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Split This Rock Day 3: Film Program

I had a difficult time figuring out what to do after the 8 p.m. reading. There was to be an Open Mic at FlashPoint studio downtown, which sounded fun, but I'd already read at one open mic and felt it would be piggie to do a reprise. And to go and not participate would have made me resentful, I thought, and it was late, and I was tired. Still, Karen Johnston wanted -- maybe -- to go to that one, and I wanted to go and support her in reading, and I thought it would be exciting to go to a new gallery. Ultimately, though, I joined Sue and Skeeter and decided to go to the Split This Rock film program, at Busboys and Poets. (Too many wonderful choices!)

The best part of that turned out to be the Metro trip back -- we met up with some other festival participants, and I had the idea that we should hold an impromptu anti-war reading right there in the train station. So we did: we read in the Metro stations, on the trains, and on the streets until we got to Busboys and Poets. A thrill.

We arrived late to the film festival, and sat in the back, and perhaps I was just too tired for it. None of the films particularly stood out to me (although I did not see them all), and Jimmy Santiago Baca's film actively annoyed me. It was a documentary of his (I am guessing expensive; this is perhaps cynical) residencies working in schools with high-risk children creating poetry. In general, using poetry as therapy rubs me the wrong way: I think journaling about your trauma is important, and I think painful experiences can lead to art, especially once you have plenty of distance on them, but journaling trauma is not itself art, and people who just write out their pain are not poets. Convincing them that they are cheapens poetry as an artform, and sets them up for a rude awakening when other people do not value their written work the way they do. Also, there were some painful moments on the video, where Baca's interns -- like him, people recovering from violence via writing -- dealt with the traumatized students in a ham-handed, hurtful way. At one point one intern tells a girl bent over her desk crying for an unknown reason and apparently unable to stop that she should stop: Ouch. Apparently it is ok to write about pain, but not to actually experience any.
Good films or no, though, I can recommend the overpriced-but-delicious mojitos at Busyboys and Poets. Also the yummy desserts.
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Split This Rock Day 3: 8:00 Reading

The 8:00 reading for Split This Rock day 3 was a blockbuster, including Dennis Brutus, Kenneth Carroll, Mark Doty, Carolyn Forche, and Alicia Ostriker, and I am not going to try to review all of that. Instead, just the highlights.

Mark Doty began with a gorgeous snippet of a poem by Taha Muhammed Ali:

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts.

"A measure of splendor in people's hearts" -- again that theme of speaking joy to power, of creating an expansive imagination that bends the heart toward reconciliation. Some of his reading you can see for yourself:

I also found Alicia Ostriker charming; her reading was cheeky and erotic and lighter in tone than any of the others.

Kenneth Carroll was also funny, with a trash-talking would-be Army recruit named Snookie Johnson (scroll down for the poem) who reminded me of Arlo Guthrie ("I wanna see blood and guts and gore and veins in my teeth!"), and a Presidential Love Letter that recast W. with his wiretapping illegal-searching ways as a spurned lover creepily stalking us.

Both of these were quite a contrast with Dennis Brutus, who delivered a serious reading that provided the political heart and soul of the conference.This is Brutus (the picture is Karren Alenier's, and is featured on her blog):

He is a South African poet who has also spent many years in the U.S. He was an anti-apartheid activist, and thus was jailed at Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and other activists in the 1970s. He did not read much in the way of poetry, but instead spoke about that experience, and what relevance it has to how we should respond to the Iraq War now, in a way that reminded me very much of Nelson Mandela's own comments about the experience.

He spoke about the physical hardships of his imprisonment. Robben Island was a spectacularly isolated, brutal, maximum security prison, and he and the other activists were jailed with the most security and isolation available there. "Split this rock" was no metaphor to Brutus -- he was made to split rocks, to spend day after day turning boulders into gravel, until, as he said, the blisters on his hands had burst, and new blisters formed on top of them. This was actually light labor -- Brutus had been shot years before in a through-wound, where the bullet entered his back and exited through his chest, and he was considered too frail for the difficult labor assigned to Mandela and the other prisoners, which involved traveling to a limestone quarry and quarrying and splitting rocks there.

He also said that his time at Robben Island was not as psychologically shattering as you would imagine, but only because he and the other activists there were aware of the anti-apartheid resistance and worldwide support of their cause by people on the outside -- and especially Americans, people like Arthur Ashe. He said this awareness, the fact that they were physically but not psychologically isolated and silenced, gave them an unquenchable optimism that -- despite their life sentences -- neither they nor their cause would die on Robben Island.

He also pointed out that there is no such movement, no such resistance, to the injustices in Iraq now.

He said this was unconscionable. He called upon us all -- at length, so long they asked him to stop speaking and leave the stage -- to stop paying our taxes, to besiege and strangle this unjust war at its source.

His talk was long, and it was uncomfortable. You could see the audience shifting in our seats, fidgeting uncomfortably around our own guilt, the reality that few (none?) among us would risk even the the relatively low likelihood of the relatively comfortable prison or the relatively light consequences that might befall anyone with the cojones to illegally stand up to the IRS.

It made me angry that they stopped him. In a conference of poets many events had run late -- 30 minutes late, an hour late -- so the decision to stop him was not made out of an exaggerated American sense of timeliness. It was made from discomfort, but Brutus has earned the right to make us uncomfortable.

It is uncomfortable to feel guilty for more than the alotted quarter hour. It is uncomfortable to listen to an ugly speech instead of pretty poetry. But not nearly so uncomfortable as literally splitting rocks under the South African sun, with your hands bleeding until the scars come.

Of course he earned a standing ovation. But I wonder how many who heard him will even take the risk-free step of advocating for a peace tax alternative at the Lobby Day on March 31st:

(Oh, and there is an organized tax boycott for April 2008 to defund the war. Here's a primer on war tax resistance, for any who are reading this who are willing to put their money where their mouths are and engage in this modest risk of civil disobedience.)
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Split This Rock Day 3: 5:00 Reading and Reception

I came back to the festival for the 5 p.m. reading, which featured Coleman Barks, Pamela Uschuk, and Belle Waring. Lucille Clifton was supposed to be there, but fell ill, so the reading began with Sarah Browning and the poets each reading one of her poems, which was a nice tribute, although not as nice as having her there in person would have been.

Coleman Barks read his Letter to President Bush. I sat there listening to him, crying over what might have been. Like him, I don't really consider this proposal foolish. I wonder how many world conflicts could have been solved just as usefully with a fully waged and committed peace. Even WWII, the great war, the justified war: What would have happened if wealthy tourists had poured into 1920s Germany, spending money freely and easing the economic woes of war reparations? What if Wilson had achieved his 14 points? It is painful that the history of war is one of hundreds of missed opportunities for peace. It is painful that imagination is not always enough. But I do believe that we do good by creating alternative visions, by speaking joy to power, because once in a while it does work, and once in a while is better than nothing.

Pamela Uschuk is an interesting person. At the poetry and policy discussion, I enjoyed her description of  the word "matriot," which she apparently coined, and her description of her father's experiences refusing to sign a loyalty oath in the McCarthy era. But I was not moved by her reading; I suspect I would like her poetry better if I met it on the page.

Belle Waring -- a former local neonatal nurse, lots of frontline experience with DC trauma --  was the least-renowned of the bunch, and I think she felt shy coming up on stage in her jeans and fleece vest, sheaf of paper in her hands (Uschuk is a glamorous tall blonde, and was wearing striking red cowboy boots, a gift from her famous poet husband). She made several self-deprecating remarks, and then opened fire, in an intense, painful, whisper, with some of the finest poetry I heard all weekend. Among others, she read The Forgery, about engaging in guerrilla medicine to save a baby's life. domystic, Rob, you would adore this lady. I bought her book, Dark Blonde (linked above), and also a Rumi collection of Barks.' (Barks is most famous not for his own poetry, but for translating Rumi. If you as an American and English-speaker know Rumi's poetry, it is because of him.)

A magnificent reading. I had wondered about where to go for dinner in between the 5 and 8 p.m. readings -- I found myself alone again -- but Sarah Browning solved my problem. Here is a great example of what kind of a conference this was, and what kind of a conference organizer she was: She got up at the five o'clock reading and announced that they had ordered hors d'oeuvres for the volunteers and the poets, but that the previous night they had way too many leftovers. So, she announced, when the treats arrived this evening, perhaps everyone in the audience would like to join the poets and volunteers in the cafeteria for an impromptu reception, so nothing would go to waste. Sarah Browning, a toast to you: not many people mix administrative skills with a truly warm and giving heart.

So I went to the reception and feasted on falafel and chicken shish kabobs and fruit and cheese, and ended up connecting with Karen Johnston again, some other poets from Massachusetts whom she knew, and a wonderful pair of sisters, Skeeter and Sue Scheid, who lived here. We made instant friends, eating dinner together, talking about all matters local, national, and personal, and exchanging chapbooks and encouragement. (I tried to talk Karen into going to the open mic and reading. She was ambivalent, but I see from her poem about the conference that she took my advice!) I also chatted briefly with Karren Alenier again -- when I picture the conference, I picture her, because we kept landing together -- and exchanged emails and blog addresses. It was all so easy, and fabulously fun. A wonderful validation of the adventures and connections that are possible when you travel solo and fearless into the world.
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Split This Rock Day 3: "Harlem" Renaissance in Washington

I dragged myself out of bed this morning to attend a walking tour of the Harlem Renaissance in Washington, led by Kim Roberts. Karren Alenier has already blogged about it very nicely here, so I won't belabor the point. Several of the sights she mentioned as highlights also impressed me, including Duke Ellington's childhood home, a handsome gray rowhouse at 1212 T St. and the place where he played his first gig, the True Reformers Hall:

Also, as I mentioned before, the Thurgood Marshall Center (former YMCA), where Langston Hughes briefly lived, and the home of the Saturday Nighters salon, where most of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance met and talked. Most interesting to me was hearing about Langston Hughes' misery in DC, and his checkered occupational history while he was here. He came to the city expecting to take a job at the local African-American newspaper. They  started him in ad sales, and he lasted, Kim said, perhaps a month. He had equally short tenures at a range of other jobs, from working with the historian Carter Woodson to washing clothes in a laundry and serving as a hotel busboy. That last day job was notable especially for Hughes' on-the-job self-promotion: when poet Vachel Lindsay visited the hotel for a reading and banquet, Hughes made sure a sheaf of his best work was lying next to his dinner plate. Lindsay read Hughes' poems at his own reading, and announced that he had discovered a "black busboy poet" in DC. This made the national news, with a picture of Hughes in his busboy uniform. Perhaps not the kind of acclaim Hughes had in mind (and his busboy colleagues were so irritated with him for doing this that he quit immediately afterwards), but it does fall into the category of "just so long as you spell my name right." (Busboys and Poets is named in honor of this story, too, as you might have guessed.) Apparently, Hughes peripatetic wanderings in DC reflected his unhappiness here; he felt pressure from family members to achieve occupationally, but found the classy U street neighborhood stiff and pretentious. He apparently much preferred the working-class 7th street neighborhood; on the tour, I had the opportunity to read aloud some of his comments about 7th street, which sound woefully stereotypical to contemporary ears (he mentions barbecue, watermelon, and the Negro's innate gaiety, for examples).

I also met some interesting people. I got to chatting with Michael Newheart, a divinity professor at Howard University, and discovered that he actually knew someone I knew, Pepper Phillips, a colleague of mine here at UMD. You might not be impressed with that degree of small world connection-making, but seeing as how the number of people I know in DC approaches zero, I was surprised and pleased. I also met Karen Johnston, a poet, lay minister, and social worker from New England, who has the most adorable Split This Rock poem ever up at her blog, and some other nameless individuals, including a wonderful older woman who bonded with me over a shared fondness for long skirts (she'd bought hers in a cowboy store in Nevada).

After the tour we all went home to bed. We were all exhausted!
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Split This Rock Day 2: Open Mic

I went home for a brief break after the Policy and Poetry, and didn't make it back in time for either of the readings, which was a terrible pity, but I did go to the wonderful open mike MCed by Regie Cabico and the Princess of Controversy. I would call the Princess more of a Hip Hop musician than a poet, but I did think she was very good, and very gentle, and very kind. Also notable was a very funny stand-up comic whose name I have forgotten, who recited the hilarious answering machine messages of her Italian-American mother, who apparently leaves her messages in the form of hilarious free-wheeling political diatribes, salted with Italian-Americanisms. Also not exactly poetry, but very amusing. Late, late in the night a woman whose name I never caught read a truly marvelous poem, a memoir of her step-father and her mother and "post-office days." Her beloved step-father had been a "Most Wanted" Civil Rights activist; in childhood her mother had taken the family to the post office regularly to remove the flier depicting his face from the display. Afterwards there had always been ice cream, so she enjoyed the excursions without understanding them for years, until her stepfather's death.

And I read a poem myself, The Making of a Man, which I read because it's one of the few political poems I have which I think is pretty good. It got a warm reception, especially because I was able to explain that it was about Floppy, whom many people there had met early in the morning and well-remembered. Naomi Shihab Nye stopped me afterwards to say that it was a beautiful way to bring the day full circle for her; other people came and thanked me for the poem or offered me hugs, both then and later in the weekend.

At the open mike I sat at first with a slam poet named Ashley Cole, from Pittsburgh, and then later with Susan Brennan and another poet, a woman born in Guyana, now a professor emeritus in Economics, living in Bethesda. Her first name was Camille, but I don't remember her last name if she ever told me. We talked happily and companionably all night, and when we left, after one, DH kindly met Susan and Camille and I and gave both of them rides home. I loved the feeling of effortless connection that happened over and over for me at this conference. Any of these women would be people I would love to have as friends, and it was wonderful to sit and drink and talk with them even for a little while. 

I went home exhausted, but happy and excited for Day 3.

(ETA: I should note that the version of the poem of mine that I've linked above isn't actually the version I read; it's undergone some revision, and is a much improved poem now, although I liked the draft enough to revise it, so I guess that's saying something.)
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Split This Rock Day 2: Poetry and Policy

Next I went to Discussion on Poetry and Policy sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies. Mostly I was tickled at the idea that the think tank thought such a discussion was germane. The stories that participants told in this session, which took place in the gorgeous and lovingly restored Thurgood Marshall Center, where Langston Hughes briefly lived when it was a brand-new YMCA, were fascinating. One young woman timidly apologized, she was sorry to be so cynical, but what relevance can poets and our words possibly have on matters of policy, on war making, on important political issues? Alicia Ostriker responded to her with a magnificient anecdote about Daniel Ellsberg, who, it seems, had a terrible and vicious and personal argument once about war and peace with a poet (which poet I have forgotten). The poet met him many years later, when Ellsberg said that he had gone away from their argument and thought deeply about what the poet had said. 

And then released the Pentagon Papers.

Never underestimate the power of beautiful rhetoric. Alicia also talked about how she writes in response to her own despair and depression. I wanted to say something about the mental health implications and mental health cost of war, but didn't.
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Split This Rock Day 2: Off the Page and Into the Streets

Then I went to "Off the Page and Into the Streets: Reports from the Field," a panel about poets organizing and agitating with their work, hosted by Nathaniel Siegel and Susan Brennan. I developed an immediate crush on Siegel, who exudes a magnificient presence -- a cross between Thich Nhat Hanh, Patrick Scully, and Danny Kaye. Susan Brennan must feel the same way, because even though she is a brilliant organizer herself, she largely yielded the floor to Siegel, who talked about his various art projects and actions in New York to raise awareness about social issues, mostly the Iraq war. He brought a number of "tokens" to give away -- handheld Xeroxed guerilla art pieces that can be made in quantity, given away, and used to raise awareness. My favorite was a slip of paper titled "Declaration of Interdependence," which read, 

I am
(not at war)
with you.


X__________________    X___________________

Date: ___/____/____

I went home and signed mine and gave it to my husband to also sign. He also had slips with the Arabic phrase for "I'm sorry" written on them, which he handed out to some surprising results (one Jewish Arabic-speaking New Yorker thought he was a Palestinian issuing an apology). My only quibble was geographical: Doing these actions on young people in NYC is preaching to the choir, and I would have loved to have talked about handing out tokens to people in nursing homes, to farmers, to people outside the metropolises. They concluded with a "hatching session," helping those present strategize and problem-solve around their own activism, and they collected names for an ad-hoc listserv on the topic, which I thought was generous and forward-thinking. I walked away from this seminar wishing I knew Susan and Nathaniel better, and with a million and one cute ideas for t-shirts and street theatre and other direct poetry actions and agitations.
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Split This Rock Day 2: Children's Reading

We began the morning as a family, with breakfast at Busboys and Poets. I have to tell you, that is an amazing place. My new favorite place in DC, it has active and well-used performance and community space, a cafe and bar, and a bookstore where every single book is one I would like to read. (Hooray for bookstores with more poetry than diet books! Hooray for bookstores that support teachers! Hooray for bookstores where you can shop at 1 a.m. with a floofy cocktail in your hand!) It is a place owned by an Iraqi-American artist, where people can get together to plan peace beneath a giant mural of great peacemakers and activists from all over the world (which the owner himself, Anas "Andy" Shallal, painted). Not only that, the food is pretty good. I had apple strudel with ice cream and caramel and jasmine tea for breakfast, and then Floppy and I attended the children's poetry reading hosted by Naomi Shihab Nye and Regie Cabico.

Floppy demonstrated his usual fear of public speaking at this event, which is to say he talked incessantly every time audience participation was requested, and frequently when it was not, and considered himself on an intimate first-name basis with his good friends Naomi and Regie immediately afterwards. He liked the poem Goodbye Friends best, but I must say I don't remember the poetry much, trying as I was mainly to be proud of (rather than embarrassed by) my precocious and extraverted little monster. We told him he could choose a book of poetry afterwards to buy, but what he actually wanted was a book to write poetry in of his own, and when we took a break from the festival later he went home and dictated poetry to me (in the finest tradition of youth poets, his first poem was about the failings and inadequacies of us his parents).
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Split This Rock Day 1: Featured Reading

After the party at Busboys and Poets, I went to the first featured reading, with Martin Espada, E. Ethelbert Miller, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Alix Olson. It was at Bell Multicultural High School, a new and still-shiny DC public school, with alarmingly militaristic (student?) artwork on the auditorium walls and airport style metal detectors and security at the entrances. I'm not sure metal detectors in schools are a good idea, actually. Since they create a psychological atmosphere of danger and threat, it strikes me as reasonable to wonder if they increase violence more than prevent it. It would be an easy quasi-experiment to conduct, if there are any urban school districts yet that have not installed them.

In any event, I got there absurdly early and spent some time talking to a woman who had attended DC schools herself. She was very impressed at how clean and bright this new school was. I felt more cynical about it: all such things are hopeful when they are new, but there was little I could see around me that suggested that this school was not only new but different. And while I am sure DC schools would benefit from an enormous dose of new (as my aunt says, throwing money at a problem actually does help, usually), genuine innovation is probably also required if they are to genuinely improve.

Wait, did you think you came here to read about poetry? (Not DC schools?)

Back to the matter at hand. Since I'd come so absurdly early, I took advantage and sat right up front, ending up next to Rosemary Winslow and Karren LaLonde Alenier. One of the great privileges of this festival was getting to meet so many terrific, unpretentious, passionate, talented people, and Karren was a perfect example of this for me. I didn't spend any long period of time talking to her, but she was the first person and the last person I spoke with over the weekend, and every time I encountered her I walked away with a new thought and a lighter heart. She was taking photos in a semi-official capacity, because she was blogging the festival in real time, so she kept apologizing for tripping over me, and we got to chatting and she introduced me to Rosemary. Rosemary asked me the obvious question right off, "Are you a poet?" which led to quite a discussion.

Having honed what poetic skills I have at PFFA, where calling yourself a poet is roundly discouraged as arrogant, I feel uncomfortable with the label. That said, I do write poetry, I have won a few prizes for my poetry and published a poem or two, and I have some sympathy with the idea if you write poetry, however awful, you are a poet. (What else are you?) But I had a not terrifically articulate brief argument with Rosemary about the use of the term. Later in the weekend, with more time to think, I decided I was an apprentice poet. After all, I didn't get to call myself a psychologist until six years of graduate study, one year of postdoctoral work, and objective proof of my competence in the form of exams that assessed my psychological and ethical knowledge, even though as a student I did good psychological work -- research, therapy, teaching -- of which I am proud. A similar bar for minimal competence as a poet does not trouble me. If I publish a book of poetry, ever, I plan to call myself a poet (that's my minimal standard to be a Licensed Poet, I'm deciding). Until then, I'm an apprentice.

The first reader, Martin Espada, was brilliant, and new to me. He began his reading by observing an empty chair that had been left on stage, and noting that perhaps this chair was for someone who needed to hear the truth but was not yet willing to hear it. "It's Dick Cheney's chair!" he announced triumphantly. Would that it was. 

The poem of his I remember was a wonderful one memorializing the cooks in Windows on the World, the top-of-the-world-trade-center restaurant. One of the strongest themes of the weekend was one of engaging in joyful acts -- celebrating and art-making and entertaining and cooking and eating together -- in the face of evil and as a means toward peace. What Coleman Barks kept calling "improvisational festivity" we kept coming back to -- maybe because this is what good poets can do to change the world? Calm people, delight them, turn their minds away from images of metal detectors and soldiers and guards, and replace them with images of singing and dancing and falling in love? It sounds frivolous, but the imagination is sometimes the only way out in truly desperate times. And I don't mean that metaphorically. I am thinking of the story of the poet Robert Desnos reading palms in the line for the gas chambers. A good fortuneteller, he saw long life and good forture for every man, woman, and child whose hand he held. And faced with this leap of psychic imagination, the joy and hope spreading through the line of waiting prisoners, the camp guards were unable to send them to their slaughter. Their lives were saved. (The story is told in Susan Griffin's essay, "To Love the Marigold.")  At any rate, Espada read one of the first poems in this theme, called Alabanza, and very lovely to hear in his thrilling growl.

E. Ethelbert Miller was next, and I was not much impressed with the work that he read, although I am impressed with his activism and citizenship. 

I heard that Naomi Shihab Nye earned a standing ovation for her reading, which included the magnificient poem Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal, which I can well imagine her reading in her maternal and husky voice. But unsure of my willingness to stay out the night, I had promised to meet DH at 9:30 at Busboys and Poets, so I missed her as well as Alix Olson, who read last. 

I felt sad, and also scared, because by now it was night, and leaving early meant walking alone to the metro through a strange ghost town of brand-new-but-unoccupied buildings, taking the metro alone, and then walking through the U street neighborhood to Busboys and Poets at night, and I did not know what that would be like, not knowing the neighborhood well. But we were a one-phone family, so I had no way to change plans. And it turned out to be fine, and even kind of exhilarating: I get so little time purely alone. U street at night is a clubbing, exciting place, it turns out, alive with people and music. Not a bit scary. I did feel sorry to miss the rest of the reading, and the afterparty, but I knew already that I was in for a magnificient weekend.
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Split This Rock

I found saying something I have never said before this weekend (and no, it wasn't "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"). I attended Split This Rock Poetry Festival here in DC, and at the end of the festival, early in the morning, they had a festival wrap-up evaluation and planning session with the organizers where they solicited suggestions for "What next?"

I didn't have any ideas in this regard, but I did find myself moved to the front of the room, holding the microphone, and telling Sarah Browning, the event's main organizer, that I felt as if I had been waiting my whole life for this event. I was tearful as I spoke, in a further bit of uncharacteristic depth of feeling. In attending this conference, I felt as if I was finally meeting a number of people I had so wholly given up hope of ever encountering that I did not even know I was missing them. I felt sharply spurred to act on my values and warmly nourished in my  own efforts at crafting poetry. And I had the opportunity to simply enjoy some beautiful art and learn from some wise individuals. I've written before about how much I hate going to conferences, so I was startled at myself. But this was an extraordinary event: idealistic, brilliantly well-organized and administrated, and visionary. I've often commented to colleagues that I wish I could -- just once -- attend a psychological conference that accomplished something important, that signaled an historic change and commitment to the future in our field (like the Boulder Conference, for example). I've no idea if I ever will have such an opportunity in psychology, but I felt that this event might just possibly be such a conference for lovers of poetry and peace. So I was thrilled and grateful at the synchronicity that led me there (I'd simply stumbled over it in the course of looking up Busboys and Poets Cafe as a good place for a weekend diversion; everything important happens by accident, it seems). 

In any event, Thursday 3/20 was the first night of the festival (and perfect timing for me -- during UMD's spring break, but the day after our Minnesota houseguests went home, which is yet more synchronicity, I suppose). I put in a day at work, spring break be damned, but went to Busboys and Poets in the evening for the Festival's opening celebration with Sonia Sanchez. I got there about 5:30, and the cafe was already absolutely packed, but I picked up my festival packet and finally found an unoccupied bench in the corner. There were itty bitties to eat, so I picked anxiously at a plate of hummus, good pita, olives, fruit and cheese, but I was feeling shy, so I didn't order a drink. I've gotten better at quietly observing my own misery in these situations, and at lowering expectations. I'd come alone, there was no chance of my meeting anyone I knew, and of course all around me were happy people drinking and warmly hugging one another. In front of me a small girl sat with her mother happily coloring and drinking some sort of hibiscus-colored drink that was flashing garnet in the light. I wished I had brought the Floppy, at least. But mindfulness training pays off: I watched my mind repeatedly supply the suggestion that I go home and go to bed, immediately, and I thanked my mind for the thought, and then I ignored it. I was there to see what happened, and worst-case scenario: I would get to see poets. So I sat on my little bench in the corner, and waited. 

Sonia Sanchez came on about 6:30, I think, and gave an impassioned speech about empowering young people to be writers and activists. My favorite moment came as she was speaking about working with youth in school, and about the reedeeming qualities of rap and Hip Hop music (or lack thereof). She talked about boys excusing their consumption of misogynistic and hateful music by saying that they just get down to the groove, that they don't pay attention to the lyrics. Sanchez is a little bitty woman, a bit stooped, foul-mouthed, behatted, rich and expansive with gesture. She threw up a hand and hollered: "Oh, please. You listen to the goddamn lyrics, too!"

I am constantly but less persuasively making the same argument to my husband, so I wish he'd been there.

I'd seen Sanchez speak (and read) before, and I have some of her books; she is entertaining and provocative and a wonderful instigator, but there was little that was new to me in her talk. She only read one poem, as I recall, and I don't remember it. Also, I find that I dislike the intense focus on youth that often comes when we speak about social justice: The idea that we should focus on youth, and especially the idea that the youth are the future, and that they will solve our problems if we only listen to them. For one thing, it strikes me as ageist. I never hear impassioned speeches about how we must take care of and listen to our elders, because they will save us with their wisdom and their knowledge of our history. For another thing, it strikes me as patronizing of the youth: People of all ages are diverse, are individual, differ in their needs. Jamie Lynn Spears and Miley Cyrus are children, but I don't feel moved to focus any additional social attention on them. And, finally, it strikes me as avoidant. Expecting children as the future to pay for the mistakes of the present is not visionary social policy, W's deficit spending notwithstanding. So as much as I was amused by Sanchez's talk, I wasn't dazzled by it.