Friday, January 30, 2009

Split This Rock 2009 Adult Poetry Contest

Benefits Split This Rock Poetry Festival - Washington, DC, March 10-13, 2010

$1,000 awarded for poems of provocation & witness

Patricia Smith, Judge

Deadline: March 9, 2009 (postmark)

Split This Rock is pleased to announce our second annual poetry contest, to be judged by poet and National Book Award finalist Patricia Smith. First place $500; 2nd and 3rd place, $250 each. Winning poems will be published on, and the 1st-place winner will be invited to read winning poem at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, 2010.


Submissions should be in the spirit of Split This Rock: socially engaged poems, poems that reach beyond the self to connect with the larger community or world; poems of provocation and witness. This theme can be interpreted broadly and may include but is not limited to work addressing politics, government, war, leadership; issues of identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, body image, immigration, cultural heritage, etc.); community, civic engagement, education, activism; and poems about history, Americana, cultural icons. Read the winning poems from 2008 here:

Submission guidelines:

• Send up to 3 unpublished poems, no more than 6 pages total, in any style, in the spirit of Split This Rock (see above).

• Staple one cover page to your submissions containing your name, address, phone number, email, and the titles of your poems. This is the only part of the submission which should contain your name.

• Enclose a check or money order for $25 (made out to "Split This Rock") to: Split This Rock Poetry Contest, c/o Institute for Policy Studies, 1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036

• Simultaneous submissions OK, but please notify us immediately if the poem is accepted elsewhere.

• Postmark deadline: March 9, 2009.

• For more details, contact

About the Judge:

Patricia Smith, author, poet, teacher, performer, is the author of five books of poetry: Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press, 2008), a book of poems chronicling the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina; Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press, 2006), a 2005 National Poetry Series selection, winner of the 2007 Paterson Poetry Prize, and finalist for the 2007 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Close to Death (1993); Big Towns, Big Talk (1992); and Life According to Motown (1991). In addition, she has authored the history "Africans In America" and the children's book Janna and the Kings. Smith's work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, and many other journals. She is a National Book Award Finalist, Pushcart Prize winner, Cave Canem faculty member, and four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition's history.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Naomi Shihab Nye on Hope, Despair & Gaza

I stood, astonished, on the Great Wall of China the other day, but found it hard to concentrate on lost emperors or invading nomadic tribes. They seemed too far away. My thoughts kept swinging between relief and sorrow -- President Obama -- yes!-- and the rubble of Gaza. While we wandered the top of a wall that had survived thousands of years, the sad people of Gaza were sitting on their smashed homes.

A chilly gray afternoon right before Chinese New Year– my friend Angie, resident of Beijing, pointed out that not one other human being besides us – including guards or guides -- was visible in any direction. “This never happens,” she said. “This is the most popular place.”

For more than an hour, we walked alone, stepping on ancient stones very carefully, peering through balustrades and watch towers, whispering about the spookiness. The distant view obscured by mist or pollution, we could nevertheless see the mighty wall snaking up mountains and down. It felt eerie to experience it in such solitude –as it might feel to have a late-night one-on-one with the Sphinx. Angie took my arm – she said, “As if you’re my mom” --and I felt glad for it.

The gray stones of the Great Wall seemed similar in color to the concrete of the sad Gaza buildings.

I thought about the silver-gray airplane that went down in the Hudson River, how TV commentators on CNN and China TV were raving about the miracle of everyone surviving. Each stunned passenger was a cherished person to all other airline passengers worldwide, and all transfixed viewers.

The swiftly counter-pointing next story said 400 or 500 more Palestinians had died in Gaza. We could see their blasted houses, the hideously terrifying bombs. Reports now included the dubious use of phosphorous by the democratic Israelis. This contrast seemed gravely striking – cherished passengers, uncherished citizens.

Ehud Olmert talked proudly about the Israeli military operations as if they were a game. His soldiers were smiling as they rode around on big tanks. He used the word “accomplishment” many times. They were “exceeding” their own intentions. He acted vaguely, reluctantly sorry, when his soldiers blew up all the U.N. relief food. But he never acted very sorry about the citizens.

How much of a stretch might it be to imagine those thousand-plus people cherished to one another? How hard for a Jewish person whose own ethnic legacy includes recent torture and wholesale killing?

It seemed strange – such a highly armed country, making mighty out-of-proportion use of its arsenals for more than 20 days, repeatedly calling the raggedy poor, desperate Palestinians “militants.” Wouldn’t Olmert be militant if someone had stolen his home and put him in a cage? And could anyone in any other country justify wholesale bombing of entire neighborhoods – schools, hospitals, service centers – just because some guys with weapons also lived there? This is collective punishment of an entire population and it’s common knowledge it’s been going on in Palestine/Israel for decades. Some kid throws a stone – expect olive trees to be slashed to the ground for miles around. And what about the looming Israeli “separation wall” that stole more property from Arab citizens, has made life dramatically more difficult for everyone on both sides, and undercuts all good possibilities of cooperation?

I thought about the not-yet-abandoned belief that a wall might keep anyone out. How insulting to treat other human beings, especially the native ones, as if they do not deserve the same respect your own citizens do. President Obama stands now in mighty contrast to the sorrowful legacy of American racism we feel grateful to be “beyond.” He said in his inaugural address, “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.” Where does Israel stand on the empathy compass?

An Arab man said, “I’m too old to shoot off missiles! I’m just trying to feed my family.” A boy dug garlic bulbs out of a mass of concrete. A Jewish friend lost her own beloved Palestinian comrades, three young sisters who had worked across borders for peace and dialogue. How many other people would we have been lucky to know? How many families of innocents are grieving? How many lives changed forever? Is it possible, just possible, these sorrowing survivors will be less peaceful because of what they have experienced?

On the Great Wall, two distinct birds could be heard calling out in the distance – Angie knew both their names -- then a silence as huge as history. The cable car driver who had sent us up the mountain told Angie he was going home -- we’d have to get down on our own. I gave her a lovely hand-stitched eyeglasses case from Gaza as a little gift for coming with me -- it just happened to be in my pocket. We took many deep breaths and climbed slowly down as evening fell over us, balancing on the big steps, discussing the miracle of our private meander, how young Chinese people dream more of going to Australia than to the United States, and our new American president, who believes in the hope so many worlds desperately need more of, right now.

Naomi Shihab Nye is the author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, including You and Yours (BOA Editions, 2005), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, as well as 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002), a collection of new and selected poems about the Middle East; Fuel (1998), Red Suitcase (1994), and Hugging the Jukebox (1982).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Poem

Elizabeth Alexander's poem is all the buzz in the poetry world, with plenty of critiques from armchair poets. I thought the poem was lovely-- especially to look at it later in print; I can't fathom the pressures of writing such a poem.

We so rarely see poetry at public events like this that no one knows what to do with poets, I think. And as poets, we aren't used to thinking about poetry as a speech act. What is the poem's purpose? Those are rare words in our discussions. And why? Why are we adverse to thinking that a poem might not only be beautiful, it might also be of use.

I would have loved to have heard the poem earlier in the ceremony. By the time Elizabeth read, Obama had given his speech, and many people were packing up to go. An inaugural poem would be well received either just after the opening prayer or first in the ceremony. Such a poem could serve as a type of incantation that opens the heart so the rest of the ceremony can be felt-- a naming the moment, a calling us to be present in our bodies.

On the other hand... one of the very first acts for Obama as President was to listen to a poem. How great is that?

------- Melissa Tuckey

Here is E. Ethelbert Miller's reading of THE POEM:


Everyone has a comment on Elizabeth Alexander's poem today. Many have comments about her "performance" or lack of. I found everyone comparing her words to Whitman, Frost and Angelou. However, one name that was not mentioned was Gil Scott-Heron. First, Alexander's poem should be connected to the closing lines of Barack Obama's speech. Can we get a coda here?Obama quotes George Washington -and it seems like a Valley Forge moment. It's Winter in America. Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day" echoes this:

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

Now let's bring in Gil and his deep voice, singing:

And now it's winter
Winter in America
Yes and all of the healers have been killed
Or sent away, yeah
But the people know, the people know
It's winter
Winter in America
And ain't nobody fighting
'Cause nobody knows what to say
Save your soul, Lord knows
From Winter in America

The Constitution
A noble piece of paper
With free society
Struggled but it died in vain
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Look like it's hoping
Hoping for some rain

We seem to be trapped in winter right now. It is cold outside.Alexander's poem is not a blueprint for the future. It isn't the visionary poem I was thinking she might write. Others will do this. I found Alexander doing what Obama did in his address. Alexander stands in front of us as mother and comforter. An ordinary woman in extraordinary times? This complements the humility expressed by Obama. For a moment Elizabeth Alexander is not a Yale professor she is a woman going about her daily work. She hears the music created by the people. If her words seem more prose than poetry, it's because she is saying it plain. This is a praise song in which the words of remembrance do the heavy lifting. Alexander's poem informs us to celebrate the moment in its Buddhist and sweet Christian dress. Incorporated are the basic teachings of all good people:

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

If we are to pursue King's dream then we must continue to believe in the Beloved Community.
Alexander reminds us of this. Yes the mightiest word is love. It seems to be Divine Love- for the poet yesterday told us to look beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light.

Maybe here is where Elizabeth Alexander becomes not Gwendolyn Brooks but Lucille Clifton. As I listened to Elizabeth recite her poem yesterday - I thought of the light that had come to my friend at this historical moment. I thought about how Aretha had the hat but Alexander had the poem.

And the poem guided us towards the light, and we were all moving forward - as one and as Americans.

In the Spring of our beginning - Anything can be made, any sentence begun.

-- E. Ethelbert Miller

Monday, January 12, 2009

Poetry and Conflict: Gaza

"With so much power, the hardest thing is not to kill."
-- Aleksandr Kerensky

Dear friends of Split This Rock,

It is with great sadness we greet you as the conflict in Gaza intensifies.

DC Poets Against the War opposes the use of force against civilians and supports the Geneva Convention. We therefore oppose Israel's use of military force in Gaza, the use of rockets as a means to settle disputes, and the use of blockades to prevent food, doctors and medical supplies from entering Gaza. We join the world in calling for an immediate ceasefire and we are disappointed in the Bush administration's refusal to speak out against this massacre.

We recognize that this is an emotional issue for many with friends and relatives living on both sides of the borders. We join the peacemakers in both Palestine and Israel in calling for ceasefire, and diplomacy.

We join peacemakers in calling for a change of direction in US foreign policy towards the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and an end to occupation.

We hope that through constructive dialogue here at home we can develop more nuance, more consensus, more willingness and motivation to work together to end this terrible and ongoing conflict.

Meanwhile, we wanted to share a few resources for those who want to learn more or to act:

Activist Organizations and Resources for Peace:

J Street:
J Street is the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.

US Campaign to End the Occupation: The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is a diverse coalition working for freedom from occupation and equal rights for all by challenging U.S. policy towards the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is based on human rights and international law, providing a non-sectarian framework for everyone who supports its Call to Action.

Coalition for Justice and Accountability:
A group of activists from the Washington, DC metro area who have come together to resist US and Israeli wars and occupations carried out and maintained with the goal of dominating the Middle East and controlling its land and resources.

Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights (Palestinian NGO in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza Strip) for news from inside Gaza:

Gaza Siege

A site set up for resources related to Gaza, includes background on the Gaza conflict, lots of analysis, Humanitarian aid organizations, etc. (warning graphic front page).


Protests, memorials, and other actions are happening throughout the US (and world). To find an event near you go to:

Calendar of Protests

Phone the Obama Transition team to ask him to speak out for a ceasefire and for a more balanced and just approach to this conflict
(202)540-3000 (they are keeping a tally of calls).


Poets for Palestine
A recently released book of poems and art edited by Remi Kanazi which includes a diverse range of voices, from a peace perspective. If you find this crisis challenging your humanity-- this book is an excellent resource:

Understanding the Palestinian Israeli Conflict, a primer (book) by Phyllis Bennis,available via interlink books. A great resource for understanding the conflict from an international law perspective, with an easy to read Q & A format. A good starting place.