For its 30th anniversary, the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival had a lot to ponder. The country handed up a presidential election and incidents of racial strife for her best poets to mine, while Bob Dylan – a songwriter! – had been pronounced the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.
A town-crier’s list of readings, conversations and performances, even a pop-up bookstore, were unrolled for the 16th biennial gathering, held from October 20-23 at NJPAC and nearby venues. For the first time, the prestigious Academy of American Poets (poets.org) brought its annual Poets Forum to “The Dodge” and to Newark, a city whose mayor, Ras J. Baraka, is a testament to his late poet-father, Amiri.
The presence of the Academy also meant the attendance of many of its prominent chancellors, such as MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Claudia Rankine, who expressed humbleness over being in Amiri Baraka’s hometown, a locus for the Black Arts Movement.
Rankine, acclaimed for her 2014 work Citizen: An American Lyric, was among the first to address issues of race and law enforcement with a stunning reading of her poem “Stop-and-Frisk” and its refrain, “And still you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” A Distinguished Writer at Rutgers University, Mark Doty offered “In Two Seconds (Tamir Rice, 2002-2014),” a consideration of the killing of a pre-teen by Cleveland police.
“That poem should have two weeks of silence following it,” remarked poet and author Jane Hirshfield. “I am unmade right now.”
Poets lined up to support the intractable Dylan from the start of the festival, when former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins called Stockholm’s Nobel decision “a brilliant stroke.” (“Joyce Carol Oates could get a Grammy next year, I don’t know,” he jokingly speculated.)
“Dylan getting the Nobel is so fine,” agreed Princeton poet Alicia Ostriker, who was first struck by the singer’s melding of “hot romanticism and cold cynicism” in the early Sixties. “Nobody had to tell me that was poetry. I understood what art could be.”
Some 5,000 high schoolers – the largest such gathering in the festival’s history – became better acquainted with that art during Friday’s “Student Day,” when nearly every available seat in the building was claimed by a teen or teacher. Current U.S. Poet Laureate and teacher Juan Felipe Herrera, the son of poor migrant farmers, was visibly moved by the anticipation of hearing their “beautiful voices,” a compliment once paid to him, a painfully introverted child, by his third-grade teacher.
Collins added a dose of humor with a reading that related to both students and educators: Tom Wayman’s poem “Did I Miss Anything?” (“Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here / we sat with our hands folded on our desks / in silence, for the full two hours.”) It was among the poems in Collins’ inventive Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools project, which offers a poem for each day in the academic year, without the quizzing that makes students “look down at their shoes and out the window.”
Poetry’s theatricality swept across the student audience with poet-lawyer Martín Espada’s thunderous reading in Spanish and English of the first segment of Federico García Lorca’s “Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter” (Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías), which famously tolls, “At five in the afternoon. / It was exactly five in the afternoon. / A boy brought the white sheet / at five in the afternoon.” Espada gave an encore reading on Sunday at the festival’s tribute to the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Galway Kinnell, a translator of Lorca’s work.
The wide-ranging conversations, staged in venues great (NJPAC’s Prudential Hall) and small (Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art) covered political and social consciousness, craft and identity. (At “Masks and Masculinity,” Espada introduced himself as a bad hombre.) The Massachusetts-based Parkington Sisters, a trio of siblings, exemplified the juncture of poetry and song with their music-making. Jamilla Woods, a singer, poet and rapper from Chicago, brought her soulful voice to Saturday night’s powerful group performance of “Poetry Like Bread: Poems of Social and Political Consciousness,” while NJPAC’s Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens supplied plenty of bounce.
In a full-circle moment near Sunday’s conclusion, Festival Director Martin J. Farawell recalled his post-graduate studies with Kinnell at New York University and their visit to the inaugural Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in 1986. One of the readers, Kinnell’s granddaughter, Mirah Kozodoy, recited his study of mortality, “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight” from The Book of Nightmares, as some of her family members listened.
“Those of us who’ve been attending the Dodge Festival since 1986 knew Mirah was reciting a poem about her mother, Maude, who was the baby in Kinnell’s poem,” Farawell said. “We’ve been hearing about his child, Maude, in Kinnell’s poems for 30 years. That moment, of having the granddaughter of a Festival poet reading a poem written when her own mother was that poet’s infant, was very moving. It brought home very powerfully to everyone there how the Festival has now impacted generations.”
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