Poetry can be a hit to the gut, a whisper in the ear, or an acid flashback and most likely all three at once or one time or another. Yes, the 2008 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival happened two weekends ago, but it’s a lot to take in, a lot to process, and even more to relay to those that were not present.
I’ll just take you through my days there - events, discussions, readings - and offer up my opinions, impressions, and insights. Regretting not going to this wonderful event, I leave up to you, dear reader.
Any morning is blessed by poetry. I don’t care if you’re a morning person or not, there’s a comforting nature inherent in words that makes coping with daybreak bearable. Most times, at the festival, I make sure to arrive early for some variation on Early Morning Rumi, an event that involves Coleman Barks reading selections from Rumi while backed by a small jazz quartet. It’s an event that’s smooth enough to welcome and powerful enough to wake/initiate those who choose to attend. And so, I proceeded to the main tent, schedule in hand, and took a seat to map out the rest of the festival happenings I wanted to attend.
Well, Rumi was starting a little late, I was already on my first refill from Greene Brothers Coffee (many kudos to those refillable mugs!), and I was not feeling a Rumi vibe that morning. I was, as it would become an unfortunate catch phrase used throughout the day by the festival staff and visiting poets, hungry for poetry. So I headed out to the church to sit in on a discussion about female poets praising the sacred.
8:00 - 9:15 a.m. Women in Praise of the Sacred
Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye
The church was already packed with festival attendees, and the poets on the panel were being introduced just as I found a comfy little space on the floor. At past festivals, the tradition (a lame one) is that poets read their own works that fit within the topic. But the poets on this panel quickly broke with the banal and started asking questions of each other as well as the audience. One of the first opening comments by Jane Hirshfield caught my attention, as it’s a constant concern for me as a writer:
As inappropriately conjunctive as this may sound, it fit perfectly because instead of the stale definition of spirituality, we were operating off of human spirituality, largely centered around love, passion, and the sensual experience. It was a, if you'll forgive the pun, highly spirited discussion, eloquent in both its discourse and dialog. Many examples of other poets' works were read, including those at the festival as well as those in the room. It was a very Zen/Dao focused discussion, which was came as a relief as I am someone inhibited by the constrictive dogma of institutionalized religions. I like the freedom and celebration of humanity offered by localized religions and those not adopted and enforced upon peoples. That freedom was one that the discussion shared and that made this event bot eye-opening and enjoyable.
9:15 - 10:30 a.m. Conversation: Poetry and Invention
Coral Bracho, Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, C. D. Wright
Invention as ...inspiration? construction? theory? This discussion could’ve been about anything, and often times it felt it was everything. Some audience members helped reign in straying answers/topics, but largely talks focused on poetry as the limit of language…the true linguistic art that could be brought to be truly experimental but festers in a state of stagnation. Many questions were posed regarding how poetry can be brought to more people's attention, how that can be done if experimental requires thought not many at large are willing to invest, and to what degree (if any) technique outweighs content. To give you an example of the types of questions being posed by attendees:
"You can't please everyone. Creation, as per symbolists like Baudeliare and cubists like Cummings and Zukofski, was inventive but often too cryptic to reach the people. Modernism sought to make poetry more accessible by using common language and narrative stories. So do each of you (the poets of the panel) consider it more or less of a challenge whe crafting a poem to be inventive while trying to reach an audience? Is it more important to push the limits or reach people? Does that even come into play in your thought process while creating?"
"Even though they are not pushing the borders of poetry itself, good poems abound. Even if they are written in styles/language that don’t require investment, would you consider such poetry necessary as stepping stones set in place to let curious minds climb to higher levels of appreciation for what words can do?"
Ok, both of the above questions were mine, but they embody parts here and there as well as general ideas from many other questions that were being posed as I worked those out on paper as to not sound like an idiot.
Another interesting slant on the topic was one concerning technology and poetry. It was pointed out that the literary arts have been slow to adopt the technological means to stay up-to-date or at the very least hesitant to utilize/incorporate different technological means to further to expansion of how poetry can be portrayed. Some light was shone on this dark corner by an audience member from Brown University, who said that they have a program there that turns poems into 3D visuals inside a virtual room that can be explored by those involved with the program. He pointed out that this innovation would be present at the Literary Arts at Brown Festival.
11:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. Festival Poet Readings
Ravi Shankar, Joseph O. Legaspi, Brenda Shaughnessy
I had never heard nor heard of these poets before the festival. Ravi Shankar, while generally unimpressive taught us about chantels ... at least that’s what I noted in my pad. Nothing else really amazed me about the guy.
Joseph O. Legaspi, while almost equally unimpressive, did manage to conjure up a tear-jerker of a poem. In-between sniffles from internal sobs, he gave voice to a recently deceased friend and fellow poet in one of the most touching and well-written eulogies I’ve ever heard.
Brenda Shaughnessy had a rough start insofar as impressing me went. Her words were plain, her language uninventive, and her reading was totally lacking any sense of emotion. and then she started her second poem. She definitely had a couple of crowd pleasers to aerate the denser works. Lines began catching my ears, and as I listened to lines the likes of “I am lonely with questions,” “I broke the window with God’s ball,” and “God of Ether, God of vapor, take me as a swan would....” I began to really appreciate her work, especially “Cinema Poison.”
12:00 - 12:06 p.m. Best sausage, onion, and pepper sandwich...ever!!!
12:45 - 3:00 p.m. Main Stage Readings
Coral Bracho, with Forrest Gander translating
Another one of the loveliest things about hearing poems read at Dodge stems from hearing foreign poets read their original works in their original language. Sure, you may not understand it, but you hear how it flows. And when the translator follows/precedes, listeners can juxtapose the mental and emotional experiences to gain a trans-cultural understanding.
One of my favourite poet-translators. He's always a pleasure to hear and read. While not focusing on Taha Muhammad Ali this time around, focusing instead on some Israeli texts his translation skills are as admirable as ever regarding fluidity and emotional emissivity.
I was standing outside of a tent for this poet's presentation, chatting with a few friends. She seemed to be much of an Eve-whore, like me. That is to say she loves to use the character of Eve for her own devices. Most of what I strained to hear was very good, although (sadly) memorable lines/poems/abstracts escape me now.
A wonderful speaker in general, capable of mystifying an audience with just about anything uttered from his mouth, Abani absolutely wowed me with a line that included something like “bombs exploded, fragments of bones slivered under his skin, love swallowed whole.”
Sharon Olds is a festival favourite for a reason. She blends a sense of humour with an intellectualism that can entertain almost anyone. Had to make sure to get to see her again this year, especially after finally purchasing her first book, "Satan Says."
3:15 - 4:30 p.m. Festival Poet Readings
Martin Espada and Maxine Kumin
Martin Espada reads like a mix between that famous movie trailer narrator, the ma who narrated Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, and an old-time radio show star. Sometimes effective, but often overbearing, his reading style was over-dramatic at best and often overwhelmed the subject matter. His enthusiasm and sense of drama served him well in a later reading at the main tent, but either the first impression or the combination of subject matter with that specific presentation left much to be desired. Content-wise, though, his poems ranged from humourous to breathtakingly insightful/sympathetic.
4:45 - 6:30 p.m. walking, talking, picture taking
Katie Bojurnek, Lana, Ink
The high point to going with others to Dodge comes around lunch time and dinner time, when you can share what you’ve experienced, gloat over poets you saw, and unwind the mind a bit from the density that is poetry. I went with three other aspiring poets like myself. For a bit of fun, we formed a small poetry circle and circle-jerked three nonsensical and one that was almost sane. During this exercise, we were also privy to the antics of an overweight child stick-fencing, hopping across dams, walking walls, being a kid.
6:30 - 10:00 p.m. Main Stage Readings
Poetry & Music Sampler
Here's what makes the festival great if you don't know many of the attending poets and need to decide on who you want to see the next day. Twenty-six poets in three hours. It's a lot of material to handle, but with roughly five minutes each, change times, and a break or two (scheduled and due to film changes), it's not an intolerable saturation. Overall, it was not a good day for extended food metaphors, with the exception being the one offered by Chris Abani.
In the first half, by and large, no-one was emoting in the slightest with their works, which made for a dreadfully drawn-out reading. Not an exception to this, as the poem doesn't call for it, but still a welcome bit of wonderful was Peter Cole’s reading of Taha Muhamad Ali’s "Meeting at an Airport," one of my most favourite poems ever…and it turned a friend onto Taha’s poems as well. Coleman Barks was charming as ever, and Forrest Gander’s poems, while delivered rather blandly, still carried the weight of being incredibly well-written as to sustain audience attention.
Notable readers in the second half, for content and presentation, go to Ted Koozer, Robert Hass, and Chris Abani as well as Coral Bracho reading in her original Mexican tet-ta-tet with translator and fellow poet Forrest Gander. A wave of my shame-shame finger goes to Joy Harjo and her sax for an almost unbearable reading that forced me to wander around the Borders-sponsored book tent.
8:00 - 9:15 a.m. Early Morning Poems; Rumi and More
Coleman Barks & Jane Hirshfield with The Paul Winter Consort
As previously mentioned, one of my favourite events is the early morning air crisp with the meditations of Rumi. Add my enthusiasm for some shaken up routine with readings by a poet who recently garnered my favour (Jane Hirshfield), and you could colour me downright excited. The event was carried out in alternating sessions. And while the Rumi still lent itself better to the improv feel of the backing band, Hirshfield’s material, taken mostly from Women in Praise of the Sacred (buy), was not out of place. It was, at times, jarring in contrast to some of the other material being presented, but what is poetry if not a series of sometimes affronting juxtapositions? All in all very worth attending, but with the effectiveness of a diluted Rumi session.
9:30 – 10:45 a.m. Conversation: Poet as Citizen
Chris Abani, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hass, Ted Kooser
This was the type of topic for discussion about which previous festival poets had said things like “what the hell does that mean.” However, with a panel comprised of one African-American woman, one Americanized African male, and two European-American males, the discussion took some interesting and passionate turns.
One of the above-mentioned turns concerned proactive poetry. As poetry is vanishing from mainstream media, the audience was asked for suggestions pertaining to how it might be re-injected into the daily life. In addition to a suggestion/story about pamphletting (random poems shoved under wipers, inside car windows, or mailboxes), this topic was beginning to be combated by Ted Koozer via AmericanLifeInPoetry.org, a site that publishes articles on accessible poems available for free to newspapers.
Other talking points included:
poet as historian - fictional or not, the culmination of literature during a time period helps define the focus of hindsight through anthropologists’ microscopes. Long have I held the same opinion. While we no longer tend to orate history through epics, we do tackle the topical (for better or worse) and do leave a paper trail written in the voice of the people for future researchers to discover, consider, and hopefully learn from.
poet as punk - where disruptive forces are concerned, poetry is surely considered the disruptive seed as far as the literary arts go. While I would love to agree with it, I simply can't see it. To be punk, it would have to be simple enough to be throw in people's faces and be able to affect change through sympathy. Yet poetry is such a crafted thing that it is hard to see intellectuals getting riled rather that appreciating its art, and simultaneously the craft is a means of expression that seems too over-the-head (or at the very least out of the patience threshold) for most people to attempt to identify with.
But ultimately, poet as citizen came down to exactly that. One of the crowd. Someone capable of raising their voice in some sort of song. Someone speaking for those otherwise incapable. Adding depth and meaning to such a banal statement (at least as considered by a white male) were opinions from Chris Abani and Lucille Clifton, those who spoke against outrageous conditions to be able to be heard so that those they lived with might have some say in the song they sang along by proxy.
11:00 - 11:45 a.m. Festival Poet Readings
Simon Armitage, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Charles Simic
Simon Armitage, aside from his charming English accent, had some lovely epics that sounded as though they would’ve been best shortened a stanza or five. Some of his best work, from this short reading anyway, seemed to adapt and adopt fairy tales to personal experience in very pleasing ways. Thomas Sayers Ellis ... you just have to hear. The man bends language lyrically, unexpectedly. In many ways (without having read a single poem of his from a page), his poems reinvent focus on words and their relationships through eccentrically placed silences between groups of them. This is not to say his poems are language poetry, although they definitely harbor some elements thereof. The metaphors are solid and their purpose straightforward, both seemingly crafted to be so. Charles Simic, unfortunately, while he had a good demeanor was a bit of a banal bore and hardly worth writing more than this about him.
11:45 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.Giving Voice
Festival Attendee Readings of Etheridge Knight, Sappho, Walt Whitman, Anne Sexton
I’ve loved Etheridge Knight since my senior year in high school when my fondness for swear words enthralled me to his piece called “Feeling Fucked Up.” Every time I read this poem I shake from the all-or-nothing of it. This was no exception, and I thought it a fitting end to a weekend of poetry. Thus people eating lunch calmly listened to F-bombs that dropped like flies with dynamite strapped to their backs. And Dodge ended with a bang.