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Prepared for the September 20, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.
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From Solitary Confinement, the Poets Among Us
John Cage once observed that "Breaking laws is
what poetry is." The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the
largest poetry event in North America that takes place here in New
Jersey once every two years, may not break any criminal laws but it
does come close to defying the laws of probability. Who ever imagined
that you could gather together 100 solitary poets and create a
festival that would attract thousands?
The Dodge Festival offers no less than four days of non-stop poetry
readings, poetry discussions, poetry conversations, and poetry
workshops. Each day dozens of simultaneous poetry-centered events take
place at sites throughout the historic Waterloo Village. Readings by
featured poets and other major events take place in the main concert
tent that seats 2,000.
Because the daytime schedule offers a nearly continuous assortment
of multiple simultaneous options, even the most avid and dedicated
festival-goer can succeed in experiencing only a small fraction of
the total choices available. "In this regard, the Dodge Poetry
Festival is like the unending river which is poetry itself," say
its organizers. It features music by groups that include the Paul
Winter Consort and Jenny Bray and her Band. And there’s a notable
poetry bookstore too.
This year’s complement of featured poets numbers no less than 22
poets from across the spectrum of interests and ethnicity. They are
Chinua Achebe, Coleman Barks, Toni Blackman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Billy
Collins, Dianne di Prima, Mark Doty, Edward Hirsch, Marie Howe, Yusef
Komunyakaa, Stanley Kunitz, Rika Lesser, Thomas Lux, Heather McHugh,
Pat Mora, Alicia Ostriker, Goran Sonnevi, Gerald Stern, Sekou
Anne Waldman, C.K. Williams, and Nellie Wong. Add 38 more poets
in the festival under the moniker, "The Poets Among Us."
The festival also has music by the Paul Winter Consort, Sekou Sundiata
& his Band, Jenny Bray and her Band; jazz and hip hop from Roots,
Andean music by Yarina, and choral music by Harmonium. Storytelling
from Japan is by Motoko, African-American stories by Bumpus Eshu,
and Native American stories by Dovie Thomason.
Featured poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker of Princeton, returning for her
fourth appearance, says she values the Dodge Festival for its poets,
its diversity, its young people, and its camaraderie.
"Part of what makes it so extraordinarily valuable are the days
for students and teachers," says Ostriker. "This is something
unique, and from my position teaching creative writing at Rutgers,
I can tell the difference with those students who have had real
with poetry during their high school years."
The festival’s High School Student Day, which attracts about 4,000
students, is Thursday, September 21; Teacher Day, which hosts about
2,000 teachers working at every level, elementary through college,
is Friday, September 22.
Ostriker who begins her festival residency with sessions with students
on Thursday, give a reading in the big concert tent on Thursday, at
7 p.m. She also joins a number of poets’ panels including "Poetry
and Politics" with Diane di Prima, Thomas Lux, and Pat Mora, on
Thursday, at 3 p.m. And on Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m., she is one
of four poets — with Rika Lesser, Anne Waldman, and C.K. Williams
— addressing the topic, "Poetry and Madness."
Ostriker received her second National Book Award
when she was a finalist for the 1998 award for poetry for her
"The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968 to 1998,"
published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. The collection spans
30 years of her writing career, comprising works that probe the
meaning of childhood, family, marriage, motherhood, art, history,
politics, and religion.
"The whole immersion in poetry is a wonderful aspect," she
says. "It really is a festival around the spoken word. And it
doesn’t only have to do with stars. There’s a good deal of opportunity
for interaction, up, down, and sideways. People who come to the
festival are not just looking for star performances, but to hear poets
speak together on panels and to meet them informally."
Considering the solitary nature of the poet’s work, how does the
"Poets are very solitary and lonely people because the writing
comes from deep within the self," she replies, "but on the
other hand, it’s very important to have relationships and a sense of
community with others. Partly this just for one’s sanity, because
if you were purely by yourself you’d surely go mad. Also, without
colleagues, it’s much harder to get perspective on your own work."
Ostriker says her work at the festival has many personal benefits.
"A wonderful part of the festival to meet people whose work I
admire and who I don’t otherwise get a chance to see," she says,
rattling off the names of Coleman Barks, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rika
Lesser, and Nellie Wong as some of the poets who she knows only from
the printed page.
The festival’s "Poets Among Us," are lesser-known poets who
are emerging as important voices and teachers. "Many of the
up-and-coming poets are from this area, and many of the area poets I
know and have friendships with," she says.
Ostriker thinks poetry is thriving, largely because of pop culture.
"I think poetry really is growing, and that is partly because
of the populist dimension of poetry slams, as well as poets in the
schools programs, all of which are very healthy. Poetry today is a
place for young people to make real art," she says.
— Nicole Plett
201-507-8900. Tickets through Ticketmaster, 201-507-8900. Website:
www.grdodge.org/poetry/. Single admissions $12 to $20; $50 four-day
pass; $28 two-day pass; discounts for students & seniors. Thursday
through Sunday, September 21 through 24.
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