BY LAURA YOO
All day Saturday, I was cocooned inside the warmth and protection of poetry at the 17th Biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey. So I didn’t know what was going on out in the world and I didn’t know what would happen the next day. I didn’t know that another terrible news story was brewing. But maybe the poetry knew.
My friend and I left Columbia at 6:30 in the morning and arrived in Newark by 10:00. We planned to stay for 6 hours of poetry and head back home that night. We were ambitious.
At the very first session, Jan Beatty, Tina Chang, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Danez Smith blew us away. Their poetry tore me apart with its heartache, beauty, hope, violence, and revelation. Somehow, I felt like each poem was about me or for me. How could that be? How could every poem be about fathers or about being a mother? Of course, that’s not really true. Poems are about lots of things. But what I realized is that poems touch you and maybe even hurt you where you are most vulnerable. For me, I am most vulnerable in my identity as a mother to two boys and I am most sensitive about the loss of my father who died eight years ago. Those are the two places that are the softest and yet the toughest because that’s where I hold so much fear, joy, sadness, regrets, and hope.
At a session called “Crossing Boundaries,” I heard tenderness in Joy Ladin‘s reading, defiance in Natalie Scenters-Zapico‘s, and anger in Paul Tran‘s. The discussion that followed made me think about the complexity of boundaries – about how they work both ways. They mark inclusion and exclusion. They protect but also they reject. Barriers between English and Spanish; between man and woman; between gay and straight. As if there are these solid lines of boundary that can really contain us and separate us from one another. On the other hand, the poets reminded us, there are boundaries that we need, like privacy and the inner self.
In “Poetry and the News,” Tina Chang, Aaron Coleman, Safia Elhillo, and J.C. Todd, read their poems about how poems may be an antidote to the news even as they simultaneously speak of the news. Elhillo, who is Sudanese and Muslim, talked about being tired of being the subject of the news and of being asked to speak for “her people.” Her poems, which experiment with the form of the interview, made me think of a kind of subjugation through interrogation. Chang’s poems wove together the personal and the political, our own stories and news stories.
At the last session of the day, I got to hear Hieu Minh Nguyen, Nancy Reddy, sam sax, and J.C. Todd. And as Todd read the last line of the last poem for the session, the room went completely dark and silent – the power had gone out due to manhole covers blowing out in front of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center down the street. It seemed like a totally appropriate response to the powerful readings of these poets.
As Newark was burning below, green and black smoke oozing out from underground, and losing its power – literally but not literarily – my friend and I left and drove three hours back to Columbia. We talked nonstop during that ride about all that we had seen, heard, and felt. When we got home, we had more to say, so we continued our talk over 막걸리 (rice wine) and 부대찌개 (Korean “army stew”). There was poetry in those Korean soul foods, too.
The next day, I was still reeling from the trip when I saw many posts on Facebook and Instagram supporting the LGBTQ+ people. I thought, “What now? What’s going on?” I googled “transgender in the news” and saw the following headlines:
“The Trauma of the Trump Administration’s Attacks on Transgender People”
“Trump administration considers elimination of transgender recognition”
Dodge must have seen it coming. It was like the poets were predicting dire situations with their panels about boundaries, identities, bodies, and the news. With sessions like “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am: Poetry and Identity” and “Whose Body?” Dodge Poetry Festival was preparing us, giving us the energy and the ammunition we would need to engage in the political (and emotional) fight against moves that take away rights, take away protection, and take away personhood.
And I know, too, that all the poetry in the world cannot fix what needs to be fixed if we don’t vote.
Read poetry. Vote. That’s what I will do.