Social Justice Poetry

Earlier I spoke with Alicia Gregory, who is a Program Assistant at Split This Rock, a poetry organization that is dedicated to peace and social justice through poetry.  Their organization got its name from a poem by Langston Hughes.  I was inspired to do this interview and hear about other people who want to make a difference in our world through poetry.

Me: What is the goal of Split This Rock?
Alicia: Split This Rock aims to celebrate and support the socially engaged poetry – poetry of provocation and witness – that is being written in the United States today. We work to bring this poetry to larger and more diverse audiences. We call poets to a greater role in public life and, through our festival and programming, equip them with the tools they need to be effective advocates in their communities and the nation.

Me: How did you get involved with political poetry?
Alicia:  While studying abroad in South Africa as an undergraduate, I was immersed in a study of the country’s anti-apartheid literature/poetry. I was exposed to Nadine Gordimer, James Matthews, Ingrid de Kok, Dennis Brutus, and Antjie Krog – among many other important voices. I was taken with how honest, raw, and charged the writing is. How the work has multiple roles – as prayer, rally-cry, and witness. And how the words are so necessary for both the poet and the people. South Africa was my first introduction to political poetry, and when I came home, I continued my exploration – landing in the Split This Rock office not too long after graduation!

Me:  What changes have you seen in politics and/or social justice take place because of poetry?

Alicia:  Poetry has the power to build bridges – to help people understand each others experiences in all of their rich, varied complexities. Here in DC, Split This Rock’s monthly reading series “Sunday Kind of Love” is a perfect example of this – each month the room is consistently packed with people of all races and ages who come together to listen to poetry from equally diverse poets. What poetry does, essentially, is create dialogue — it challenges us. This is happening every day.

Recently, I saw an interview with Waseem Wagdi, an Egyptian protester in London. You can check it out here:

Who does he quote at the end? Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. In the most invigorating, emotional, and charged times, it is the poetry that comes.

Me:  What suggestions would you give to struggling poets?
Alicia:  Write. Every. Day. Read everything – expose yourself to as many different voices as possible. Establish a network of poet-friends to share work with and to help keep you motivated and engaged. This will make all the difference. Stop talking about writing, stop thinking about about writing, just “give it all, give it now” (Annie Dillard).

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