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It was my first time. I was nervous. I was excited. I felt better that a friend was going to be there with me the whole time, a friend who had done it before.
My first Dodge Poetry Festival.
I had two goals and I had 24 hours (if I didn’t sleep) to achieve them. First, hear Claudia Rankine, my new literary hero whose formidable poetic and intellectual power show us what a real-life super hero looks like. Move over, Captain America! Second, discover one new poet – someone I’ve never read or heard
The first event I attended was called “American Poetries” with Brenda Hillman, Khaled Mattawa, Claudia Rankine, and Anne Waldman – all Chancellors of Academy of American Poets. While I would have loved to hear these poets read from their own impressive repertoire of works, it was also wonderful to hear the poems they’re reading and who they recommend for us to discover.
Khaled Mattawa read a poem by Hayan Charara called “Animals,” a haunting story about the violence we commit against each other. The poem, Mattawa reminded us, exposes the horrors that we’re not allowed to speak of. I immediately ordered a copy of Charara’s book, Something Sinister.
Claudia Rankine told us about a poet named Mark Nowak and his book, Shut Up Shut Down. In referring to Nowak, Rankine brought to the foreground a voice that is sometimes ignored in our discussions about race – the working white class. This voice is essential to Rankine’s new project of studying whiteness.
Much of this forum’s discussion on “America’s Poetries” highlighted the diversity of voices, experiences, and perspectives. The takeaway for me was that poets feel a deep sense of responsibility in their roles not only as artists but also as people who speak for, about, and on behalf of American lives. Their poetry gives us language with which we can speak of our world in ways that are creative and enlightening.
That evening, I experienced one of the most special poetry performances I’ve ever attended at “Poetry like Bread – Poems of Social and Political Consciousness.” The lineup included Marilyn Chin, Robert Hass, Martín Espada, Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankine, Vijay Seshadri, and Gary Snyder. I know, right? Yes, let that list sink in.
I rediscovered Robert Hass. Though I had read his works and studied them in school, experiencing his poetry live on stage sparked a new interest. His reading of what can only be called an epic poem titled “Dancing” – about human history of violence and weapons – brought people to a standing ovation.
That same evening, I discovered Marilyn Chin. I don’t know many poets who look like me – an Asian American woman. And there is something powerful about seeing someone who looks like you speaking of an experience, a perspective, a history, a family, or a value that you are personally familiar with. She is a cool performer with a bit of an attitude and spunk. I like that.
So within hours of arriving at the festival, I met both of my goals.
But it’s not just the poets and the poetry that made this overnight trip to Newark deeply moving. Conversations with my friend about language, education, art, race, politics – those conversations had me doing mental gymnastics. My ideas were both validated and challenged. My mind stretched.
I learned that the community of poets and poetry is a thing of beauty and power. Dodge got me hooked. I can’t wait to go back in two years.
An artist works alone in a garret, her solitary room the site of revelation. Or not.
The five of them collaborated on a performance that brought tears to the eyes of the audience. Smith even wrote extra lines – just a few moments before the performance – to make her poem better fit the musical score.
In four hours, having never met before, the poet and the musicians meshed their work into a tightly woven performance for HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts called “The Sound and Fury of New Orleans.”
Audience member Mike Clark said he emerged from the reading feeling “flayed,” he had been so moved by the show.
First performed in October 2012, the synthesis of music and poetry was the brainchild of Martin Farawell, director of the Geraldine R, Dodge Poetry Festival, and had not been performed since. Board member Tim Singleton saw Smith at Dodge, and decided HoCoPoLitSo just had to host her.
Violinists Arminé Graham and Laura Chang reached deep into the heart of the poems, Maggie Hummel on cello drew out the voice of Katrina during “Blue Lights on the Bayou,” and Sarah Hart and her viola flirted with the ragtime. Each note, whether quavering or raucous, seemed to speak intimately with Smith’s poems about New Orleans as lascivious flirt and nursing home residents left to drown in their beds, about a dog howling at the looming sky, about a woman with three babies and two arms, who drops her littlest one with a tiny splash.
But before it became art, there was the devil in the details. The musicians knew the music, the poet knew the poems, but in one short rehearsal on the afternoon of the performance, they had to make those two types of art speak as one.
The rehearsal started on a good note. Smith walked into the Monteabaro Recital Hall, saw the four musicians warming up onstage and chortled: “Girl party!”
The quartet laughed, the tension broken. Then, in their shorts and sundresses, the five women settled into the rehearsal.
Smith began by explaining each poem, and reading it, as the musicians looked at the score. They talked about the silences that punctuated the piece, the times when the musicians would play “Hellbound Highball” and would have to tone down the frenzy so Smith’s words about running just ahead of Katrina’s winds could be heard.
The cellist, Maggie Hummel, took on the voice of Katrina, as Smith read poems in the hurricane’s hungry voice: “Every woman begins as weather.” Hummel’s fingers plucked insistently at the beginning of every poem in Katrina’s voice, lending an urgency to the hurricane’s approach.
Just at the end, when everyone was tired and the snacks of nuts and cherries had run out, Smith said she needed to say something about the ending.
“I’m hearing something,” she said. “Katrina’s voice.”
So Smith read the last few lines, and Hummel plucked those strings again.
“That’s it,” Smith said.
Throughout the rehearsal, if they weren’t sure how the piece would go, they just tried it.
“Let’s just do it and see what happens,” Smith said more than once. They did, then tried again. And art happened.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Thursday, June 27, 7:30 p.m. Monteabaro Recital Hall, The Horowitz Center
at Howard Community College
A look at Katrina New Orleans through a selection of Smith’s Blood Dazzler poems set to the music of Wynton Marsalis’ Octoroon Balls.
“Reading poems like these, overflowing with life but
contained by art, makes us all feel a little bit helpless.
These poems are blessings that will move like white
light through your veins.” – American Book Review
Straight from its world premiere at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, this powerful blend of poetry and music is “breath-taking” and “not-to-be-missed.” Patricia Smith recites poems from her collection Blood Dazzler in the voices of the people lost in the floods and fury of Hurricane Katrinia accompanied by the rich, spicy music of Wynton Marsalis played by Washington D.C.’s Sage String Quartet. Marsalis’ At the Octoroon Balls is a dramatic gumbo of jazz, blues, Americana and European classical music. This performance was conceived and premiered at the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and has never been performed elsewhere.
Tickets available through the Columbia Festival of the Arts website.
The latest installment in our occasional series of blog posts from friends of HoCoPoLitSo. Today Ryna May, Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College, writes of her experience at the recent Dodge Poetry Festival.…
Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
– Roque Dalton
The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival once again transformed downtown Newark, New Jersey, into a “poetry village” for a few days in October. The bi-annual festival has been going strong since 1986, though longtime supporters have noticed a different energy since the festival left its traditional home in Waterloo Village.
But one thing has not changed: This remains the Super Bowl of Poetry. There is no other event like this festival, where the old meets the new, where high school students cheer wildly for words, and where the teeming energy of a giant hall of people morphs into a single, quiet heartbeat. Where Natasha Trethewey, the newly minted poet laureate, shares a stage with Amiri Baraka. Where Philip Levine and Dorianne Laux teach us about the lyrical nobility of work. Where aspiring poets, old and young, hang onto every word as if it is bread, as if it is life-giving manna.
The festival is more than a poetry reading, more than an event. It is a pilgrimage to sit at the feet of poets like Taylor Mali, to hear him recite “Like Lily Like Wilson.” It is the chance to be completely surprised by a brand new poet like Emari DiGiorgio and come to your feet when she finishes “Lady Liberty.” It is the chance to be inspired by Jane Hirshfield, who tells us that poetry gives us a voice, gives us courage to face the challenges that life puts before us.
Okay, so poetry isn’t life itself, but it is a way to experience life, a way to see the world and describe it and make meaning out of it. You can only see this, can only feel this at the festival. It isn’t quite Brigadoon, but it has that quality of stepping out of one world and into another. And if you experience it, you will be changed. This event is for everyone, and everyone should experience the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at least once. If you go once, I promise you will want more.
— Ryna May
Associate professor of English,
Howard Community College
The Dodge Poetry Festival has occurred every other year for more than two decades. The next one wont come along until 2014, plenty of time to plan attending. In the meantime, click here to view their video archive of poets reading their work at past Festivals for a taste of the bread ahead.
This week the Library of Congress announced who is to be the country’s next poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, and the internet lit up with the story and appreciation. Here is a sampling the news reports and a few other resources on Ms. Trethewey:
- The Library of Congress news release
- New York Times: New Laureate Looks Deep Into Memory
- NPR, story and audio
- From the Poetry Foundation, her bio and a sample of her work, including a number of podcasts
- Poets.org with a bio and work, including audio
- An earlier interview (2010) with the New Yorker
- From YouTube, “Why I Write: Natasha Trethewey on Poetry, History, and Social Justice” the 2010 Emory University Distinguished Faculty Lecture
- And the Wikipedia entry
We understand that Ms. Trethewey will be a part of the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival in October.