In which I FINALLY talk about Split This Rock, the epic poetry festival a bunch of awesome folks financially contributed to helping me attend. (Did I thank you for that yet? Thank you thank you thank you!!!)
The first time I went to Split This Rock in 2012, I was 19, in love with a cruel man, and more than a little timid despite how full of myself I tended to get. (One particularly cringe-inducing moment occurred during a youth poetry circle, youth defined as under 21, and in the introductions, I mentioned being a junior in college but followed up with “Don’t worry, I’m only 19,” with the subsequent “Eh? Ehhhh?” pause and smug facial expression. Jesus H., baby Natalie.) Let the record show that I am immensely grateful to have grown from being that person despite (well, because of) the numerous dazzlingly painful experiences that have brought me to this point.
So driving into Alexandria, VA where I’d be staying with a friend, I could safely say that I would not be engaging with difference in the same way. Rather than conscientiously trying to prove how I’m not like all of the other people my age or how I’m not like other Southern black girls, rather than seeking the approval of folks who attended with me by letting them dictate session choices or shuddering in fear of being alone, I leaned into the discomfort and quite by accident, found quick kinship from my first session onward.
That is not to say my time at STR was without difficulty. I definitely had a day where I could scarcely drag myself out of bed because the sads don’t take breaks. I had one volunteer shift that I had to postpone because I couldn’t find my glasses and I need my glasses to find my glasses. *eye roll*
But beyond that, I heard from other black women who found solidarity in one another in DC as well as a multiracial, multi-gender, multi-genre social-justice oriented writing collective whose members live all over the US. (Major collective crushes: Black Ladies Brunch Crew and the Dark Noise Collective, respectively. swoon swoon swoon.) These poets addressed the need for laughter in our movements and laughter as cleansing and replenishing, how we can effectively engage violence in our creative work without reinscribing the physical and psychic violences enacted against those of us in disadvantaged groups, and more that I’ll tell you once I find my notebook. (I feel so naked without it :/)
A delightful board member of Split This Rock and several awesome artists in her dinner convoy heard me walking awkwardly behind them and invited me to dinner on the spot, where we continued to all have engaging conversation devoid of the sort of small talk that makes dinner with strangers difficult. She may or may not have done Blue Steel with me when we ran into each other at the festival book fair the following day. It may or may not have given me life.
Right there, in the book fair, sat Lisa C. Moore, the editor and founder of one of my most recent favorite publishers, RedBone Press. (Publisher of Does Your Mama Know: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming-Out Stories.) Naturally, I decided that this would be the perfect time to gush rabidly about how Does Your Mama Know changed my life and how much I looked up to Lisa as a pioneer in black lesbian indie publishing and how all of the press’s books looked so good and…
Okay. She just sat there and took it all very graciously (and I’ll say mercifully, because a gushing baby gay at a book fair is probably a bit…unnerving? Scaring other people away from the table?)
Also right there at the table were two books that are directly related to my fast approaching graduate school pursuits, but I could only afford one. (Yes, it took everything in me not to spend my gas money on books.) I chose one and Lisa told me that I could come back by at the end of the fair and she’d cut me a deal on the second book. I never made it back to the RedBone Press table because I decided to head on outside with my already bursting tote bag. While I was outside watching an impromptu drum circle, Lisa walked up to me and handed me the second book for free, then smiled and headed down the street.
I met a new poet and we talked about triggers, the sads, writing, pronouns, dancing, and friendships over German beer, then later danced our asses off at the closing event of the festival.
I cried to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on a dance floor full of black people and not a soul looked at me sideways.
Outside of the venue, a cypher of STR attendees and volunteers popped up on the corner, and at the end, they let me lead the group in a chant. I don’t know that my heart has ever been so full as it was when I was covered in sweat, ad-libbing to someone’s freestyle while another dope person played the djembe. Those are the moments that feel unreal as I look back on this experience. As the temperature dipped, another poet and I took our leave toward the Metro station. A racist thing happened there, but fuck the guy who did it. He doesn’t get more space in this post. What stands out to me is the ride home. As the poet and I talked on the train, he noticed the snake ring that I wear curled around my right index finger. “Why a snake?” he asked.
And all of these nebulous ideas that came to mind when I bought the ring, the same ones that have been showing up as snakes populate my dreams with increasing frequency, synthesized all at once.
“Snakes were taken from me, assigned this sort of forbidden, evil quality based on Judeo-Christian tradition even though I’ve always thought snakes are pretty cool,” I replied. “So I’m reclaiming them and all the things they represent beyond that.”
I think a lot of who I am now comes from a place of reclamation–the radical notion that no one gets to decide what you can and can’t have, who you can and can’t be, without your consent. And the process of reclamation, fraught as it is with hurt, betrayal, and confrontation, allows those of us who undertake it to affirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that what we call ours truly holds unique value in our individual lives. I’m taking back snakes and the sea, the crunch of pine cones, the charged crackle of freshly broken spiderwebs and the depth and complexity of my ability to love. No one gets to decide that for me anymore because I let other people dictate it for too long. No one gets to choose for you, either, unless you let them.
In the end, I only came home with six books. 😉