The Princeton Poetry Festival is now such a fixture on the Princeton poetry scene that it is astonishing to realize that this is only the third time the biennial festival has been held. Once again, festival organizer and internationally recognized poet Paul Muldoon has gathered an incredible mix of poets from all over the world for the two-day gathering this Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16.
“We are pleased to bring some of the best poets in the world to Princeton and to provide this venue for sharing their diverse work with our students and the wider community, including middle and high school students,” says Muldoon.
When Muldoon launched the first Princeton Poetry Festival four years ago, poets and poetry lovers sounded a collective cheer.
“The festival started off with a very strong line up, Seamus Heaney and John Ashbery in that first year, so part of the trick has been to try to maintain that standard,” says Muldoon, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor of creative writing in Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts.
As with the first two festivals in 2009 and 2011, there is a strong international aspect in the selection of poets. This is by design, says the Irish-born Muldoon, to counteract a tendency toward insularity in the United States. “Princeton is truly an international venue; writers not associated with the university live in the area, and we like the idea of bringing internationally renowned writers into that mix. We’re also committed to giving the wider community the chance to celebrate with us and our students,” he says.
This year’s festival poets hail from six countries across four continents. From the United States are Pulitzer Prize winners Stephen Dunn and Jorie Graham, returning Princeton graduates Lizzie Hutton (Class of 1995) and National Book Award finalist Monica Youn (Class of 1993), as well as Amit Majmudar and Gary Whitehead, who was recently recognized by Princeton University for excellence in teaching. Whitehead, an English and creative writing teacher at Tenafly High School, has a new collection, “A Glossary of Chickens,” due out this month from Princeton University Press.
Joining the homegrown talent are six international voices: Gabeba Baderoon from South Africa, dissident Chinese poet Bei Dao, Ghanaian pop musician Sheriff Ghale, Turkish poet Bejan Matur, Chinese poet and translator Xi Chuan, and Scottish poet and musician Don Paterson.
How does Muldoon do it? “Simple,” he says. “In my travels ’round the world I meet many poets from many cultures. I’m always delighted to be able to sign them up for the Princeton audience. So the festival is put together bit by bit over a two-year period.”
It is a clever and well-timed system. Muldoon designed the biennial festival to take place in odd-numbered years in order to complement the Dodge Poetry Festival that is held during even-numbered years.
A high point in 2009 was the evening reading that brought the event to a close. Muldoon took evident delight in “sharing” with the Princeton audience his friend and mentor, Seamus Heaney, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.
A high point this year will no doubt be the multi-talented poet, also a professional musician and composer, Don Paterson. Asked if there was might be any chance that Muldoon and Paterson might bring out their guitars for an impromptu jam session, Muldoon, who is known for his participation in the rock group Rackett and now Wayside Shrines, laughs and says, “Don Paterson is a real guitar player whereas I’m a wannabe. So I doubt if we’ll be doing any jamming except over a jam jar of iced tea.”
Originally from Dundee in Scotland, Paterson has worked as a newspaper arts columnist and as a video game reviewer. He has also written drama for radio and stage and has been poetry editor for the publisher Picador since 1997. He has received the Forward and Whitbread Poetry Prizes, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, and the T.S. Eliot Prize, not once but twice.
A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Paterson was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2008 and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2010. The author of five collections of poetry and two books of aphorisms, as well as a commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets, he is currently at work on a new collection of poetry, a revision of his “Ars Poetica,” and a prose book about music.
As with previous years, panel discussions will be held each day. Though many of the participants write in other languages, the discussions (and readings) will be in English. In 2009 poets spoke about the challenges of translation, which Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner C.K. Williams likened to “an ocean liner losing bits as it crosses the ocean.”
This year, panelists will offer some perspectives on “Poetry and Difficulty,” or as Muldoon puts it, with characteristic charm, “Some riffs on diffs.” “Difficulty in the sense of poetry that’s sometimes hard to follow, that’s puzzling or perplexing; in the sense of it being hard to write, hard to accomplish; or of being written under social and political pressures,” he says.
Schedule of Events
Friday, March 15
10 a.m.: Opening including New Jersey finals of Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest, performance competition for high school students. Eight students will compete for the state title and the opportunity to represent New Jersey at the national finals in Washington, DC. The competition is the culmination of a statewide program that began last fall and included more than 20,000 New Jersey students.
2 p.m.: Gala opening reading at which Paul Muldoon welcomes the 12 festival poets as well as the winner and runner-up of the Poetry Out Loud competition.
3:30 p.m.: Dao, Ghale, Graham, Hutton, Majmudar, Whitehead, and Youn will share their thoughts in the first of the two Muldoon-moderated panel discussions on “Poetry and Difficulty.”
5 p.m.: Princeton University faculty member James Richardson will introduce poet Paterson, who will speak on “‘The Tribute of the Current to the Source’: Frost, Time and Measure.”
8 p.m.: Reading introduced by Princeton University professor of writing Michael Dickman and featuring poets Baderoon, Dunn, Matur, and Chuan.
Saturday, March 16
2 p.m.: Readings begin with Majmudar, Whitehead, and Youn.
3:30 p.m.: A second panel discussion on “Poetry and Difficulty” with Baderoon, Dunn, Matur, Paterson, and Chuan.
5 to 7 p.m.:The festival culminates with readings from Dao, Ghale, Graham, and Paterson.
With Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Princeton professor Tracy K. Smith introducing the writers, this year’s events certainly maintain the standard.
Princeton Poetry Festival, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16. $15 per day, $25 for both days, $10 per day for students. 609-258-9220 or www.princeton.edu/utickets.
New Jersey State Finals of Poetry Out Loud, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Friday, March 15, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Free, tickets required. www.princeton.edu/arts/poetryfestival.