Through the years I had always been curious about the Dodge Poetry Festival. The closest I got to it was while living in Hunterdon County, New Jersey when it was held in quaint Waterloo Village in Stanhope. But for one reason or another I never went. Finally, this year, on the 30th anniversary of the festival, I didn’t have to think twice about getting a four-day pass to the event. It was held in Newark at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) as well as several other venues, including two historic churches, the Newark Museum, Aljira Art Gallery and North Star Academy. At first I was worried I would have to walk all over Newark for the readings and events, but nearly all were close by, including a tent for open mic each day in Military Park. That was a thoughtful touch for people who wanted to simply test out their poetry mojo in a public space, and I watched a few people give performances there. I attended the festival for three-out-of-four days, and was somewhat disappointed on Day One, but the second and third days more than made up for it. Unfortunately, I could only speak to a few of the terrific poets, and I’m sure missed others who would have provided me with further insight into the role of poets and poetry in our society, which is the education I was seeking going into the festival.
I should be transparent right up front: all readers of this post, poets and artists alike, may find my knowledge of poetry somewhat lacking. But I do know quality and what touches me emotionally. I went to the festival with no preconceived notions of what I might find. I was concerned about whether I might become bored, bouncing around on my iPhone, and from time to time I did do that. Dodge must have realized there would be people like me and they created an app to check in, see schedules, get information about the poets, map locations, look up restaurant information, post photos, make comments and rate each session, all of which I used. The app was a closed forum and only a handful of other people posted photos, discussion, likes and comments. I wondered why Dodge spent the money on an app and didn’t just open the social media to their Facebook page instead. Nonetheless, I found myself mesmerized by the poets and words spoken. Mark Doty, Mahogany L. Brown, Juan Felipe Herrera (NJ and US Poet Laureate), Alicia Ostriker, Anne Waldman, Jane Hirshfield, Martín Espada, Tim Seibles and Claudia Rankine stood out to me because their collective voices mirrored the human condition from the past, as it exists at this moment and could be seen as through a crystal ball into the future. The festival is certainly not for the weak of heart or mind. Or, as my husband suggested, only for progressive thinkers in NJPAC’s Prudential Hall on Saturday night.
On opening day I went to several sessions. One was “Poetry and Storytelling” with Katha Pollitt who also writes for The Nation. The venue, Peddie Baptist Church, is undergoing exterior renovation, but it is just gorgeous inside. A few of the things Pollitt said resonated with me: “A poem doesn’t need to be narrative, but still needs to tell a story… and poems have a resonance with other poems, in tone, sound and images.” She spoke about poetry being “open to many interpretations” and having a sense of “ambiguity,” which confirmed my thoughts as a maker of film poems. I thought since she spoke a good deal about visuality and images she would have an interest in filmpoetry. I patiently waited for her to sign books for two young women, probably seniors in high school. After they left I asked her about filmpoetry and she said she had little to no knowledge about the subject. I explained about visual storytelling and poetry as a collaboration and I could see her eyes glaze over. I guess I’m accustomed to the online poets and mixers from Moving Poems and Poetry Storehouse who have been nothing but passionate, encouraging, and enthusiastically supportive. With that experience I decided to hang back and just listen to each session without trying to push my personal thoughts and just let things happen naturally. That worked well and the best experiences were simply led by serendipity.
I sat in on a Poets Forum Conversation: Poets on Poetry (all Poets Forums were sponsored by the Academy of American Poets) with Linda Gregerson, Alicia Ostriker and Alberto Rios. Alicia Ostriker read Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem,” written in 1968 and I was astounded with the parallel to today’s world. (See “Learning to Breathe under Water: Considering Muriel Rukeyser’s oceanic work” by Alicia Ostriker.)
Ostriker explained the poem as “a balancing act between despair and hope… We write poems for ourselves with the hope they will reach others.” Linda Gregerson said poetry is an “urgent form of sanity-making.” For me these thoughts hit right to the core of why I am so drawn to poetry. The concept of poetry as a way to “draw our dreams into daylight” and its “ability to be meditative” are ideas which make poetry so alluring to me and why I feel compelled to create filmpoems. In another forum, Elizabeth Alexander also referenced Rukeyser’s “Poem” and thought Rukeyser’s approach was to “help heal a broken society… Poets have a stable place to discuss the world and record human feeling.”
Another Poet’s Forum, Poets on Activism included Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Khaled Mattawa and Anne Waldman. Waldman spoke to what she has found to be a “cognitive dissonance” in our society. As a divided nation (which is obvious to anyone in this election cycle, unless you’ve decided to hide under a rock), we are simply overwhelmed and stressed out. These poets encouraged risk-taking, collaborative work and living in a way which supports what you believe. Herrera spoke about when he first began to “stand up and project his voice” in third grade. He said his voice took shape through song, encouraged by a teacher who told him he had a beautiful voice. She was right: his voice and wonderful cadence was demonstrated beautifully on Saturday night when he enlisted a drummer from one of the music groups to accompany him on a few poems. A student asked the poet mentors a relevant question: “What is the greatest risk in activism?” Answers included, “speaking truth to power” and the “risk of being embarrassed,” but regardless, as citizens the responsibility, as Brenda Hillman stated, is to “get off your ass and do something.” I completely agree.