The Dodge Poetry Festival happens biennially, has since 1986, is a large-scale celebration of poetry, and this year was only a quick train ride from Manhattan. I scanned the schedules of events and the poets’ bios on the train to Newark, and knew at best my experience would be a sample. Hoping to hear all the poets at the four-day festival from Acey to Zurita was out of the question; evocative would trump comprehensive, and small plates, all-you-can-eat.
My first impressions on approaching the New Jersey Performing Arts Center were of contrasts. 4,000 high school students attended the festival’s events on Friday, and most of them were piling into their buses out front, a few speaking excitedly about the day’s session on “Poetry and Survival,” another bemoaning having to miss Jane Hirshfield. The first festival goers I met were comparing this year’s to the previous four they had attended, one speaking wistfully of Waterloo Village, while another praised the City of Newark for partnering in making this one happen. A white exhibition tent in front of Prudential Hall was filled with table after table of poetry books, arranged alphabetically by author, at which people stood quietly reading, turning pages, almost to the one silent, next to tables laden with festival logo-emblazoned tee shirts and coffee mugs, water bottles and posters, around which there was chatter, laughter, and quick swapping of opinions on size, color, and number. Between events, people compared sessions they had attended earlier in the day, distances driven to get to the festival, books recently read, poems used in teaching, and conversations with Natasha Trethewey and Amiri Baraka.
I chose two sequences of events – one conversation and one performance -- and in the first, Eavan Boland and Henri Cole. The large performance hall was comfortably full and the discourse instantly different from what we had left outside. Eavan Boland pointed the audience to Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” and the moment of realization that the speaker was the ringmaster. Henri Cole read in almost one breath Sylvia Plath’s “Balloons,” saying after how from beginning to end, he had the sense of holding a bare live wire. These were responses to a request from the audience that the poets share an exemplary simile or metaphor that worked profoundly for them. Revision and rereading, difficult versus obscure poems, love poems and politics surfaced in other questions.
Later, the performance started with jazz and continued with Terrance Hayes, Fanny Howe, Thomas Lux, and more. Terrance Hayes read new poems, including “Barber-ism”, with haircuts, men, and mind static; his introductions offered stories that ran beneath and gave rise to verse. Fanny Howe, praising Hayes’s work and almost apologizing that hers would be “more delicate,” read lines of shimmering beauty, poetry performed center stage. Thomas Lux caught the audience laughing and understanding and disturbed, often at once, playing mind games that refused to remain just that.
On the train back into the city, the difference of the day’s discourse stayed with me as I read poems of the poets I had heard speak and read. Among them were words about words and more.
Mostly people talk to people, standing
Round to jibber-jabber in the blue hours
Of weekdays. You see them meandering
Words while the calendar tilts and pours
Its steady juice of minutes…
Everything ignored in the name of Weather,
Of somebody’s business & “Howyoubeens.”
I too am guilty. Chattling after strangers.
Wasting it. Dumb. Bitching about the wind.
-- Terrance Hayes
“Gravity and Center”
I don’t want words to sever me from reality.
I don’t want to need them. I want nothing
to reveal feeling but feeling – as in freedom,
or the knowledge of peace in a realm beyond,
or the sound of water poured in a bowl.
-- Henri Cole
Madge McKeithen teaches writing at the New School, is at work on her second book, and writes online at www.madgemckeithen.com