be down so I'm having trouble finding out who's included in the collection. Telling? Hmmm - technological helplessness... as metaphor for women's relative powerlessness in cyberspace? Should I write a political poem?

Of course I'm being glib, but let's examine at Hill's basic premise (assuming Myles got it right): that only certain people -- veterans of conventionally understood war zones -- have the standing, the right, to write poems about the broader world. Only in America have I heard this position asserted. In Italy I had to explain at length why we needed Poets Against the War or Split This Rock. Italians couldn't imagine poets who write socially engaged works feeling isolated from the poetry mainstream.

We are all citizens of this fast-dying planet; we are responsible for its death. As Americans we consume the cheap products of poorly paid and otherwise exploited workers in our own country and around the world. We were governed for 8 years by a murderous, lying political regime. Even today, the Obama administration continues to wage wars in our name, to turn a blind eye to Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, to impose US military bases all over the world, to support economic policies here at home that keep the poor and working classes powerless. Our systems of education, criminal justice, and health care are grossly inequitable.

Myles makes the critical point that if we are female or queer or a person of color, everyday life is a war zone in the United States: rape, hate crimes, violence in our neighborhoods and homes.

But even if we are "comfortably middle class," as Hill apparently accuses the poets in State of Union of being, it seems to me that we’re not given a pass. Indeed, we have an extra responsibility to speak out, to expose the inequities, to make clear the ways in which we benefit every day from, as in my case, white skin, education, heterosexual marriage.

I also deeply resent the notion that we should take some part of our lives (our relationship to the wider world) and rope it off, not write about it. Please don’t tell me what I can’t write about. I assert: Any topic is worthy of poetry. John Updike wrote a poem to a particular turd he “struck off” one afternoon. Childish? Perhaps. But no one told Updike what topics he should consider worthy of poetry.
I have read hundreds – perhaps thousands – of “political” poems while editing Poets Against the War anthologies, curating the Sunday Kind of Love reading series at Busboys and Poets in DC, and organizing now two Split This Rock Poetry Festivals. The fact of the matter is that there are as many ways to write a political poem as there are poets. More, in fact, since many poets write lots of different kinds of such poems. Poets are writing challenging, funny, grieving, confounding, angry, hopeful poems about our benighted and beautiful world. American poets are doing this and doing it in all kinds of interesting ways, far more poets than we can hope to feature in a decade of biannual festivals. I salute you all.

Rather than tread the tired territory of whether one should write political poems, and who deserves to do the writing, again and again, let’s read this work, spread the good word, celebrate these poems and poets. We could begin – and I will – with the poets who will read at Split This Rock next year, March 10-13, 2010. Check out this list: Chris Abani, Lillian Allen, Sinan Antoon, Francisco Aragón, Jan Beatty, Martha Collins, Cornelius Eady, Martín Espada, Allison Hedge Coke, Andrea Gibson, Natalie Illum, Fady Joudah, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Richard McCann, Jeffrey McDaniel, Lenelle Moïse, Nancy Morejón, Mark Nowak, Wang Ping, Patricia Smith, A.B. Spellman, Arthur Sze, Quincy Troupe, and Bruce Weigl.

All of these poets are in the world, are poet-citizens, in a variety of ways. Lillian Allen is an originator of dub poetry and a leader on diversity and culture in Canada. Fady Joudah was a field doctor with Doctors Without Borders. Cornelius Eady is a founder of Cave Canem, the organization for African American poets. Jan Beatty has worked as a welfare caseworker and an abortion counselor. Mark Nowak facilitates “poetry dialogues” with Ford autoworkers in the US and South Africa.

And their poetry reflects this diversity of experience and background: Jan Beatty’s plainspoken explorations of gender and working class life; Mark Nowak’s documentary poetics, weaving news accounts and corporate instructional guides into the poems; poem-songs of Lenelle Moïse; the often short sharp lyrics of Cornelius Eady; A.B. Spellman’s jazz-inflected sounds.

Political poetry – even the term is tainted, in America; at Split This Rock we often call it socially engaged poetry or social justice poetry –contains multitudes. To further adapt Walt Whitman, the godfather of these poets, social justice poetry is not a bit tamed, it too is untranslatable, it sounds its barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Edward Kennedy, 1932-2009

A quiet poem for such a public man, but reading "Mountain Dulcimer" on the Poetry Foundation web site this morning, I was moved by the poem's ability to embody both mourning and celebration at once, what I feel at the death of Ted Kennedy, the extraordinary senator from Massachusetts. And so I offer it below, with gratitude for Ted's lifelong commitment to justice.

Mountain Dulcimer

by Robert Morgan

Where does such sadness in wood come
from? How could longing live in these
wires? The box looks like the most fragile
coffin tuned for sound. And laid
across the knees of this woman
it looks less like a baby nursed
than some symbolic Pietà,
and the stretched body on her lap
yields modalities of lament
and blood, yields sacrifice and sliding
chants of grief that dance and dance toward
a new measure, a new threshold,
a new instant and new year which
we always celebrate by
remembering the old and by
recalling the lost and honoring
those no longer here to strike these
strings like secrets of the most
satisfying harmonies, as
voices join in sadness and joy
and tell again what we already
know, have always known but forget,
from way back in the farthest cove,
from highest on the peaks of love.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Summer Reading, Part 2: Ambroggio and Dixon

Two very different poets in the mix of men of color I happen to be reading this summer. But each political in his particular way.

Melvin Dixon died of AIDS-related illness in 1992, the height of the epidemic. He gave the keynote address at the OutWrite Conference that year, and this is how he finished up:

As for me... I may not be well enough or alive next year to attend the lesbian and gay writers conference, but I'll be somewhere listening for my name.

I may not be around to celebrate with you the publication of gay literary history. But I'll be somewhere listening for my name.
You, then, are charged by the possibility of your good health, by the broadness of your vision, to remember me.

Included in the posthumous collection of poems, Love's Instruments (Tia Chucha Press, 1995).

Here's a poem from the book:

Keeping Time

This night so gently
we circle the clock of streets.
I hear your feet before we meet,
I’ve come empty like this before.
My mouth parched on “hello”
fracturing me inside, my eyes
blurring like seaglass
at other faces you’ve shown.

So come with me again.
What we call ourselves they have
no names for, nor the peeled

fruit offered between us.
And with lips round in even
cadence, we shall recall
this night so gently.

- Melvin Dixon, from Love’s Instruments


And one in Luis Alberto Ambroggio's new Collected, edited by Yvette Neisser Moreno:

U.S. Landscapes

If each brick could speak;
if each bridge could speak;
if the parks, plants, flowers could speak;
if each piece of pavement could speak,
they would speak Spanish.

If the towers, roofs,
air conditioners could speak;
if the churches, airports, factories could speak,
they would speak Spanish.

If the toils could bloom with a name,
they would be called González, Garcia, Rodriguez or Peña.

But they cannot speak.
They are hands, works, scars,
that for now keep silent.

- Luis Alberto Ambroggio, translated by Yvette Neisser Moreno, from Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems, 1987-2006

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Summer Reading: Abani and Shepherd

By chance I've been reading poems by men of color this summer: Chris Abani and A.B. Spellman, featured poets at 2010's Split This Rock Poetry Festival; Reginald Shepherd and Melvin Dixon, both no longer with us, found at a used book store in Itaca, NY; Terrance Hayes, who read at Sunday Kind of Love last weekend; Luis Alberto Ambroggio, who kindly gave me his new book, Difficult Beauty, at last month's Sunday Love; and Rafael Campo, whose The Other Man Was Me I happened to grab off the shelf to read the day after we got home from Italy.

Of course themes of identity run through all their books. Also masculinity and sexuality, the body. Abani is Nigerian, displaced by the Biafran War, exiled by his country. War, exile, the search for home are ever present in his work.

I offer poems by Abani and Shepherd below and will try to post work by the others later this week.

The New Religion

The body is a nation I have never known.
The pure joy of air: the moment between leaping
from a cliff into the wall of blue below. Like that.
Or to feel the rub of tired lungs against skin-
covered bone, like a hand against the rough of bark.
Like that. "The body is a savage," I said.
For years I said that: the body is a savage.
As if this safety of the mind were virtue
not cowardice. For years I have snubbed
the dark rub of it, said, "I am better, Lord,
I am better," but sometimes, in an unguarded
moment of sun, I remember the cowdung-scent
of my childhood skin thick with dirt and sweat
and the screaming grass.
But this distance I keep is not divine,
for what was Christ if not God's desire
to smell his own armpit? And when I
see him, I know he will smile,
fingers glued to his nose, and say, "Next time
I will send you down as a dog
to taste this pure hunger."

- Chris Abani, from Hands Washing Water


Kneeling Self-Portrait

Fluencies of light daily
with olive groves, pensive
green and silver leaves reflect on
noon lies. Unlovely Nemesis loves Narcissus

forced into fruitless bloom, and visits on him
the sins of bees. Strange boy
adoring water’s nothing, shadows
water captivates: this stream

shatters glass for every stone. Mirrors
are evil, held overhead as sky.
Persephone’s heralds string their gold
and black through pollen-addled air, singing

without respite, stinging light
into food for dead gods.
He doesn’t recognize his body
has no rights, no luck with bees.

- Reginald Shepherd, from Wrong

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Party with Split This Rock August 27, 6 pm

Featuring A.B. Spellman and Regie Cabico with the DC Youth Slam Team!

Thursday, August 27, 6-8 pm
Langston Room, Busboys and Poets

14th & V Streets, NW
Washington, DC

Split This Rock invites you to a party Thursday, August 27, 2009, 6-8 pm, in the Langston Room, Busboys and Poets at 14th and V Streets, NW. Busboys will be donating fabulous refreshments and creating a couple of funky Split This Rock cocktails.

Why party? Split This Rock has recently received nonprofit status, a crucial step on the road to becoming a permanent home for socially engaged poets from DC and nationwide. Plus, believe it or not, it's just 6 months until the second Split This Rock Poetry Festival. So we figure it's time to celebrate.

Reading and performing will be 2010 featured poet and DC leading light A.B. Spellman, along with Regie Cabico and the DC Youth Slam Team. See below for more details. Entry will be $10-$25, sliding scale, and you'll have a chance to bid on amazing prizes at auction. Come prepared for readings, for fun, for volunteer opportunities, and for celebrating! For more information: or 202-787-5210.

Can't make the party? You can still volunteer - just contact us at the above email or phone. We'd love to have you involved! And you can definitely still make a donation. Just click here or copy and paste this URL into your browser: Many thanks!

In peace and poetry,
Split This Rock


Poets Celebrating with Split This Rock August 27 - Join Us!

A. B. Spellman is an author, poet, critic, and lecturer. His poetry collection, Things I Must Have Known, was recently was published by Coffee House Press. He has published numerous books and articles on the arts, including Art Tatum: A Critical Biography (a chapbook), The Beautiful Days (poetry), and Four Lives in the Bebop Business, now available as Four Jazz Lives (University of Michigan Press). In recognition of Spellman's commitment and service to jazz, the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005 named one of its prestigious Jazz Masters awards the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy. He was a poet-in-residence at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he taught various courses in African-American culture, and at Emory, Rutgers, and Harvard Universities, where he offered courses in modern poetry, creative writing, and jazz.

The DC Youth Slam Team - These young poets utilize their vocal energy and strength to channel emotions, to generate a message, or to just participate in the artistic field they enjoy. Through their poetic works, they rejuvenate the art of poetry and create individual identities with distinct voices. These teens are the future voices of Amerca. Welcome to the beginning of a movement.

Regie Cabico is the Director of Split This Rock's World & Me youth poetry contest and Artistic Director of Sol & Soul. Cabico is a poet, playwright, and spoken word performer. He took top prizes at the 1993, 1994, and 1997 National Poetry Slams. His work appears in over 30 anthologies and he co-edited Poetry Nation: A North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry. He received a NYFA Artist Fellowship for Poetry in 1997, NYFAs in 2003 for Poetry and Performance Art, and two Brooklyn Arts Council Poetry Awards. Cabico has been a teacher for Urban Word and developed a poetry and performance program for teens with psychiatric illness at Bellevue Hospital. He received the 2006 Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers in recognition of his work with diverse communities.

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