I have a friend who this past October attended his second Dodge Poetry Festival, now held in Newark, NJ. He was thrilled by the experience, the easy access to poets, the comradery of other poetry lovers, even a large sales tent dedicated to poetry books, CDs and paraphenalia. No matter how many anecdotes I and other veterans of the Waterloo Village editions of the festival relate, he still insists he had a good time. I, however, can't help but feel that the Dodge as I knew it is gone forever, and that the Newark festival, aspire as it might, cannot hope to equal that event. In fact, I almost feel if another edition is held, a new name should be attached to it.
There were of course flaws with the old location in Stanhope, NJ, serious flaws. The Village itself, at one time a touristy collection of antique buildings arranged to emulate a community of bygone times (appropriate perhaps for what many are schooled to believe is a dying art), went bankrupt some years ago, and the property through special arrangement was opened only for the Festival, every other year, or so is my understanding. Therefore, necessary maintenance to the site wasn't being done. There were plumbing issues. Parking could be hazardous in stormy weather, and in my memory, it rained every time I went to the Dodge.
But these physical problems were always outshone by the tremendous gift of the Brigadoonish collection of poets, poetry lovers and lovers of poets who assembled there. I remember hearing Lucille Clifton read and speak about her work in the chapel. Open mics, always a mixed bag, benefited from the quirky atmosphere of the Mill. Small, white tents by the lake served as intimate spaces for mid-level, sometimes even non-academic poets to read in. Then there was the Big Tent. A sort of serene circus atmosphere reigned, colored spotlights and a brilliant transparency of the familiar, "Dodge Poetry Festival" logo were projected onto the curtains behind readers. Cranes with cameras swooped over our heads, like at the Oscars, and the resulting videos, many of which can still be seen on YouTube, were appropriately dramatic, and excelled at capturing the mood of each reader and day.
What other facility combines the smell of mud and straw with the magic of Stanley Kunitz transporting us up to that rooftop he straddled in 1910, waiting for his first view of Halley's Comet? It was grand, it was open, you were free to come and go, but mostly we stayed. We got our "fix" of first-class poets, often reading work that hadn't been published yet, or work you'd come to know by heart, but never thought you'd be lucky enough to hear straight from the poet's mouth. The main theatre at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, now the central performance area for the Dodge, is stunning in its own right. I still have a lousy snapshot of the magnificent chandelier that hangs there like a glittering molecule. But it was not my Dodge.
There were no strolls in the grass, bumping into Sharon Olds or Chris Abani on their way to lunch. There was no light rain, mottled skies still bright with the promise of Galway Kinnell or Billy Collins. No trees, no birds darting over our heads, enjoying the music of words, too. Just not the Dodge. Not my Dodge, the festival I lived for and loved for fifteen some-odd years.
I wish it well. Even the former proprietors of the Book Tent, Borders, have fallen by the wayside in these difficult times for literature, times when all of the arts need to reinvent themselves and how they reach their audiences. Any festival dedicated to that most maligned of arts that can manage to maintain even a hint of its former glory is to be commended. But, don't call it the Dodge. It's something. It's a grand time surely, if you can forget the forest from which it sprung.