Split This Rock Poetry Fest (the nonlinear post)

So, yes, the incredible Split This Rock Poetry Fest in Washington D.C. was at the end of March, before the PEN awards, but I was so busy getting ready for PEN (got my hair cut, took a shower, shined my boots, that sort of thing) that I didn’t have a chance to write this entry. 

I am so glad I went. Because of the semester teaching/grading crunch, I flew down Friday morning and stayed through Saturday night, but I missed some incredible readings and panels with such a short window. Next time – I am definitely going next time – I’m going for the whole of it.

If you’re not familiar with Split This Rock and their mission of “poems of provocation and witness,” check out their website here:

Split This Rock

…and, at the very least, sign up for their poetry emails. The poems of the week are ones that make me pause and listen and consider the space I inhabit: white, female, middle class, mother, in a heterosexual relationship, American, New Englander, educated. I listen and learn, carry these poems forward.

I went to some brilliant panels and was a small part of one of the readings, pictures below courtesy of the official Split This Rock photographer, Kristen Adair. I read first: 


Dan Vera introduced us with his great stage presence and warmth and obvious passion for poetry.



Then came Malachi Byrd, a member of the DC Youth Slam Team. Very inspiring, sweet guy, big heart. Keep at it, Malachi. 


The features followed: first, Maria Melendez Kelson. I have her gorgeous book Flexible Bones (now signed, yay!). What a performer – big gestures, big presence, moving poems. She owned the stage. She’s also adorable and a sweetheart. You know how it is when you meet someone and have the sense they will be part of your life, somehow, at some point? I had that sense with Maria. May I be so lucky.


Tim Seibles next – I love his book Fast Animal (now also signed – love the festival signature gathering!). Tim was the judge for this year’s Split This Rock poetry contest, so he’s the reason I went. He read one long, incredible poem: “One Turn Around the Sun.” Later, I heard someone say “Now there’s an argument in favor of the long poem.” I honestly sat on the edge of my seat through the whole thing, loving the way the narrative looped back on itself, the ants and the lover and so much sexy goodness returning and returning and me, the happy listener along for the ride.


Anne Waldman was the closer. Later, my friends asked me what I thought of Anne, and I understand why they asked. She’s not linear, not overtly narrative – she’s a poet of susurrus and sweat and song, of discord and concordance, of disturbance, of thunder. I honestly have never seen anyone quite like her, and rather than try to trap her words under some story line, I very happily let her verse wash over me, a great wave of sound and rumbling and melody. At times, I had no idea what was going on, and I frankly did not care. If she had not stopped on her own, I tell you I would still be sitting in that seat in D.C., ridiculously hungry but wildly happy, not caring that my plane home had passed me by. Look at this energy:


By the end, you had the feeling that she might jump off stage, gather the whole crowd on her shoulders, and take to the streets. Take over the streets. I think she eats sheet metal and bench presses pianos. 

That was ONE reading. Crazy, no? I also had the joy of hearing Eduardo Corral, Natalie Diaz, Claudia Rankine, Myra Sklarew, Gayle Danley, and more at panels and readings, so I’ll put a few of their photos below. Their words broke me in the way only poetry can. 

Who’s responsible for all this, you ask? Sarah Browning, below, at one of the Take Poetry to the Streets events. Small world: she’s the daughter of Preston Browning, activist and owner of Wellspring House, where I like to go for writing retreats. I’d met her only in passing a year before, so it was great chatting with her before the Kelson/Seibles/Waldman reading. 


I met so many fabulous folks! Special thanks to Karren Alenier, who found the text for Tim Seibles’s poem and made me feel welcome in a city not my own. 

Overheard at the conference: “This is what AWP used to feel like, before it got so big.” I never went to AWP when it was smaller (there were upwards of 15,000 attendees at this year’s AWP), but I can imagine it. All the big names at SLR were approachable, in attendance at the events, happy to talk. And yet – names didn’t seem to matter. No one’s giant ego knocked anyone down. There was space for being heard, for listening. 

The festival is every two years. 2016. Sign me up.

PEN New England & Hemingway awards ceremony

It will take me about a week to recover from this weekend – mostly because Karen Wulf did *not* present me with a seven-foot-tall trophy (kidding, KW). My head’s a swarm of bees. Nothing a little quiet time and some chocolate can’t cure.

I got to meet and chat with the other winners and finalists and they were, to a person, lovely. People with whom you are glad to be associated. I couldn’t detect any ego, any arrogance, just gratitude, joy, warmth. Jennifer Haigh (PEN NE fiction) and Doug Bauer (PEN NE nonfiction) were so kind and open. Mitchell Jackson, Anthony Wallace, and Kris Jansma (PEN Hemingway finalists & honorable mentions) were gems, humble, down to earth. NoViolet Bulawayo (PEN Hemingway winner) has an accent you want to listen to forever. 

And Richard Blanco was there! I can announce it now, since it was a public event – Richard Blanco, most widely known for being the inaugural poet at Obama’s second inauguration, was the judge for the PEN NE poetry award. I can hardly get over that he READ my book, much less LIKED it, much less CHOSE it for this award. And can I add – Blanco is the most genuine, funny, and smart person you could ever want to meet. My husband Dennis & I were smitten. 

I’m going to post what Blanco wrote about my book, then I’m going to post some thanks to friends who drove all the way to the awards ceremony, then I’m posting some amateur photos. 

What Blanco wrote:
“In her magnificent debut collection, Karen Skolfield made me fall in love with poetry all over again, reminding me of its divine power to find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. She understands that poetry does not exist independently; it is pulled out of all we see, without pretense or artifice, and not in the obvious and expected ways either. Her poems surprise with each turn of the line; they foray into the unexpected discoveries and dimensions. After reading her poems, I will never again look at a baby, a fossil, a painting, a key, a homunculus – or myself – as I had before. If poetry is meant to challenge and change our perceptions of the world and ourselves, then Karen is by all means an extraordinary poet.” 

Some thanks: to Nicole DiCello and Robyn Heisey, good friends and poetry goddesses, for coming to the ceremony; and to Ali and Jeannette Wicks-Lim for handling my two squirrelly children at the awards reception and putting up with Red Sox traffic BOTH ways (bummer). 

The PEN New England award ceremony speech (that never was)

First: I’m not giving a speech. When I got the news from Karen Wulf of PEN NE, though, it was on crummy cell phone reception and right before I went backpacking in New Mexico with my family. I had three days of hiking and getting snagged by various cholla cactuses to contemplate the award, and over that time I began to wonder if I would give a speech – if, in fact, Karen Wulf had told me I’d be giving an acceptance speech but the phone had cut out at just that moment.
I am not a giver of speeches. But I began to write one in my head, just in case, on our hikes, up and over these huge boulders cast down by the mountains around Dog Canyon. I won’t get to give this at the awards ceremony, but here it is.
“Three weeks ago, after getting the call from Karen Wulf, I turned to my husband: ‘Lucky you,’ I told him. ‘You get to be with the winner of the PEN New England Award in poetry.’ Later that day, when my children asked for dinner, they were told a PEN New England Award winner would not be handling their corporeal needs. Red lights and stop signs held no meaning for me. Dust and dog hair might build up in someone else’s house, but not in mine.
“So far, the PEN New England has made me an egotistical lover, a detached parent, a distracted driver, and a slovenly housekeeper.
“But I can tell that the less-savory effects of the award are fading. I’ve cooked a few times, pushed a vacuum around the house, apologized to my husband – you can guess how – and even re-acquainted myself with the brake pedal in my car.
“Those of you who know my writing know that I use humor as an interface for the more serious thoughts that follow, so I will say that what’s left after the vainglorious last few weeks is gratitude, a river of it, and with it, a new level of confidence that I did not even know I lacked. A desire to never again apologize for being a poet by calling myself by the generic ‘writer.’

“I’m still shocked that I, a PEN winner, must sometimes mop the floor. That the dogs need to be walked, the homework graded. I still get junk mail and sometimes, when the phone rings, it’s one of those annoying surveys. In these ways, PEN has not improved my life one bit. But my back is straighter. I can’t stop smiling. Turns out, it is my thank-yous that don’t see red lights or stop signs, but will continue on and on.”