Twenty years ago, poet James Haba gathered with like-minded others, — many from the Princeton area — to dream up a festival to cultivate an audience for poetry. The Dodge Poetry Festival, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, has since become four-day poetry marathon, the largest in North America. This year’s festival, the 11th biennial, will be held from Thursday through Sunday, September 28 through October 1, at Waterloo Village, in Stanhope, New Jersey. Peter Murphy, poet/teacher at Atlantic City High School, says, “Through the largesse of the foundation, the festival has created a community of poetry.”

The 2004 festival, held at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, drew 19,000 attendees for four days and three nights of total immersion in the writing life. Dodge poet Judy Michaels, poet-in-residence at Princeton Day School, describes her students’ astonishment at hearing “the famous poets disagree!”

Music is also a part of the festival — I remember hearing Yarina’s haunting Andean flutes, Pan pipes, and drums at the last festival that reminded us that poetry, from its ancient, spoken genesis, has always been “aural/oral.” This year, as in past years, the Paul Winter Consort will perform as they do, often accompanied by voices of other realms, such as whales and wolves. Winter’s genius often weaves in and around spoken poetry, notably Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, performing their own work and others’.

The best way to describe the festival is to ask the poets themselves. South Carolina poet Kurtis Lamkin said of his recent festival experience: “Festival? More like a carnival — and you’re the ride!” Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, says: “Visualize a Bedouin camp of tents, where thousands navigate through a mad-dash schedule of events. ‘The Dodge’ is the most energetic, festive, high-spirited celebration of poetry I have ever seen.”

Poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, founder and executive director of Passaic County Community College’s Poetry Center in Paterson and editor of the Paterson Literary Review, says: “Whether reading or sitting in the audience, electricity fills the air at the Dodge. It’s like the Fourth of July, sparks in the head.” Walking Waterloo’s verdant grounds, sitting beside a trickling stream or in a colonial church pew, Gillan says “we mingle with the Pulitzers.” Dodge teen poets exclaim, “Famous poets are like rock stars!” Even “prose” people know this festival through the Bill Moyers PBS series created on-site in 1988, ’94 and ’98.

Performers used to be divided between Featured Poets and “Poets Among Us.” But festival coordinator Haba is moving away from such distinctions: “They’re all Festival Poets now. I want to soften boundaries, reduce differences, especially to increase the profiles of poets who may not have been `main stage’ before.” Haba says he is determined to “counter insularity.”

The festival’s international scope is deliberate. Audiences may be treated to the poet’s work in the original language, brilliantly translated by a fellow writer at the poet’s side. This year’s festival welcomes Ko Un, Korea’s most prolific and revered poet, whose literary output includes over 120 titles. Also coming to this year’s festival is Taha Muhammad Ali, leading contemporary Palestinian poet, who writes and reads with passion of his Saffuriya childhood, of political upheavals survived.

The United States contingent will include a veritable who’s who in American poetry: Coleman Barks, legendary translator of 12th Century Sufi poet, Rumi; Robert Bly; Lucille Clifton; Billy Collins; Toi Derricotte; Mark Doty; Grace Paley; and Gerald Stern, among others. Haba praises young Brian Turner, who will read from his first book, “Here, Bullet,” written while serving in Iraq. Haba’s voice grows husky describing 18-year-old Ekiwah Adler Belendez, from Amatl n de Quetzalcoatl, Mexico. Premature birth left Belendez with cerebral palsy and paralytic scoliosis. Nonetheless, he began composing poems aloud at three. His first collection, “Soy” (I Am), was released at the age of 12. Belendez’s will appear on the main stage.

The Dodge Foundation, sharing Haba’s enormous respect for teachers, has developed programs within and beyond the festival to expand educators’ ability to share poetry. For example, students selected by their schools are granted day passes and entry to Student Day at the festival, which this year is Thursday, September 28, attending events that their teachers coordinate with individual interests. Through festival information packets provided by Dodge, most pupils have been enriched by classroom readings and discussions of the poets they will hear and meet.

Even official Dodge Poets and long-term high school teachers marvel at hearing, at every Festival, poetic voices new to them. Lois Harrod — Dodge poet, Hopewell resident, and former teacher at Voorhees High School in Hunterdon County — calls the festival “the best thing that ever happened to me as a high school teacher. The Dodge, frankly, resurrects poetry.”

Friday, September 29, is Teacher Day. Teachers from accredited schools and colleges may register online (see listing at end). Haba stresses, however, that the emphasis throughout is upon the public, welcomed to all events, all days. It will be no easy feat for them to choose among seven to ten readings/discussions taking place hourly at sites throughout Waterloo’s sylvan grounds.

Martin Farawell, Dodge Foundation’s associate poetry director, says that the festival could not happen without their phalanx of official Dodge Poets. Farawell explains that the Dodge Poets are “original poets who do work for us in the schools, generally one-day poet visits. It’s a long-term commitment — expanding poetry’s horizons.” Dodge Poets are not chosen through an application, Farawell says, but rather “we have seen or heard them around the state, and received referrals from other writers. We gain a sense of their style not only in poetry but in working with others.” Betty Lies, a Dodge poet in Montgomery, says the process is decidedly low-key. “They did ask me to send in poems.”

Each official Dodge Poet reads at a Dodge Poetry festival; Dodge Poets also introduce and host events, guide visitors, preside at the information booth, give directions, and “just generally lend a hand wherever they need us,” says Harrod.

The Dodge Poets program was created even before the first festival. “We were asked to arrange for school visits by poets,” Haba says. Betty Lies simply states, “It’s not a teaching experience. We schmooze with the kids.” Dodge Poets attend mini-festivals put on by schools, generally toward the end of the spring term. Some schools invite other schools. A group of Dodge poets attends each mini-festival, reading their own work and giving one or two workshops each.

Haba’s purpose in slotting Dodge Poets into schools is to “give school populations permission to care about poetry.” Poet Maria Gillan says, “Dodge Poets in the schools — we take along the festival’s gift: poets have a place in humanity.”

Haba is determined to overcome poetry phobia at all levels: “The nexus where art meets school can be a place of betrayal. People become fearful of writing, of poetry. We want to get beyond that. We develop larger awareness, involve students and their teachers in poetry beyond the writing. The point is to counter the marginalization of poetry.”

In the 1990s, Haba launched a program specifically to refresh and inspire teachers called “Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain,” which grew from requests for “something beyond the festival.” The “Spring and Fountain” program is now led by Dodge Poets at 18 sites throughout New Jersey. After Haba’s intensive two-day orientation, leaders deliver six weekly sessions to participants, who are awarded professional development credits. According to Harrod, any teacher who wishes to sign up can attend, and newcomers are given preference. Lies describes the gatherings: “We started out focused on writing but all of that has been transformed. Everyone comes in with favorite poems, and that becomes our ‘text.’ Hearing is everything. Listening is paramount.”

Haba says “Spring and Fountain” is designed to “renew teachers’ imaginative core. We help them find out what they are capable of, what the art invites. We want to reach that inarticulate space of creation residing within everyone. The closer teachers come to poetry, the more intimate they can be with what they are teaching, the more effective they will be.”

Participants regularly refer to the Dodge Poetry Festival as “a life-changing experience.” Memorable proof resides in the words of Tammara Lindsay, who was inspired to write and submit poems by Atlantic City’s Peter Murphy. Tammara arrived at the main stage from her home in a beleaguered section of that town. Now married, living, and working in Britain, Tammara says, “Reading to an audience of such diversity, achievement, and fame was somewhat overwhelming. But it meant that I could turn my fondness for language into a cultural passport.” Betty Lies, reflecting upon her ten festivals, says simply, “I looked around and every face was happy.”

Dodge Poetry Festival, Thursday through Sunday, September 28 to October 1, Waterloo Village, Stanhope. For tickets visit www.grdodge.org/poetry/festivaltickets.htm or call 973-540-8442, extension 5. You may also call Ticketmaster’s Dodge Poetry Festival line at 212-220-0494 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. Teachers can register online for Festival Teacher Day at www.grdodge.org/poetry/tdb06.asp.

Directions: Waterloo Village is located one mile north of Exit 25 of I-80. Take Route 206 North to Route 287 North to Interstate Route 80 West to New Jersey Exit 25. Visit www.grdodge.org/poetry/directions.htm.

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