Split This Rock: socially engaged poetry in the US

Split This Rock explores and celebrates the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for change: reaching across differences, considering personal and social responsibility, asserting the centrality of the right to free speech, bearing witness to the diversity and complexity of human experience through language, imagining a better world.

Melissa Tuckey

Helen Moore: Split This Rock calls poets to a greater role in public life – can you explain this? Do you mean that you want to support the social standing of poets, to promote the civic ‘place’ of poetry, which, I imagine, is probably as marginal as it is here in the UK?

Melissa Tuckey: Yes, we believe in the civic place of poetry. Split This Rock grew out of the Poets Against War movement in response to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As poets in Washington, DC near the seat of power, we felt a special responsibility to speak out. It was Sarah Browning’s idea to organize a national poetry festival, calling poets “to the center of public life,” and from this an organization was born. We decided early on that our focus was wider than opposition to war; it was to lift up and amplify the voices of socially engaged poets, poets who are writing into and about social issues, and build a network supporting this vital work. We were inspired by all the work that poets are doing in their communities, working with veterans, teaching in prisons and homeless shelters, working with survivors of abuse and violence, and so much more. We were also inspired by a rich tradition of socially engaged poetry; our name, Split This Rock, for example comes from a Langston Hughes poem, “Big Buddy,” which celebrates solidarity:

Don’t you hear this hammer ring?

I’m gonna split this rock

And split it wide!

When I split this rock,

Stand by my side.

Working together has been immensely inspiring—our first poetry festival was held in 2008, and hundreds of poets have gathered every two years since for readings, workshops, discussions, and activism around challenging and timely topics. From the beginning, Split This Rock made a commitment to cultural and stylistic diversity, something that’s still far too rare in American poetry.

The conversations at Split This Rock inspire other projects. For example, I am working right now on Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology for University of Georgia Press. It’s largely inspired by conversations at Split This Rock. In 2010, Camille Dungy launched Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Poetry at Split This Rock, and in 2012 I hosted a forum at Split This Rock celebrating the work of poet June Jordan and looking at the intersection of social justice and the environment. From here a space opened up for work on Ghost Fishing, which builds upon Black Nature in that it recognizes that the relationship between humans and the environment is political. In this anthology, I’m interested in looking at the ways in which social issues impact our human relationship to the natural world, and in looking at this from a wide range of cultural perspectives and poetic approaches.

HM: Simultaneously are you perhaps calling poets to greater engagement in public life outside of poetry – inviting poets to be activists and, as Brenda Cárdenas says in a Poetry Society of America interview, “to actually get off their butts and away from their computer screens long enough to engage in the activism that might affect the injustices they decry, expose, question, analyze, and (yes, I’ll say it) use to win prizes and make careers”?


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