Sarah Browning

With its name adopted from the lines of Langston Hughes’ impelling poem “Big Buddy,” the Split This Rock foundation will host its third biennial “Poetry of Provocation and Witness” conference March 21st through 25th of this year in Washington, D.C. [Click here to link to the conference schedule.] In this installment of our “Five Questions” conversations with artist-administrators, we caught up with the Sarah Browning, founder and director of the Split This Rock foundation, to discuss the evolution of the organization and her expectations for this year’s event.

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KYLE DARGAN: If I remember correctly, D.C. Poets Against the War predates Split This Rock, and a good portion of Split This Rock’s initial energy came from that anti-war focus. But since those early days, the scope and aims of Split This Rock have become much broader and more nuanced than that. What of the organization’s evolution has been planned growth and what has been a response to the national constituency it has attracted?

SARAH BROWNING: All my life, I have been an activist on a wide range of social issues. In my poetry and other writing, I try to think deeply about the links: how the U.S. war machine drains the domestic budget; how economic injustice and racism push young men and women into the military or into prison; how the U.S. wages war in order to secure access to cheap oil. And while I have spoken out against these injustices, I also have an abiding belief in the necessity of building, of being for the world we want to see. The great activist poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “I have decided that wherever I protest from now on [. . .] I will make something—I will make poems, plant, feed children, build.”

So, I always knew that if the work of D.C. Poets Against the War were to DC Poets Against the War Anthologyexpand—and I hoped it would—that I would want us to rename the organization and consciously embrace poets writing on a broad range of issues and telling the truth of what it means to be alive today, here in this maddening, beautiful world. We never incorporated D.C. Poets Against the War as a non-profit or formalized it in any way.

So, while the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, the poets who attended were active on all sorts of issues, from economic and environmental justice to gay rights and prison reform and more. This is a long way of saying that, yes, the evolution of the organization was envisioned, planned, hoped and dreamed for from the beginning.

KD: How do you characterize “a poet of witness” or “a poet of provocation”?

SB: James Baldwin talked about the importance of bearing witness and he explained that a witness is different from an observer, as a witness is often called upon to testify. So, a poet of witness testifies to the injustices, the challenges, the inhumanity she observes in our society. She tells the truth. Sometimes we are drowning in so much propaganda and outright lies that we don’t even see what is around us. Poetry can cut through that mess and stimulate us to think differently. That is how a poet can provoke change—by helping us imagine alternatives to the status quo, by reminding us that the reality we see around us is not inevitable, by challenging us to see with new eyes, to think with our full selves, with our full humanity.

KD: This is a question I loathe to be asked, but what broader or tangible impact might you say Split This Rock has fostered through poetry? Is that even a useful question to ask given that our relationships with poetry are often internal and personal? How do you assess what Split This Rock does?

SB: Poetry, like all of literature, tells the story of our lives. Because Split This Rock promotes poetry by poets of all colors, races and ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, social classes, ages, and poetic styles, we have helped to bring to a wide audience a fuller, richer story of America than was previously being told.

On the one hand, the impact is immediate: We benefit from a diversity of voices we might not have access to otherwise. On the other hand, some benefits we won’t reap for years to come, or won’t personally experience at all: We don’t know now which poems will have lasting power, which poems will speak deeply to a reader 100 years from now. What we do know is that Split This Rock has helped the field of poetry reflect the actual country we live in, in all its glorious diversity.

I think, too, that Americans have felt an immense amount of despair over the past ten years. And after Split This Rock readings and programs, I hear frequently from audience members that the poetry has restored to them some measure of hope. That they feel girded to return to their daily lives and struggles, to their work for social change, with a lighter heart, a greater sense of the possible.

KD: Washington, D.C. is the nerve center for the United States government and, given the odd reality that is politics, it is also quite insulated from the turmoil and struggles across the country. Why do you believe the District of Columbia is a completory or necessary site for a conference like Split This Rock?

SB: Indeed, the federal government is often blind to the realities of life in these United States. But of course members of Congress only need to look around the District in which they sometimes live to get a snapshot of that turmoil and struggle to which you refer. D.C. has the greatest income discrepancy of any city of its size in the country. We have the highest HIV infection rate, the shortest life expectancy, the highest adult illiteracy rate. So, we know of what we speak.

But we also have a rich history of struggle, of resistance, often through poetry and the arts. Split This Rock builds on this history, on the shoulders of so many who have written and organized and built community here, from Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson to Essex Hemphill and Gaston Neal, to name just a few of our foremothers and fathers. We celebrate this tradition and teach it to one another and to the hundreds who come here for Split This Rock Poetry Festival and our other programs from all over the country.

Of course D.C. is the seat of government, too, and citizens come here to appeal for the redress of grievances; to protest and demonstrate. So as residents here, we have a special opportunity to provide poet-activists with a platform from which to speak out. I would say it’s a special responsibility, too. But unlike other events that people attend in D.C.—when they gather on the Mall or in front of the White House and then board their bus and go home—Split This Rock engages attendees with our city, brings folks into the neighborhoods and invites them to get to know the District a little bit, to explore, to meet our poets and our chili bowls.

KD: What are some of the events you are most anticipating for the 2012 conference?

SB: I am beyond thrilled by the line-up of featured poets at this year’s festival: from spoken word stars Rachel McKibbens and Carlos Andrés Gómez to Mexican poet and environmental activist Homero Aridjis; from Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui to Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab Nye and Libyan Khaled Mattawa; from D.C. veteran poets Venus Thrash, Jose Padua, and Kim Roberts to our elder mentor poets Marilyn Nelson, Sonia Sanchez, and Alice Walker. Others are Minnie Bruce Pratt, who writes compellingly of the economic crisis, Kathy Engel, a Jewish activist for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine, and Douglas Kearney, an innovative young African-American poet who samples hip hop lyrics and writes opera libretti.  It’s a line-up that we’re proud to present here in D.C., one that will show off the incredible variety of styles and approaches that American poets are employing in their art form today. And the poets are righteous voices for justice and peace.

I’m excited to see Venus Thrash interview Sonia Sanchez in a public conversation that will range over sister Sonia’s long career and legacy. I’m very glad we’ll be paying tribute to Sam Hamill and the Poets Against the War movement that he launched. Poets who straddle the worlds of poetry and spoken word will discuss the sometimes contentious relationship between these sister art forms.

Many sessions throughout the festival will remember the great African-June Jordan's Civil WarsAmerican poet, teacher and activist June Jordan, who died ten years ago. In one session, two poets who were close friends and colleagues of Jordan’s will share some of the journeys they traveled with Jordan, in living rooms, on the streets, in an auditorium. Another panel will consider Jordan’s poems on sexual violence and panelists will share their own poems inspired by her example. And in yet a third session, “Moving to the Rhythms of June Jordan,” participants will use movement to strengthen their own courage as activists and truth tellers.

Kurdish Iraqi children will be leading a creative writing workshop. Academics will be asking how to integrate poets of color into their teaching curriculum without affecting a total “brown out.” There are workshops on translation and “code switching” in poems, on efforts to use poetry and the arts in environmental justice organizing and organizing for immigration reform and justice and on making poetry chapbooks from landfill trash. A youth poetry open mic and a youth colloquium, in which adults are invited to hear young people talk about their concerns and their solutions to the problems we all face. Something for everyone!

Finally, the political action piece, which we are still designing, has been incredibly moving to me at past festivals. In 2008, we created a group poem in front of the White House, inviting anyone who wanted to join us to step to the microphone and read one line of poetry that spoke for peace and a radical reordering of our nation’s priorities. The poem was created by the order in which people stood in line to read. In 2010, the poem was addressed to Congress, as they had just spent one trillion of our dollars waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The poem suggested ways to spend the next one trillion. As soon as we have details worked out for this year we’ll post them on the website.

In short, an incredible four days. Please join us!

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Whiskey in the Garden of EdenSARAH BROWNING is the director of Split This Rock and DC Poets Against the War, author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007), and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004). The recipient of an artist fellowship from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, she has also received a Creative Communities Initiative grant and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. Browning has worked as a community organizer in Boston public housing and as a political organizer for reproductive rights, gay rights, and electoral reform, and against poverty, South African apartheid, and U.S. militarism. She was founding director of Amherst Writers & Artists Institute—creative writing workshops for low-income women and youth—and Assistant Director of The Fund for Women Artists, an organization supporting socially engaged art by women.