Friday, March 30, 2012

Poem of the Week: Joel Dias-Porter

Joel Dias Porter
Photo by: Taylor Mali


is a story of steam,
rising like
a swarm of hornets,
singeing sight from eyes.
a parable of lava
moldering down a mountain
igniting all green to ash,
the song of a hit recorded,
number 1 with a bullet.

Is not a story
about "fucking coons"
that "always get away."

This is not a poem
about Emmet Till,
Amadou Diallo,
or James Byrd Jr.

It is not the tale of
a "suspicious" hoodie
in the wrong neighborhood
or a trigger finger with
a "squeaky clean record."
Is not a fable of a corpse
with a bullet hole
that was tested for drugs
or a hand freshly coated
with the back flash of phosphorus
that was not.
This is a story
that checks out,
so the only charges
will be on a credit card
for funeral services.

I did not write this poem
in anger,
I did not write this poem
in "Self-Defense."
I did not write this poem.
Because my pen is empty from
having already written & written this poem.

These words can be heard
only because
while facedown
on the concrete
of the righthand lane
at 10:37 AM
on April 15th, 1987
at 19067 Greenbelt Road
my name was not Gregory Habib,
my sternum
could stand the weight
of the knee between
my shoulder blades,
and the monomaniacal eye
at the back of my head
was a .38 revolver
with a 15 lb. trigger pull
and not the 8 lb pull
of a Glock 9mm.
Because it was all just

a misunderstanding
and have a nice day, Sir.

It is not true that
my eyes are red
as a bag of Skittles
as I write this,
and if my page is dotted
with drops, it is only
Arizona iced tea that is spilled.

This poem pertains to no crime,
contains no trees
with branches strong enough
to bear the weight of a black boy,
contains no rope (of any length),
contains not even a single slipknot.

But it does loop,
like a wandering moose,
a homeward goose,
or a four hundred year old

-Joel Dias-Porter

Used by permission.

Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade) was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, and is a former professional DJ. From 1994-1999 he competed in the National Poetry Slam, and was the 1998 and 1999 Haiku Slam Champion. His poems have been published in Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Callaloo, Ploughshares, Antioch Review, Red Brick Review, Asheville Review, Beltway Quarterly and the anthologies Gathering Ground, Love Poetry Out Loud, Meow: Spoken Word from the Black Cat, Short Fuse, Role Call, Def Poetry Jam, 360 Degrees of Black Poetry, Slam (The Book), Revival: Spoken Word from Lollapallooza, Poetry Nation, Beyond the Frontier, Spoken Word Revolution, Catch a Fire, and The Black Rooster Social Inn. In 1995, he received the Furious Flower "Emerging Poet Award." Performances include the Today Show, the documentary SlamNation, on BET, and in the feature film Slam. A Cave Canem fellow and the father of a young son, He has a CD of jazz and poetry entitled 'LibationSong'.

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.

Split This Rock

HOWL screens at each Busboys & Poets

Split This Rock Cosponsors

James Franco stars as the young Allen Ginsberg—poet, counter-culture adventurer, and chronicler of the Beat Generation. In his famously confessional, leave-nothing-out style, Ginsberg recounts the road trips, love affairs, and search for personal liberation that led to the most timeless and electrifying work of his career: the poem HOWL.

Meanwhile, in a San Francisco courtroom, HOWL is on trial. Prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) sets out to prove that the book should be banned, while suave defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) argues fervently for freedom of speech and creative expression. The proceedings veer from the comically absurd to the passionate as a host of unusual witnesses (Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola) pit generation against generation and art against fear in front of conservative Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban).

HOWL is simultaneously a portrait of a renegade artist breaking down barriers to find love and redemption, and an imaginative ride through a prophetic masterpiece that rocked a generation and was heard around the world.

Composed from court records, interviews, and HOWL by Allen Ginsberg. Animation inspired by ILLUMINATED POEMS by Allen Ginsberg and Eric Drooker.

About Focus-In! Films

Focus-In! Films: Cinema for a Conscious Community is a Busboys and Poets-produced monthly film series that screens films with a focus dedicated to social justice, peace, art, music, and/or community value. Films are screened one time per location with no admission cost.

Screening Dates/Times/Locations

Mon. 4/2/12 7-9pm @ Busboys and Poets - Hyattsville (MD)
Sun. 4/8/12 8-10pm @ Busboys and Poets - 14th & V (DC)
Sun. 4/15/12 7-9pm @ Busboys and Poets - Shirlington (VA)
Sun. 4/22/12 8-10pm @ Busboys and Poets - 5th & K (DC)

Facebook Event


Busboys and Poets

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Split This Rock

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Poem of the Week: Sonia Sanchez

With today's Poem of the Week we finish our run of 15 festival poets with Sonia Sanchez's "14 haiku" - a poem for Emmitt Till. Now, it's also a poem for Trayvon Martin and for all of the Black boys and men who have been taken from us.

Split This Rock encourages you to call on the Department of Justice to take over Trayvon's case and launch an independent investigation into the Sanford police department's unwillingness to protect Trayvon's civil rights.

Sonia Sanchez Split This Rock 2008 Opening
Sonia Sanchez at Split This Rock 2008 @Jill Brazel

14 haiku

(for Emmett Louis Till)


Your limbs buried

in northern muscle carry

their own heartbeat



alert with

conjugated pain


young Chicago

stutterer whistling

more than flesh


your pores

wild stars embracing

southern eyes


footprints blooming

in the night remember

your blood


in this southern

classroom summer settles

into winter


i hear your

pulse swallowing

neglected light


your limbs

fly off the ground

little birds...


we taste the

blood ritual of

southern hands


blue midnite

breaths sailing on

smiling tongues


say no words

time is collapsing

in the woods


a mother's eyes

remembering a cradle

pray out loud


walking in Mississippi

i hold the stars

between my teeth


your death

a blues, i could not

drink away.

-Sonia Sanchez

Used by permission.

From Morning Haiku (Beacon Press, 2010)

Sonia Sanchez is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including, among others, Morning Haiku (Beacon Press, 2010) and Does your house have lions? (1995), which was nominated for both the NAACP Image and National Book Critics Circle Award. She was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University, where she began teaching in 1977, and held the Laura Carnell Chair in English there until her retirement in 1999. She is the first Poet Laureate of Philadelphia.

Sanchez will be reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 22-25, 2012. The festival is SOLD OUT. Join us for a poetry action at the Supreme Court Friday March 23. Details here.

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.

Split This Rock

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

No Matter What: A Review of Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant

The following review was written by guest reviewer Bob Blair.

Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what. – Bruce Weigl, “The Impossible”

The 46 poems in Rachel McKibbens’ first book, Pink Elephant, validate Weigl’s claim for the power of clarity. A memoir in verse, a mosaic of savage vignettes from her nightmare childhood through the challenges of motherhood, these poems recount and reflect on the violence and desperation of McKibbens’ early years – their enduring effects, and her struggle to overcome that history.

The book’s title, which recalls the comfort of a child’s stuffed toy, gives no hint of what’s ahead. The first clue comes in the dedication:

for my brother, who lived

for my father, who learned

Both men feature prominently in the first half of the book – which addresses McKibben’s often terrifying childhood. Peter, the Hansel to McKibbens’ Gretel, first appears in the book’s opening poem:

I love my brother. He had the exact same childhood as I did.

But he doesn’t get the credit for it. He isn’t the writer. I am

the star of the violence. I expose. My Peter, when he marries,

I will be so sad. No girl in the world deserves him but me. (I Forget Who I Said It To…)

Peter was her comrade in the trenches of their family warfare, and, at times, took the brunt of their father’s rages for her. But he was also the child – the son – their mother favored. So, resentment and anger coexist with the solidarity.

The morning I caught my brother behind the couch,

my pet hamster in his hands, holding her

steady as a bowl of blood, a new heat

moved through me, tightened itself

around my throat like a leash.

I smacked his face and bit his shoulder.

He dropped the hamster to the floor. An Easter present

from my father. Mine. I grabbed her

and held her up to his face,

squeezed until she went limp beneath the crush. (For Du’a Khalil)

Jealousy, rage and violence echo throughout Pink Elephant – background music to a family saga in which alcoholism, assaults, and psychological abuse are recurring motifs. As McKibbens’ story develops poem by poem, we see her struggling against her father’s brutal rages and her mother’s crushing indifference.

Because Pink Elephant is essentially a memoir, it helps to read the poems in the order in which McKibbens presents them. There are links among the poems and sequences embedded in the overall arc of the book. For example, Parts 1 and 2 include “The First Time” (she ran away from home with her brother), “The Day After the First Time We Ran Away from Home,” “The Second Time” (she ran away with her step mother), and “The Last Time.” The sequence begins with the futility of escape --

It’s funny to me now, picturing

two children running away

as unprepared as a fed up housewife –

where did we imagine we could go?

What new home would drop from the sky for us?

Which saint would dare burst from its plaster

shell to scoop us from our ugly lives? (The First Time)

-- and concludes with her confrontation with the abusive father she had been trying to flee. Having taken a hammer from his tool chest, she sneaks up to his bedroom --

I turned the knob slowly,

stood over my father’s body,

his chest heaving, then sinking

when his tongue rattled, then stopped,

and the whites of his eyes

rolled over, and he stared

only at the weapon in my hand

and I looked at him and said,

If you ever touch us again,

I will kill you.

And then he saw me.

Okay, he said.

Okay. (The Last Time)

The poems in the second half of the book deal with McKibbens’ men and her reflections on raising her own children. We also see more of her mother here, but mainly as the woman her daughter sought desperately, but hopelessly, to please -- an anti-model of parenthood. In McKibbens’ eyes her mother saw her as “a filthy little hitchhiker you never meant to pick up,/ a greedy little fetus. An accident waiting to happen.” In “The Pacifier,” she describes breast-feeding one of her own children and reflects on the taunting that accompanied her mother’s breast-feedings.

Father told me how she would tease,

rubbing her nipple across my lip

until my head whipped toward it

how she’d pull back and laugh

as I wagged my empty mouth,

rooting for her tough, sweet skin.

This is how I learned the difference

between women and mothers.

That is when I knew

what I wanted to be. (The Pacifier)

Not a few of the experiences described in Pink Elephant are deeply troubling. In “Tomboy,” a poem about how McKibbens absorbed her father’s anger and misogyny, the young girl smuggles an imaginary mermaid home from a beach trip:

I begged her to teach me the love in women,

to help me seem less unnatural.

But her words rippled in her throat –

a wild ocean language I could not comprehend.

Give me something, I warned, or I’ll dry you out.

She began to writhe beneath my voice

as I spit words that slurred her flesh.

It was my own wild language, passed down

to me by my father: words, sounds, rages,

the darkest blue shades of misogyny

no child’s mouth should ever dare commit. (Tomboy)

The child’s frustration and anger quickly turn to violence, and she attacks the captive mermaid she decries as “full of woman’s ungratefulness.”

The next morning I packed her throat full of sand.

Stuffed her gills with mud and broken seashells.

She lacked all strength to squirm and simply

looked at me in horror

watching me return to the only child I knew how to be –

I was mythological and frightening.

I was half man,

I was half flawless. (Tomboy)

“Tomboy” is both psychologically insightful and richly imaginative, but some readers likely will recoil at its graphic violence – and it is far from the most violent of Pink Elephant’s poems.

Still, psychologists have noted that humans tend to give greater attention and psychological weight to negative experiences, threats over opportunities, and bad news over good. That theory may – along with the thoughtful craft that went into the making and interweaving of Pink Elephant’s poems – help explain the power and appeal of the book’s sustained and intimate narrative.

Given the grim childhood she describes, it is affirming to read how McKibbens reacts against her own history in raising her children, declaring: “My children are all five of my hearts, unleashed.” (A Sunday Cross-Examination of My Future Next Husband)

Pink Elephant offers a poetry of pain, survival and, ultimately, self-affirmation. Its stories are told unflinchingly, but with touches of sharp, dark humor. The book’s Hansel and Gretel overtones, symbolic mermaids, surreal dream scenes and spare but graphic descriptions of physical and emotional brutality often give the stories a quasi-mythological feel – and the atmosphere of a gothic horror tale.

The epigraph by Bruce Weigl at the beginning of this review is the final line of a poem about being molested at age seven. It asserts that however ugly and painful one’s experiences, recounting them with unblinking clarity can give rise to an unexpected beauty. Pink Elephant offers readers just that sort of beauty.

Rachel McKibbens is the mother of five children. A self-described ex-punk rock chola, she is the 2009 Women of the World poetry slam champion, an eight-time National Poetry Slam team member, a three-time NPS finalist, and a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow and Pushcart nominee. For four years, she co-curated the louderARTS Project reading series in New York City, coaching their slam team to three consecutive National Poetry Slam final stages. She teaches poetry and creative writing at diverse venues, from housing projects to hospitals, high schools and universities.

Bob Blair facilitates a weekly poetry workshop at Miriam’s Kitchen ( in Washington, D.C.

Rachel McKibbens

Pink Elephant

Cypher Books


Monday, March 19, 2012

I bite shut my eyes between songs: Review of Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song

Flood Song by Sherwin Bitsui

Reviewed by Melissa Tuckey

Sherwin Bitsui is a member of the Dine tribe of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan), who grew up on the Navajo reservation in White Cone, Arizona. Flood Song is his second book of poems. Bitsui writes in English, and also speaks Dine, so that the poems navigate between Dine culture and industrial/ American culture.

In a recent interview, describing how the book moves between these experiences, Bitsui says:

Politically, English is the language of my tribal nation’s oppressor, but we certainly have to use it to come into a new kind of knowing that will help us translate this outer culture into our own and vice versa. Flood Song feels like it’s trying to braid these diverging worldviews together in order to create a middle area that is accessible to both perspectives.

Flood Song is a poem in which images such as “I cover my eyes with electrical wires,/see yellow dawn eclipse Stop signs” co-exist with “grandfather’s accent rippling/ around the stone flung into his thinning mattress,” the grandfather who “Years before, he would have named this season/ by flattening a field where grasshoppers jumped into black smoke.”

Flood Song is both a vision and an utterance, from the first line of the poem, “I bite shut my eyes between songs.” We are drawn by the vividness of image and its strangeness. The speaker has a world to make, one that crosses between cultures. The singer’s “shrill cry.... becomes the wailing that returns to the reservation.” As readers we are participants in this ritual, we follow the singer “across sand dunes/ warm his hand with your breath.”

This sense of braiding or bringing together of disparate worldviews is present at the very level of sentence-making in the book. Entering the poems, we are entering a world. Sentences like “bison horns twist into the sides of trains/ winding through the broth filled eyes of hens/ squawking from the icebox./ shock-coils from the jet engine’s roar/ erupt from memory of splintered eagle bone” render a world where past, present and future are simultaneously present and time is luminous. The natural world here is violently displaced, but continues to exist in the memory of an eagle bone, and as song.

As Americans – especially those of us who are white – we often do not live with our history. We live in the present tense and even that is not fast or new enough. These poems contain history and vision, as well as the shocking pace of the new, even while they bend toward beauty.

At its most surreal, the poem is birthing a new world: “The storm lying outside its fetal shell/folds back its antelope ears.” Bitsui writes, “I wanted to crack open bulldozers and spray their yolk over the hills so that a new/ birth cry would awaken the people who had fallen asleep.”

I especially enjoy the sense that experimentation is not for its own sake, but that there is something pressing within this book to born, to be remembered, to be told.

Tribute to Sam Hamill & Poets Against War


For Sam Hamill

Let the blasphemy be spoken: poetry can save us,

not the way a fisherman pulls the drowning swimmer

into his boat, not the way Jesus, between screams,

promised life everlasting to the thief crucified beside him

on the hill, but salvation nevertheless.

Somewhere a convict sobs into a book of poems

from the prison library, and I know why

his hands are careful not to break the brittle pages.

by Martín Espada

Festival Goers: Join Martín Espada, Marilyn Nelson, and Sarah Browning as we pay tribute to Sam Hamill Thursday, March 22, 2-3:30 pm, in the auditorium of the True Reformer Building.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Our faces coated with history: A Review of Tocqueville by Khaled Mattawa


Tocqueville, by Khaled Mattawa

Reviewed by Yvette Neisser Moreno

In his fourth book, Tocqueville, Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa examines the world and human experiences with a wide lens and communicates his perceptions to the reader in a multiplicity of voices and poetic styles. Mattawa has been straddling worlds for a long time, as one of America’s most preeminent translators of contemporary Arabic poetry, and in his own poetry the individual experience is inextricably intertwined with global events, and vice versa. Indeed, Mattawa’s ars poetica is summed up in these lines: “[T]o love one person / you must contemplate loving the whole world” (p. 10).

One such poem in which Mattawa brings multiple worlds together is “PowerPoint I.” Here the poet makes extraordinary leaps and striking comparisons between seemingly unrelated subjects, including a record-setting swimmer, an ordinary person training a puppy, imperialism, American movie culture, with references to World War II, the Vietnam War, and the current U.S. war in Afghanistan, among others. The closing stanza of this 6-page poem remarkably brings all these strands together in a commentary on contemporary society’s place in history:

The dog owner opens a magazine and reads about the swimmer’s accomplishment

which is to have become for a short while the cogwheel driving the second-arm of civilization’s time,

because to say Empire is to say: the Tet offensive and one step for man,

and going out to the movies and making sure the dog does not maul the new sofa,

wherein the blind man’s accomplishment, via an eye bank in Bombay, is another toddle unto revelation,

so many magical powers or advanced technology incorporated within

where the march of progress becomes loops and loops of human matter strung around the cinemaplex,

the human soul as a conglomerate, a spark plug winking within the universe’s internal combustion,

triumphs like motes of pollen from new epochs stinging the Cyclops’s eye,

so much dithering, a catharsis that hurls us screaming unto the street, our faces coated with history. (12-13)

The book’s centerpiece is its ambitious title poem, a 26-page collage of short lyric poems and prose passages, which takes its name from the famous chronicler of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville. The choice to title this poem—and the collection—“Tocqueville” indicates that Mattawa sees the piece as continuing Tocqueville’s project of defining democracy and its impact on the American people and society. Perhaps the aim is to demonstrate the irony of the fact that the United States’ efforts to spread “democracy” across the globe have had sometimes devastating results.

The poem centers on recounting the shocking life stories of several Somali citizens during their country’s tumultuous recent history, as reported by the BBC. Prose fragments of these stories are interspersed with excerpts from works such as Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile,” and the Qur’an, as well as short poems written in a first-person, beautifully lyric voice:

Sometimes I want to call what I see

through the keyhole “a flower.”

Then I see the clock racing,

the digits tumbling over themselves.

Then I turn to her face

and ask a question of love. (23-24)

Although the notes in the back of the book reveal that the war zone described in “Tocqueville” is (at least primarily) Somalia, the poem itself provides no geographical or contextual reference.

Thus, the stories and images presented in the poem take on a universal quality—the sense that these horrors could occur anywhere. For me, this reading experience was somewhat reminiscent of Split This Rock poet Fady Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic or Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History.

In terms of form, Mattawa—like fellow 2012 Split This Rock featured poet Douglas Kearney—pushes the boundaries of free verse into new territory by interspersing prose and lyric poetry. In particular, the book includes a series of poems called “PowerPoints,” which include charts and placeholders for images along with text. In a commentary on the writing process of his book Amorisco, Mattawa explains his experimental style:

I wanted to write in that pure mode that seems to transcend time and circumstance, and that it many cases acts as a skeleton upon which much of poetry is placed. In the longer poems that range freely among pressing questions and unresolved episodes I work in counter-mode attaching, welding, and knotting as much material (and prose) to a lyric impulse as it could handle. Of course, I love the lyric mode, but I sometimes resist its taciturn wisdom and the purity of its bones. (

While I deeply appreciate the way Mattawa’s longer poems challenge the reader to reconsider the relationship between history and current events, and between US society and US foreign policy, I am always drawn to simple, lyric moments. As such, I was quite moved by Mattawa’s poem “Trees,” which ends with the following meditation on how we should define them:

Should I group them by touch or color—

trees of pearly, gray smooth bark,

of leaves like old women’s hands,

trees of round, dark red fruit?

Should I name them to their stories—

tree that hides the stop sign in summer,

tree where I once shot a bird,

tree I planted to cast a shadow on her grave?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Kevin Simmonds on Split This Rock and the transformative power of poetry:

"Split This Rock is unapologetically committed to the idea that much of the most important and lasting poetry comes out of a struggle against power structures that have oppressed women, minorities and LGBTIQ people. "Political" poetry isn't this short-sighted hackneyed genre bereft of style and craft. STR lifts the work of those who've gone on like June Jordan and Langston Hughes alongside contemporaries like Naomi Shihab Nye and Homero Aridjis. Poets like these consider messy subjects that, when amplified by poetry, can have a civilizing effect on us. I'm also thinking of luminaries like Nazim Hikmet. These are poets whose work has been translated, spoken through microphone and bullhorns at rallies, banned from classrooms and constantly stolen from bookstores.

As I see it, good poetry concerns itself with magnanimity, laying aside purposely divisive bullshit and looking again at a thing, a situation, an idea. Looking at what in it is worth knowing, worth cherishing and aiming for. That's a generosity I find unique to poetry. LGBTIQ people are drawn to that and have clung to poetry to "rewrite, reinvent and reify" their lives, as critic and poet David Eye wrote about Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, the anthology I recently edited for Sibling Rivalry Press. Consider this: the LGBTIQ community can boast about a poetic ancestry that includes Sappho, Virgil, Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Federico Garcia Lorca, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Mutsuo Takahashi, Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo and so on. I know poetry has saved me and saves me to this day."

Thank you, Kevin! Check out the Collective Brightness reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2012, Thursday March 22nd - 4:00pm, True Reformer Building Auditorium (1200 U St. NW)

Monday, March 12, 2012

March Sunday Kind of Love: Carmen Calatayud & Emma Trelles

Sunday Kind of Love
Carmen Calatayud
Emma Trelles
Carmen Calatayud
Emma Trelles

Sunday, March 18
5-7 pm

Busboys and Poets
2021 14th St. NW
Washington, DC

Hosted by Sarah Browning & Katy Richey
As always, open mic follows!

Co-Sponsored by Busboys and Poets, Split This Rock & Letras Latinas, the Literary Program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame

For more information:

Carmen Calatayud's first book of poems, Cave Walk, was chosen by poets Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root for the Silver Concho Poetry Series and is forthcoming from Press 53 in September 2012. She is a poet moderator for Poets Responding to SB 1070, a Facebook group that features poetry and news about Arizona's controversial immigration law that legalizes racial profiling. Calatayud works as a psychotherapist and addictions counselor in Washington, DC.

Emma Trelles is the author of Tropicalia, winner of the 2010 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and published by the University of Notre Dame Press (2011). She is also the author of the chapbook Little Spells (GOSS183 press), a recommended read by the Valparaiso Poetry Review and the Montserrat Review.

Read a review of Tropicalia over at Post No Ills.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Haiku Postcards to President Obama

Split This Rock had collected many haiku postcards for President Obama at AWP. Here are some of our favorite haikus:


Lyle Daggett

The nation breathed fear,
drank wartime like cheap courage,
seeks hang over cure

Dan Vera

Keep your humble head.
The earth is in your corner.
Sing like words are water.

Qiana Towns

Barack Obama
the Republicans do not
glitter like you do.


Boy picks up a stick
rattles it across the fence.
Lonely yards listen.

Bryan Fry

A black man's throat splits
White house air into music:
tears come to my eyes

L. Alleyne

There is no food inside our


Poem of the Week: Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson

Making History

Blue and White Orlon Snowflake Sweater, Blue Snowpants, Red Galoshes

(Smoky Hill AFB, Kansas, 1955)

Somebody took a picture of a class

standing in line to get polio shots,

and published it in the Weekly Reader.

We stood like that today. And it did hurt.

Mrs. Liebel said we were Making History,

but all I did was sqwunch up my eyes and wince.

Making History takes more than standing in line

believing little white lies about pain.

Mama says First Negroes are History:

First Negro Telephone Operator,

First Negro Opera Singer At The Met,

First Negro Pilots, First Supreme Court Judge.

That lady in Montgomery just became a First

by sqwunching up her eyes and sitting there.

-Marilyn Nelson

Used by permission.

From Beloit Poetry Journal
Spring 2012 - Split This Rock Edition

Order this special issue now from the BPJ website for only $5.00. The issue will also be available for sale at the 2012 festival.

Marilyn Nelson is the author or translator of 12 books and three chapbooks. She is a winner of the Annisfield-Wolf Award and the Poets' Prize, and most recently, the Poetry Society of America's Frost Medal, among others. Her honors include two NEA fellowships, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, three honorary doctorates, and a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. Nelson is a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut; founder and was founder/director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers' colony; and the former Poet Laureate of Connecticut.

Nelson will be reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 22-25, 2012. Join us!

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

Split This Rock

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Every Meeting a Shiny Maybe: A Review of Transfer by Naomi Shihab Nye

Editor's Note: This is one in an occasional series of reviews of recent books by poets who will be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, 2012. Reserve free tickets to Naomi Shihab Nye's reading March 25 here.

by Joseph Ross

Our ability to remember those who have died might be among our most human traits. Remembering is how we maintain our relationships. It’s how we hold onto those we love beyond this life. We recall their faces, their words, and their loves. This remembering is the essential voice of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Transfer. As you might expect from this hardworking and gifted poet, the remembering voice in this book sings beautifully.

Transfer is a book-length elegy. It recalls the life of Aziz Shihab, the poet’s father. Aziz Shihab was a journalist by profession, and so knew the world of writing and the world of asking questions. These tender poems bring to life his loves, his stories, and his lands—his birthplace of Palestine and his adopted home in America. “I Don’t Know,” one of the book’s early poems, serves as a kind of invocation and hope for where the book will go. She hopes: “The man he was can hear the daughter I am.”

In section two of Transfer, Naomi Shihab Nye does a remarkable thing: she uses titles from her father’s notebooks as titles for the section’s eleven poems. She creatively forges a kind of conversation, a dialogue between her father’s writing and her own. The results are stunning. The section opens with “Everything in Our World Did Not Seem To Fit,” which describes the expulsion of the Palestinians from Jerusalem, a loss that will mark her father’s life from that day forward. From there, we move with him to Kansas City through the various difficulties that move entails.

At one moment, the poems break our hearts and in the next, they cause us to break into laughter. In “Is Misery Near Kansas, I Asked,” Shihab Nye writes in her father’s optimistic voice:

Finding my way was a pleasure
Every meeting a shiny maybe.

This nice lady has something to tell us.
Hello friend!
We have so much to talk about!

“Where Are You Now?” recalls her father’s storytelling skills, as well as one of the difficult days during his final illness:

I position my head on the pillow
where you told your last folktale,
mixing donkey, camel, mouse

journey, kitchen, trees,
so the story grew jumbled,
uncharacteristically long.

These tender moments provide the pulse of this book. The poems are at their finest when Shihab Nye marries the sorrow of personal loss with the injustices inherent in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. “Hello, Palestine” opens:

In the hours after you died,
all the pain went out of your face.
Whole governments relaxed
in your jaw line.
How long had you been away
from the place you loved best?
Every minute was too much.

One of the book’s most moving poems recalls the poet’s internal pleading, a reality anyone who has grieved knows well. In “Chicho Brothers Fruit & Vegetable #2” she writes:

6 lemons for $1.00 said the sign.
I was thinking of you.
Absentmindedly I threw 13 lemons into a bag.
At the checkout the woman said, How many lemons?
I said, 6.
It was obvious there were more than that.
She stared at me hard.
Startled, I laughed.
They watch me closely at Chicho’s now,
---cilantro, garlic, broccoli.
Come back, come back.

Among Naomi Shihab Nye’s many talents as a poet is her ability to touch the common points of our human experience. She gives voice to the painful unpredictability that is mourning, but renders it in a beautiful voice. While Transfer specifically honors her father’s life, it also honors the full humanity of her readers.


Joseph Ross is the author of Meeting Bone Man, forthcoming in April, 2012. Twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, his poems appear in such anthologies as Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, Full Moon on K Street, and Poetic Voices Without Borders 1 and 2. He is co-editor of Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture. Ross directs the Writing Center at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and writes regularly at