Mark Doty stood onstage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark — the same place where pop stars ranging from Aretha Franklin to Britney Spears have performed — and looked out at a packed house during the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
“I can’t tell you how inspiriting it is,” he said, choosing his words carefully (a non-poet would probably have used the more mundane inspiring), “to see so many people, devoted to this art, give their time here … to focus on what is so central to us and so often invisible.”
Poetry, perhaps the most private of all art forms, goes public in a big way at this biennial festival, whose 30th anniversary edition takes place Oct. 20 to 23 in Newark. It is North America’s biggest poetry event, by far, with prominent poets by the dozen. In 2004, The New York Times gave it the nickname “Wordstock.”
The 2014 festival drew about 12,000 people over its four days, according to poetry director Martin Farawell. Some of the readings took place at NJPAC’s
Prudential Hall, which seats 2,868.
“It’s an amazingly large audience for a poet,” says David Daniel, who was in the 2014 lineup. “It dwarfed any audience that I had read to before.”
Daniel, like most other poets appearing in 2014, didn’t just read his work, but participated in panel discussions with other poets.
“For the poetry community, it’s really wonderful, because it’s an opportunity for us to get together and talk with one another, in front of other people,” says
Daniel, an English professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “That’s not something that happens very often, and certainly not at this scale.”
Doty, a National Book Award winner as well as an English professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, will be back this year. Other participants will include U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera; former poet laureates Billy Collins, Kay Ryan and Robert Hass; Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder, who first gained notoriety in the Beat Movement of the 1950s; and Elizabeth Alexander, who read at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
In addition to the individual and group readings, and themed conversions, there will be poetry-and-music collaborations and, for the first time, the Academy of
American Poets will integrate into the festival its Poets Forum series of readings and conversations. (The Poets Forum has always been held in New York).
Virtually all of NJPAC will be used, with events in several rooms often going on at the same time, and a merchandise area with poetry books and other
memorabilia. Other Newark venues, including Symphony Hall and the Newark Museum, will host events as well.
The festival was founded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in 1986. Poets who have participated with readings over the years include Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Octavio Paz, Derek Walcott, Rita Dove, W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky and Gwendolyn Brooks. Most have made multiple appearances.
The same goes for this year’s roster. Many of the poets have read at Dodge
before, either as a star attraction or in relative anonymity.
“There are poets coming back who first came 10, 15, 20 years ago —
sometimes as students, sometimes as teachers, sometimes as young poets with
their first book out,” says Farawell. “There’s that sense of continuity and family.”
The festival was initially presented at Waterloo Village in Byram Township and
stayed there, with the exception of one festival at Duke Farms in Hillsborough in
2004, before moving to Newark in 2010. Farawell — who has attended every
festival and has been on the staff since 1998 — said that once the festival
relocated to Newark, its entire vibe changed.
“We’re in a very contemporary setting,” he says, “and I think part of the
excitement of having made that move, and part of what’s changed the flavor of
the festival, is this very vivid reminder that poetry is very much an art in the
present. It’s not something that belongs, necessarily, in a textbook, or in the past. It has a very vibrant, contemporary life.”
As any poet will tell you, a poem comes alive when read — in a way that it can’t
when it’s just words on a page.
“I don’t consider a poem done until this happens,” said Richard Blanco at a
festival reading in 2014, referring to a poem being read in public.
Farawell says one of the most memorable moments for him in the festival’s
history was the late Stanley Kunitz’s last appearance in 2002, when he was in his
“He had had ongoing health issues, and he finally could come back for a festival
— he had to say no a couple of times because he was ill,” Farawell says. “And
then he came back and he gave a main stage reading in his 90s that was just a
singular experience. I think everyone in that room had the sense … this was kind
of a miraculous thing.
“He went up to the mic and he was quite frail-looking. He looked like he was
struggling a little to get up on the stage. And once he started reading those
poems, his voice came to life. It was just absolutely mesmerizing.”
Kunitz was, at the time, one of just five poets to have been honored with the
National Medal of Arts (a few others have been recognized since then). But if
that’s one side of the festival — the chance to see giants of the art form, up close
— another equally important aspect is the festival’s embrace of younger voices,
some reflecting the performance-oriented approach of the poetry slams that have
helped keep the art form alive since the late 1980s.
At the 2014 festival, for instance, Rachel Wiley, a relative newcomer who
describes herself as a “poet, performer and body positive activist,” read her
“Gorgon,” protesting prejudice against plus-size women, in a dramatic, defiant
way that drew cheers from the crowd.
Organizing the festival is a full-time job for Farawell, who says that virtually as
soon as one festival is over, he starts planning for the next one, even though it’s
two years away.
“We’re always going to readings and reading new books, and seeing what’s
happening in journals, and checking out people who are appearing online,” he
says. “We’re always looking, we’re always curious, thinking about what worked
at the last festival. What did people connect with? What’s exciting? Who haven’t
we heard from?”
The hardest part, he says, “is narrowing down the options to what you can
actually fit into four days, because there’s so much out there. There are always
more poets you want to invite than you possibly can.”
Since the festival’s start, organizers have been recording performances: There
are now more than 2,000 hours of audio and almost 1,000 hours of video, giving
the festival an invaluable and unique archive.
You can watch some of the videos on the festival’s YouTube channel, but be
warned: Once you start, it’s hard to stop.
For, ultimately, this festival is not a dry, academic event or professional
conference. Yes, there are networking opportunities for those in the field. But it’s
primarily an entertainment event. It just happens to focus on an art form that
many people have forgotten can be quite entertaining.
Farawell says the festival’s goal is for people to think of poetry as an art form
that can create “those kinds of experiences that we take for granted when we go
to a great production of ‘King Lear,’ or a Bruce Springsteen concert, or when
we see a great movie.
“We’re used to that in American culture, from other arts, but it’s unusual for us to
think of that in relation to poetry. And I think that, as people, if we have one
more art in our pocket, to navigate life, that’s good for everybody.”
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