Testimony of Sarah Browning at the Budget Hearing April 26, 2012

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. Split This Rock has presented three national poetry festivals in the U Street and Columbia Heights neighborhoods in 2008, 2010, 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. The first festival was funded in part by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities. Since the budget cuts, we’ve had to struggle without city funds.

Split This Rock also has a significant year-round youth program, including a weekly workshop for teens at the MLK Library, a monthly teen open mic at Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, teaching artists leading writing workshops in schools throughout the city, an annual competition and training program for young poets to represent DC at the national youth poetry slam competition, and this year a regional competition modeled on Chicago’s award-winning program, Louder Than a Bomb, at which teams from high schools throughout DC, Virginia, and Maryland will compete for a regional title, similar to a sports tournament.

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. In the past, 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.

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 fund the Commission at $10 million, thereby recognizing 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