This weekend was the 12th biennial Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest poetry festival in North America. The festival runs four days – Thursday through Sunday – and I was able to make a portion of Saturday’s events, and all of Sunday. This was the third trip up to Dodge for me, and for the third time, it was pretty amazing.

Upon arriving late in the day Saturday, Donna and I headed for one of the tents where Charles Simic (current Poet Laureate of the US, until Oct 1 when Kay Ryan takes over), Lucille Clifton and Coral Bracho were holding a discussion on the life of the poet. We arrived in time to hear Clifton and Simic discuss how their lives were “ordinary” – spent taking care of other people, fulfilling their responsibilities to family and friends. It was nice to hear, to know that Poets (yes, with a capital P) are people too, cheesy as that sounds. So often when I am in the presence of Poets – like Stephen Dunn – I sort of freeze, get tongue tied. I’m so in awe of them that I forget they’re regular people with regular lives.

At the end of the discussion, we caught up with Anna and were discussing our drink / food options when my phone started buzzing: my favorite New Jersey poet, BJ Ward, was on the loose, looking to make good on his offer to buy me a drink at the festival. We had a good chat while standing around in front of the beer and wine building (I made BJ double fist his drinks at some point), and he told us a very funny story. While we were talking with BJ, we were (of course) repeatedly interrupted by fans and old friends who wanted an autograph, to say hello, to reconnect. BJ took it all with his usual good grace, smiling and making conversation with everyone. After awhile, though, we said goodbye and headed off for dinner before the Saturday evening reading.

Which was great, by the way: a long series of poets, each given five(ish) minutes to read. Naomi Shihab Nye kicked off the reading – I could listen to her all night. She was followed by Simon Armitage, a Yorkshire poet who read a very funny poem and a very sad poem, and Patricia Smith, who read an incredibly moving long piece about Hurricane Katrina. It was hugely effective – it started with a statement about finding 34 bodies at a hospital. The poem was broken into 34 sections, each involving different voices, scenes, experiences. The rhythms of the poem, the passion, Smith’s voice – incredible. I have never heard so amazing a Katrina poem.

There were a slew of other poets following: CD Wright, Coleman Barks, Peter Cole, Forrest Gander, Jane Hirshfield, Ed Hirsch, Brenda Hillman…After this first set, there was a break before the second set (of super heavy-hitters: Clifton, Simic, Sharon Olds, Maxine Kumin), but Donna, Anna and I left at intermission to find our hotel. It had been a long day for all three of us, and we needed a warm, dry hotel room and a cold drink.

Unfortunately, we had to wait another hour before either of those would be available to us. After taking a wrong turn, we ended up heading west on Route 80, our cars moving through the wilds of northwestern NJ mountains toward Pennsylvania. It was raining, we were tired and annoyed. There was only one thing to do: call BJ, who lives and works in the area. He, of course, was in the second set of readings, and didn’t answer his phone. And when he tried to call me back, my phone didn’t recognize the signal and he went straight to voicemail. (This gave him the opportunity to leave me one of the funniest voicemails I have ever heard.) Oh well. So much for our Northwestern Savior. We found the hotel after a bit of searching, all made it to a local pub for a very quick drink: it was overcrowded with locals overanxious for their chance at karaoke, so we left after downing our beverages.

The next day dawned bright and beautiful – oh, wait, no. That was somewhere else. In Stanhope, NJ, it was humid, gray, and rainy. Just like the day before. Yuck.

We headed for our first event: Anna and I to Poetry and the Lives of Women, and Donna to The Poet as Citizen. I’m hoping at some point that Donna will blog her panel discussion; I’ll link there when she eventually gets it up.

The Lives of Women discussion was phenomenal. It was certainly not billed as a feminist discussion, though I felt that’s pretty much what it was. The panel was comprised of Coral Bracho, Sharon Olds, C.D. Wright and Brenda Hillman. They opened with a few remarks on how they view their roles in life and in poetry as women: Hillman talked a bit about the obligation she feels women poets have to support each other as poets with anthologies and presses; Bracho made several points about our responsibility as artists and women to draw attention to the violence against women in the world, and the struggle for human rights globally. Sharon Olds talked a little about the importance and the dangers of gendering writing, and the need to represent our gendered experiences universally. They then opened up to the audience for questions. The discussion was dynamic and intelligent, with the poets realy listening and attempting to respond thoughtfully to the questions and comments from the audience.

One of the audience members posed a question to the poets about creating a persona. She said something to the effect of, “Yesterday during a discussion, Billy Collins invoked you, Sharon, as being a master of the persona.” Sharon Olds’ face was very funny – she suddenly went on high alert, with wide eyes and a cocked eyebrow. It was from this moment, though, that I learned that Olds has given up her “apparently personal” stance: she is now freely admitting that her poems are, in fact, about her life. By way of explanation, she offered: “I was afraid for many years of angering people. But now I realize that no one is going to kill me or sue me for what I right, and that I was just being paranoid.” She was very relaxed, cracking jokes, referring to everyone as “dear.” And by the way, Sharon Olds is still a very beautiful woman.

Brenda Hillman went on a bit of a rant about the militarization of our country (citing the fact that children are regularly being marketed clothing that is styled after the armed services), the need for women to really get involved in the peacekeeping movement, and the importance of having a president who is aware of the struggle women face.

Coral Bracho discussed at some length the idea that although the traditional roles of women are defined clearly in her Mexican culture, she feels artists get to live outside those definitions to an extent. She explained that she doesn’t feel those roles affect the creation of art in a way that is remarkable, and that she feels women artists in Mexico have as much access to resources and opportunities as men do. She was more interested in a discussion of the poet’s global responsibility, using art as a tool to raise awareness of the atrocities occurring in the name of politics or government.

There was also some discussion about the progression of Adrienne Rich’s feminist positions: she at some point refused to be included in women’s-only anthologies; she refused to allow herself to be classified as a feminist writer to attempt avoiding the marginalization of her work; for a period of time she refused men entrance to her readings. Both Sharon Olds and C.D. Wright indicated they felt her positions were warranted as she held them, respectable even if perhaps not appropriate for everyone. I think both Olds and Wright felt that her positions were respectable because she was willing to allow them to evolve as time passed.

Some quotes that really struck me:

“That’s what I wanted to do by writing poems: find my family.” (Sharon Olds)
“To stop all of it – who knows? To prevent one? How extraordinary.” (Sharon Olds, on sexual violence)
“A persona is an easy thing to construct. It’s a harder thing to inhabit.” (C.D. Wright)
“You never change things through war. You change it for worse, and then it comes back.” (Coral Bracho)

After the panel discussion, I stayed in the same tent for a three-poet reading: Lucille Clifton, followed by Beth Ann Fennelly and Charles Simic. I will never, ever, ever get tired of hearing Lucille Clifton read. She is funny, full of sass and impatience. She joked with us, told funny stories, and refused to apologize for saying what she wanted to. She dissed Elvis Presley, saying “Why should I think he can sing? I’ve heard Marvin Gaye.” I loved it.

Beth Ann Fennelly was new to the Dodge stage this year, but hot damn, her poems were good. They were young and fresh and full of energy. They were a voice I could understand – and not only could I understand, but I could relate. There was a poem about cow-tipping, a poem about a babysitter and her motorcycle-riding boyfriend. There was a sequence of dreamsongs inspired by Berryman. Man, she was really, really excellent. And really endearing, too: when she was introducing herself, she explained how reading at Dodge had always been a dream of hers and she was so excited to be there – “And on a panel between Lucille Clifton and Charlie Simic! It’s INSANE!”

And Simic was a charming, charming man. His voice is strong and gentle at the same time, with just the slightest touch of the Slavic accent. He read a series of poems that spanned his career, and I thought he was wonderful.

Then it was off to the Main Tent for the Poets Laureate reading: a full afternoon, with 30 minute readings from Robert Hass, Maxine Kumin, Ted Kooser, Charles Simic (again!) and Billy Collins. My favorite of the lot was Maxine Kumin: she read a good ten minutes longer than scheduled, which was wonderful. She included “Mulching,” my favorite of her poems, and a beautiful villanelle that she wrote for Anne Sexton (she called it an elegy, saying she hoped it was her last, as she thought it was time to put the subject to rest). She was wonderful, and I loved every second of her reading.

Ted Kooser was also great, reading a handful of very amusing poems and interspersing them with quiet anecdotes and a bit of banter. He is very shy, though: at the end of his reading, he thanked the audience quietly, waved his hand and ran toward the end of the stage. Jim Haba, the Festival organizer, had to usher him back on stage to receive his standing ovation. And Simic was, again, wonderful.

And that reading ended the festival. We attempted to meet up with BJ for another drink post-event, but our luck had run out: the beer / wine bar on site had closed, and the only tavern in town was dark and quiet. We bid him farewell in the empty parking lot, and headed back down to South Jersey.

Below is a slideshow of photos from the festival:

And I’m workign on getting some video up.
It was a great weekend, and I left feeling good about poetry again.

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