This was at least my 5th visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival, the biannual celebration that's been going on since 1986. Lucky 13 was almost canceled, but rescheduled at the beginning of this year and held in the city of Newark, New Jersey, a drastically different venue from the country scenes of old, but with numerous advantages, and oddities, that total up to a successful poetry event, if not the Dodge I knew and loved.
Newark welcomed poets with open arms. A Shangri-La of sorts was created in the several blocks around the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts that served as home base. Police barricades kept traffic and other undesirable elements away from visitors, and made strolling other event sights, such as the First Baptist Peddie Memorial Church, the New Jersey Historical Society and the Robert Treat Best Western ballrooms as easy and safe as a walk in the park. However, the constant police presence began to wear on me towards the end. I began to wonder about the everyday state of the area, without the benefit of Newark's Finest. The Newark Police Department, by the way, was nothing but friendly and helpful to festival goers. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
Past festivals for me have been a mix of mediocre academic readings and a few shiny rockets of words that make the whole event worth enduring. I didn’t see any rockets this time, nor did I suffer through the expected lows. New discoveries for me included Joseph Millar, a fellow phone company escapee turned poet, and the Dickman twins, Michael and Matthew, young phenoms of the poetry world based out of Portland, Oregon, followed by giggling groupies like rock stars. Hey, whatever it takes to get poetry out there… and they’re excellent poets, too. I didn’t hear much new work from Billy Collins onsite, but this past week’s New Yorker featured a poem of his that seems to be a departure for him, longer, more classical references, yet with a hint of that Collins ironic wit that his other work is so well known for.
Sharon Olds was there, too, down from her newish home in New Hampshire after years in NYC. Forgive me for dwelling, but she is a goddess, just as sweet and genuine in workshops as she is on stage or while signing books. The stuff I heard her read was not new, for the most part, but she has a book, Stag Leap, about the end of a long marriage, coming soon. Look for it. I enjoy the way Olds takes chances, and though for me she doesn’t hit the high notes every time, when she does, it resonates.
Other poets in attendance that I came across included Bob Hicok, Kwame Dawes, Rita Dove, Kay Ryan, and Rachel Hadas. Memorable moments included a tribute on Sunday afternoon to Lucille Clifton. Promoters used a quote from her poem, “Blessing the Boats” to both honor her and set the tone for this new venue: “may the tide/ that is entering even now/ the lip of our understanding/ carry you out/ beyond the face of fear.” I was lucky enough to hear Clifton at several Dodges, and mourn her passing with the others. Joseph Millar won my heart when at a panel discussion about poets and their day jobs, he proclaimed, “Poetry will save you!” I am living proof of that. And Amiri Baraka, living history, read some powerful words that were partially obscured by the jazz quartet behind him. This prompted me to buy his collected works just to read more. And obscured is sometimes OK, just making the voice another instrument in the band. Loved the jazz at 9 a.m., while my poetry partner went to hear Galway Kinnell read his translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in their entirety. G. came back all glassy-eyed like after a good romantic encounter. “Got Rilke?” says the Dodge mug he gifted me with, and soon I will.
Once onsite, events were well managed and organized, but remnants of the former confusion remain even after the fact. Two days after the close of the Dodge, I received a glossy promotional flier in the mail, almost a duplicate of one I’d received months ago. I live in upstate New York, and I can’t imagine it was mailed from too far away. How much money was wasted on that? Food at the festival was a cut above past years, and still I chose a cheeseburger for breakfast. My bad, not theirs. I also avoided the exhaustion of tramping across Waterloo Village, where I was often dehydrated and sleepy. Only one program had me drowsy, and that was due to the soft light coming in through the old stained glass at Peddie Baptist, and the heat rising up into the loft I was seated in. Luckily, the Robert Treat was steps away, and I got to nap in my bed this time and not a car in the parking lot.
My accommodations at the Robert Treat, a totally random choice that put my upstate friends and I right at the heart of the festival, were adequate, although oddly lacked a microwave in the room itself. I got a hot bath in, and a stunning view of Newark both day and night that I still haven’t been able to adequately translate into words. Dinner on Saturday night with friends from home, a longstanding tradition, was at Maize, the Treat’s in-house restaurant, an overpriced affair that was only convenient, not efficient or even worthy of the cost, no offense to Carlos, our diligent waiter.
I made notes for many poems, and rough drafts for three, while in Newark. I jotted down quotes like Millar’s for future sustenance. I am refreshed and recommitted to my art. I got out of Dodge for the weekend, and into a whole ‘nother animal. Now, back to the Patch Mines and the day job.
Note: I need to mention here the fliers that circulated around the festival concerning the closing of several public libraries in the city of Newark, an ironic twist if ever there was one. Taken as an isolated act, this is of course a disaster. However, knowing what little I do about Mayor Cory Booker and his dynamic efforts to revitalize this once vital city, I have to believe that it’s part of a bigger plan, and that his priorities for the city required it. Anyone with more information is requested to comment.