Sunday, February 5, 2012

Strength from Numbers

During March 22-25, 2012, the third Split This Rock Poetry Festival:  Poems of Provocation and Witness will be held in Washington, DC. This year's festival honors activist poet June Jordan (1936  - 2002) but the festival would not be happening without the vision and untiring efforts of DC poet Sarah Browning, Director of Split This Rock and DC Poets Against the War, and author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden.  Like any good protester, she makes effective use of the specificity of numbers in her poems.

Here's the opening stanza of Browning's poem, "The Fifth Fact."

   For Ben's project he must research five facts
   about his African-American hero and write them
   on posterboard.  He chooses Harriet Tubman,
   whose five facts are:  Her father's name was Ben.
   Her mother's name was Old Rit.  She was born
   in 1820 and died in 1913, She was born in Maryland
   and died in New York.  Ben asks for advice
   about his fifth fact and I suggest:  She led more than
   300 people to freedom.  Ben sighs the way he does
   now and says, Everyone knows that, Mom.

And here are the final lines of "Riding in a Car with My Dad."

   The teenager is Black and my father
   and I are white and so much
   of our history is in this moment--
   more history than my 13-year-old body can hold,
   more than his 18-year-old-body can hold,
   400 years that brought us to this street,
   this childhood of silence and knowledge
   of so much that is not right in the world--

   what the child knows:  we live in the big house.

     "The Fifth Fact" and "Riding in a Car with My Dad" appear in Browning's collection, Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007).
     Writers Dennis Shaw and Katherine Silkin will join me in presenting a panel workshop at Split This Rock Poetry Festival at 11:30 AM on Saturday, March 24.  This panel -- entitled "Counting On" -- explores the effective use of numerical information in poetry.  Hope to see YOU there.

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