Letters to the Editor

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Supriya Bhatnagar
Editor
letters@awpwriter.org


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    Muscular Traditions of Poetry

    Split This Rock thanks David Wojahn (The Writer’s Chronicle, vol. 50, #2, October/November 2017) for attributing publication of Ross Gay’s super-viral “A Small Needful Fact” to us—a poem so needed it took on its own life in the culture. To characterize our many programs and decade long Poem of the Week series as proof “our hearts [are] in the right place,” however, is condescension, pure and simple. 

    The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database, where Gay’s poem lives, is an online anthology of over 475 poems searchable by social justice theme—many by the luminaries of poetry’s new golden era. We choose poems with care for their quality, their importance to the poetic traditions of the US, but also for the “life” in the poem—its power to witness, provoke, uplift, to challenge. Wojahn’s signature is the backhanded compliment—a tactic as old as poetry itself—and this heartfelt epithet to our work dripped less snark than most. His essay is, we applaud, a useful taxonomy of poetic resistance to the fascist contortions of language and culture we endure now. We hope more poets will learn the traditions of socially conscious poetry, and join them.

    Troubling, however, is his other dominant rhetorical move —erasure. In the essay, Ross Gay drops from the ether to alight among a litany of Wojahn’s usual suspects, and while they are indeed great poets, his list all but ignores the poetry of forebears in poetry of witness by people of color, women, activists, and LGBT poets—traditions upon which Split This Rock is built. 

    Split This Rock brings poetry to the center of public life, especially poetry that laments suffering, punches back against harm, examines its place and purpose, reaches out to others, and imagines the beloved community. 

    These are the gestures of the poems in The Quarry, all arriving to our curatorial desks from long and muscular traditions. The Quarry puts these poems for free into the hands of poets, teachers, activists, readers, world changers. We support these poets with the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism. We promote their work weekly. They join us for a biennial poetry festival where they share insights and plan futures both poetic and social. 

    Herrera, Gay, Girmay, Jess, Rankine, Sharif, Smith are taking home the loudest accolades, the biggest prizes poetry has to offer, serving as Poet Laureate of the United States. It has been our honor to watch them grow in power and influence, to be entrusted with their words.

                M.F. Simone Roberts
                Managing Editor,
                Split This Rock’s “The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database”

     

    David Wojahn responds:

    I regret that the staff at Split This Rock, whose work and mission I admire, were in any way and to any degree offended by my essay. My championing of certain poets and aesthetics in the essay was in no way meant to privilege those figures and approaches over others. As Ms. Roberts rightly observes, there are many “long and muscular traditions” within the poetry of witness and social justice. It is important for all of us who write and read poetry to honor—and to be instructed by—these traditions, especially during a time when Trumpism and all it represents seeks to dupe and divide our nation.