poetry quarterly

10th anniversary


D.C. Poets Against the War

by Sarah Browning


In the winter and spring of 2003, as our government was rushing to war in Iraq, millions of Americans called and wrote their elected representatives in passionate resistance. Anti-war Washingtonians had no one to write to: we live at the center of power, yet have no voting representatives in Congress. When our government ignored the voice of the people and waged war, DC residents felt this breakdown of democracy with an especially painful intensity.

Washington, DC poets responded with protest and, of course, with poetry. Along with their comrades worldwide, they wrote poems of outrage and opposition, poems embracing discussion and affirming dissent, poems valuing life in all its complexity and difficulty, poems celebrating themselves and their neighbors up the block and around the world.

Members of DC Poets Against the War demonstrate against the Iraq War on the National Mall in 2007. 
Photo by Ben Browning.

At that moment came a call to arms. The Washington State poet Sam Hamill called on poets around the country to make February 12, 2003, a day of poetry protesting the Bush administration’s planned attack on Iraq. Hamill had been invited by Laura Bush to a symposium celebrating the poetry of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson. Refusing to visit a White House whose policies of war and aggression he so firmly repudiated, however, he sent out an email to a handful of poet friends, asking for anti-war poems and offering to have them delivered to the First Lady on February 12.

Within days, Hamill received thousands of poems, from all over the world. Hundreds of poets and activists set about organizing readings for the 12th. I myself received Hamill’s email from several of my writer friends around the country and immediately sent him off a poem.

Then I began looking for a reading in my new home city, Washington, DC. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to try organizing one myself. One week before February 12, I lined up All Souls Unitarian Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of the city and began spreading the word. I hadn’t met any poets yet, but I emailed people I found on the web and word spread on list servs and web sites, through personal email lists and friendship circles. I also used old-fashioned organizing methods, dragging my 4-year-old son around town putting up flyers. I contacted the press. But I had no idea what to expect.

That night, as the parish hall of the church filled up with almost 200 people, I realized that other poets must also be feeling the intense need I felt: to speak up, to speak our hope and resistance through poetry, a medium that is not a political speech, that can hold the contradictions and complexities of our present moment, a medium as multifaceted and alive as we ourselves are. In the end, sixty poets signed up to read, representing all traditions in American poetry: avant-garde poetry, hip hop and other forms of spoken word, narrative/lyrical and New Formalist poetry. It was a raucous two hours of poetry and outrage. D.C. Poets Against the War was born.

The group has been active ever since, with leadership from many who came out that first night, including Leah Harris, Yael Flusberg, Esther Iverem, Joseph Ross, Danny Rose, Dan Vera, Mike Maggio, Rei Berroa, and many others. Melissa Tuckey has been instrumental to the group’s growth. We’ve read at churches, libraries, coffee shops, schools and universities, night clubs, cultural centers, in parks, on street corners, and at rallies large and small. We have published two anthologies, D.C. Poets Against the War, edited by Naomi Ayala, Michele Elliott, Danny Rose, and myself (Argonne House Books, 2004) and Cut Loose the Body: Poems on Torture and the Abu Ghraib Paintings of Fernando Botero (2007), edited by Rose Marie Berger and Joseph Ross. Members of the group led workshops in schools and community settings and we organized contingents of poets to march in the major peace demonstrations.

We are poets who work in the academy, poets who work in the community, well-known poets and poets just starting out. We are a diverse group in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, age, physical ability, sexual orientation, and social class. We also strive to represent the stylistic diversity of American poetry today.

In 2006, recognizing our unique position here in the nation’s capital, the group decided the time had come to organize a major national gathering of activist poets. We chose March 20-23, 2008 because it was the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War and the country was in the midst of a presidential election, debating its future path. We joined with Busboys and Poets, Sol & Soul, and the Institute for Policy Studies, three organizations that share our goals. Thus Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness was born. The festival was such a roaring success that the group decided to incorporate Split This Rock as a non-profit organization, to stage biennial festivals, and to establish Split This Rock as a permanent home for socially engaged poets in DC and around the country.

Split This Rock’s goal is not only to oppose unjust wars, but to call attention to our nation’s radically misplaced priorities and to engage the public imagination in envisioning a more democratic, humane future. Although an outgrowth of D.C. Poets Against the War, Split This Rock has subsumed many of the roles the original organization took on. At this point, we haven't figured out if D.C. Poets Against the War will continue to exist as a separate organization or not.

But whatever name we organize under, the original goals we set in 2003 still stand. We believe that poets have always played a central role in naming injustices and defining the best aspects of the hope that is our country. As citizens and artists, we feel that our obligation has never been greater.



Further Reading

DC Poets Against the War's website includes information about their eponymous anthology, links, and photos:

Split This Rock's web site has information about our conferences, publications, links to videos and more.

Beltway Poetry Quarterly published a special Split This Rock issue in Winter 2008 (Volume 9:1), co-edited by Regie Cabico and Kim Roberts:

Beltway Poetry Quarterly published a special Wartime Issue in Spring 2006, edited by Sarah Browning:

Poets Against War collected 14, 000 poems. Their website is sponsored by Ohio State University: http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org




Sarah Browning is the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007) and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press, 2004). She is founder of DC Poets Against the War and Co-Director of Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts, the Creative Communities Initiative, and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. She lives in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, DC with her husband and son.


Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.


Read more by this author:
Sarah Browning
Sarah Browning: Whitman Issue
Browning's Intro to The Wartime Issue: Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 2006
Sarah Browning: DC Places Issue
Sarah Browning: Split This Rock Issue
Sarah Browning: Museum Issue
Sarah Browning: Tenth Anniversary Issue

Sarah Browning: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue
Sarah Browning: Floricanto Issue
Sarah Browning on Lucille Clifton: Poetic Ancestors Issue