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
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
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
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 de Que
tzalcoatl, 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,
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
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
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