Testimony of Sarah Browning at the 2010 Budget Hearing for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities

My name is Sarah Browning and I am director of Split This Rock, presenters of Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness. Split This Rock celebrates the great tradition of socially engaged poetry in the District of Columbia dating back to Walt Whitman’s 10 years here and finding its first full flowering in the DC poets of the Harlem Renaissance years, a movement that began, despite the name, right here in our city.

Split This Rock helps raise the profile of this rich tradition while promoting the living, breathing art form of poetry that stands on the shoulders of these earlier poets and role models. With funding from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Split This Rock has presented two national poetry festivals in the U Street and Columbia Heights neighborhoods in 2008 and just last month, bringing poets and community activists from all corners of the country to the District for four days of readings, workshops, discussions, open mics, and youth programming. DC poets are always at the heart of the festival, featured on the main stages and leading discussions and walking tours, teaching our visitors about our city’s vibrant literary and cultural life.

Split This Rock also sponsors a monthly poetry reading series at Busboys and Poets, 14th and V Streets, Sunday Kind of Love, which pairs local and nationally prominent poets for readings that are wildly popular with a large audience, the majority of whom are young and African American. With Commission support we’ve been able to bring in prominent poets to the series, who then teach workshops to DC poets at all levels of experience and development, a group that is dramatically underserved in our city.

We sponsor an annual poetry contest in the schools, The World & Me, encouraging children and youth to write poems that explore their relationship to their neighborhoods, city, community, nation, and the earth. It’s the only city-wide youth poetry contest in the District. The award ceremony is a tremendous joy, with youth from all over the District speaking out, through poetry, for social change.

None of this would be possible without the support of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which recognizes the vital role that poetry plays in our tradition as a city and in its vibrant daily life. At a time when publishers are suffering from the economic crisis and newspapers are no longer publishing – or even publicizing – poetry, Commission support has been critical to nurturing and sustaining this essential art form. I urge the Council to resist the cuts to the Commission’s budget proposed by the Mayor and recognize the essential role that arts and culture play in the life of the District of Columbia and its residents, whose poetry explores the city’s past, negotiates its present, and imagines its future. Without poetry, we are a city without a story.

Thank you,
Sarah Browning
Split This Rock
1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036