During the ’60s, I was uplifted by the wind of change. As a teen, I had become disillusioned by the institutions that were meant to guide me: school, church, the US political process. I awakened to injustice and desired to bring the world into balance; I protested, marched, leafletted, debated, wore a black armband, fasted, prayed. Then, we all grew up and moved on, some of us to continue the battle for equality, some of us to deepen our spiritual practice so we could change within, some of us to work towards wealth and security, some of us to raise families and make compromises as necessary. Split This Rock poetry festival reawakened my belief in the collective voice and the possibility of transformation throughout society.
At Split This Rock, we were all welcomed and valued. Emerging and beginning poets mingled with established poets, young voices were heard and older voices honored. The readings were dynamic, powerful and inspiring. We heard heart-wrenching stories of black mothers who have lost their sons to police violence and the loss of homeland by Syrian refugees. Perils a person of color encounters in daily living. Censorship and erasure of people of color. Asian women who work in dangerous, toxic environments in Silicon Valley.
But they were also filled with a spirit of hope, energy, compassion, connection, pride, purpose. It was as though the idealistic beliefs of the ’60s had found a new voice, a voice tempered in practicalities. Outrage turned into words and actions. A rededication. A relentless pursuit of speaking truth to power.
At the Poet’s Forum: How Political Engagement Affects the Writing Process presented by the Poetry Foundation and POETRY Magazine, Ocean Vuong said that poetry is an act of activism, that poetry opens our minds and hearts so we are less inclined to accept the popular culture's narrative. The next panel I attended consisted of contributors to an anthology of protest against Arizona’s censorship law that racially profiles authors called Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice. One panelist said, “It’s not enough to write poetry, we also need to march.” The panel discussed the necessity of writing poetry as witness, as a means of calling out and taking action against racially motivated crimes.
We march in different ways, I think. My days of holding hands and singing “We shall overcome” are over, not only because it is too hard for me to stand for hours without pain, but because it is not enough. Change has to come from within myself, my attitudes, beliefs, and judgments. Change has to occur within the places where I work and play through the work I love to do, treating others with respect, offering a different point of view, and using the skills I have to create dialogue or raise awareness.
At Split This Rock, I felt the winds of change blowing once again: insistent and unstoppable. Do we have the right to tell someone else’s story if we are not from their culture? What is cultural appropriation and who has privilege? Can we who are from white culture listen without bias or preconceived ideas? Can we listen to rage and not turn away because it is loud, not our style? Can we respond without defensiveness but with self-reflection and ask ourselves the hard questions of how do I contribute to the dominant culture’s narrative and how can I be an ally and a partner in the quest for true justice? Can I let go of my prejudiced views and open to new ways of thinking and interacting? Can I be the change I want to see and surrender my expectations? Can I envision change with my words and my art as well as my life? Can I speak up and do I know when to be quiet and let others speak their truth?
At Split This Rock, we are the voice of change. It was energizing and invigorating, but most of all, it was validating to a woman who began her poetic journey wanting change, wanting the invisible and ignored and forgotten to have a voice and a place. It was like the poetic answer to a Rainbow gathering where you are greeted with a big hug and “Welcome home, sister.” I felt welcomed home. I felt anything is possible.