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 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,

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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