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Split This Rock Poetry Festival

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Split This Rock photo: poem banners read:
Split This Rock Poetry Festival, the White House, March 23, 2008.
Photo © Jill Brazel Photography

A gorgeous Easter Sunday in Washington, DC, the cherry blossoms in full celebratory bloom. Meanwhile, an illegal and immoral war grinds on in Iraq, destroying that country and murdering countless Iraqis and Americans. Meanwhile, millions of Americans live in crippling poverty, hundreds of thousands of them in the nation’s capital itself.

Contradictions wild enough to inspire a poem. Which they did on Sunday, March 23, when hundreds of poets from all over the country gathered in front of the White House as part of Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Together, the poets created a spontaneous group poem, a Cento, for peace and new priorities, each contributing one line of up to 12 words, read into the microphone. Poets included Dennis Brutus, incarcerated with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island; MacArthur Fellow Galway Kinnell; Palestinian American Naomi Shihab Nye; a five-year-old boy; a six-year-old girl; poets from Maine and Florida and Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. Here is an excerpt …

Split This Rock Cento
Excerpts from Group Poem Created in Front of the White House,
March 23, 2008

Split This Rock photo: Poets reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, the White House, March 23, 2008. From top: Young girl reads cento line; Patricia Smith; Coleman Barks; Alix Olson. Photos © Jill Brazel Photography.
Poets reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, the White House, March 23, 2008. From top: Young girl reads cento line; Patricia Smith; Coleman Barks; Alix Olson.
Photos © Jill Brazel Photography

I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope
Turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse …

The winding Potomac lazily drifts by the Pentagon, journeying towards the sea.
America, let the words of the poets ring in your head.
No sick winter shall blot out the stars of our defiance.

We need one single person not to fight. Won’t you be that one?
I can no longer watch as you eat the shadows of others.
Carrying your harp of sighs you breathe out the music of mourning.

So instead of war, we might have had much improvisational festivity.

Dichoso el árbol que es apenas sensitive
Y más la piedra dura …

Baghdad, once called the given garden—
a desert—stolen—water, medicine, citizen.
Easter, again, and the sky as blue as the oldest promise.

This empirical wonderland is spinning off its evil axis
and I am pissed off.

Blackwater, Boeing, CACI, Dyncorp, GE, General Dynamics, Halliburton, KBR, Lockheed, Raytheon, SAIC

When your venomous cabal is gone, may the earth truly blossom again

Listen—the murmur of 100 million stars
too distant to fear any fighting.

O sister of nausea spacerof broken ribs spacerof isolation
what is the freedom I protect spacerhow is it mine

Mothers search the skies for their sons and daughters.
I dream of a child who will ask, “Mother, what was war?”

I am grafted to the skin of this land and its blood

“Islands”: For God’s sakes
Don’t you know
they are connected

Look up—veil of cherry blossoms—peace rising.

On a day of unreportable sadnesses we must reteach a thing its loveliness.
Go ahead open your hand ...
The lone night bird sings to the tortured between screams.

Poetry made me brave. It tells me we can build our peace.
Enough, I say, enough.
5 years. How long until even the gods are ashamed.

Lieutenant! This corpse will not stop burning!

Look around
The intifada is coming
and we are the stones.

We will not be silent.
Yes, we do want to be well.

Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away.
The underthrum, the handing off from one voice to another.
Don’t you hear this hammer ring?
We are the sworn poets of every dauntless rebel the world over.

Full poem available at Split This Rock website

Split This Rock photo: Naomi Shihab Nye: “Bring Back Kindness.” Photo © Jill Brazel Photography.
Naomi Shihab Nye: “Bring Back Kindness.”
Photo © Jill Brazel Photography

Split This Rock Poetry Festival:
Poems of Provocation & Witness was an historic gathering of activist poets in the nation’s capital March 20-23, 2008. Timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Split This Rock featured readings by some of our nation’s most passionate voices, panel discussions, workshops, walking tours, open mics, film and youth programming.

Split This Rock logo

Split This Rock calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of activist poets. Building the audience for poetry of provocation and witness from its home in the nation’s capital, the organization celebrates poetic diversity and the transformative power of the imagination. Read more and sign up for updates at

One line in the Cento was adapted from Eve Merriam's poem Fantasia:

by Eve Merriam

I dream
giving birth
a child
who will ask,
what was war?”

Merriam's poem was published in 1986 in A Sky Full of Poems

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