What Poetry Can Do

Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the U.S. Department of Justice is wide and empty. The word “windswept” comes to mind. On January 23 of this year it was particularly cold—the sun shone on the building’s backside.

But the group that gathered at the building’s front entrance brought our own heat. Fired up by the activists on the streets and by their own rage, tenderness, and commitment to change, poets had been sending poems to Split This Rock for months, poems that make heartbreakingly vivid all the ways that Black Lives Matter, poems that mourn the many lives lost to police violence.

Poet-activists at the DOJ (Jonathan B. Tucker)
Poet-activists at the DOJ (Jonathan B. Tucker)

As verdict after verdict came in, holding no one accountable for the loss of these precious men—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner—Split This Rock decided to take the poetic responses straight to the halls of power. We invited any and all to send us poems that spoke out for racial justice and posted them all to our blog, Blog This Rock, eventually totaling 16 posts of eight or ten poems each, in what we dubbed a “Virtual Open Mic.”

After a month, we printed out all 150 or so poems that we’d received and called on DC-area poets and activists to join us on that windswept sidewalk. Joined by those active in cosponsoring organizations like Institute for Policy Studies, DC Ferguson, SolidariTrees, Code Pink, and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, we were a small but hardy group, all ages and ethnicities, and that day we spoke the words of poets out into the wind, the cold, and toward the US Department of Justice, the very people who can enact the change we demanded.

the feeling //you get when you are looking/at your child, turn your head,/then, poof, no more child.//that feeling. that’s black. – Danez Smith

Blessed be the body now gone – Niki Herd

They slept in my arms, dead & bruised. Long as brambles. – Rachel Eliza Griffiths

“Until there is justice / I will wrap you in my stanzas,” writes the poet JP Howard, in a poem addressed to Trayvon Martin. The mother of young Black men herself, Howard’s line articulates what poetry can do in the face of such horrors: Honor and mourn those lost, voice our collective grief, imagine a world in which fear does not rule, in which our children are safe.

After an hour or so, someone came out from the Public Relations Department of the DOJ and received our poems. We don’t know where our words will land, but we know they have been spoken. And read by thousands, everywhere.

Poet YaYa Bey (Jonathan B. Tucker)
Poet YaYa Bey (Jonathan B. Tucker)

As we wrote in our Call for Poems, “Even as our hearts break in rage and anguish over the murder of Black and brown people throughout the land by police who are not held accountable, here at Split This Rock we are heartened by the powerful actions in the streets and the visionary leadership of mostly young people of color in this growing movement for justice. We are also moved by the poets, who continue to speak out, and especially by BlackPoetsSpeakOut.”

Read the poems we delivered to the DOJ here. To see more photos from the day, check out Split This Rock’s Flickr page.

Sarah Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock, an organization that cultivates, teaches, and celebrates poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. Author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, a collection of poems, and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War, she is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

04.22.15 by Sarah Browning