Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

Since this is an even year, Waterloo Village in Stanhope, NJ was host to the fantastic Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. I love to attend because its a day when I can get immersed in poetry (obviously) and nature.

Four years ago, when it was held at Duke Farms (Doris Duke's old NJ estate) I had a marvelous time, even though it was rainy, muddy and a mess. I'd always wanted to see the estate (it's closed to the public, except for the gardens, although that's changing now) and I finally got my opportunity. Unfortunately, things apparently didn't work out between the Duke and the Dodge folks, and two years later, the festival was back at Waterloo Village - which is a much longer drive for me, but I love the place, too. That's where it's been since.

This year, the only day I could attend was on Thursday (due to family obligations.) Thursday, as it happened, was Student Day. Teenage poets and their friends were all over the grounds, since GRD student poets whose work was chosen were doing readings of their winning works in one of the tents.

In a way, seeing teens with funky clothes, hair (meaning, both with color and with style) and accessories, I felt kind of old. But strangely, at the same time, I felt refreshingly hopeful that poetry was still alive and well for the next generation. I heard Mark Doty (giving a talk on the Main Stage) that most kids write their strongest poetry when they are emotional and unhappy. I don't usually write my brand of poetry in that particular frame of mind - but it made me harken back to when I was a teen, and I think he may have been right.

Anyway, there was a great roster of poets giving lectures, readings and taking part in panel discussions. I arrived right at the tail end of Naomi Shihab Nye's presentation on the Main Stage. I didn't see or hear all of it, obviously, but what I did get was enough to entice me to head over to the Borders' tent to buy a copy of fuel. Very cool!

After that, I attended a talk by Ted Kooser. This former US Poet Laureate was funny and engaging. In detailing why he wrote poetry, he said that in his younger years, it was to 'get girls'. When an audience member asked him if it worked, he smiled and said indeed it did.

After the q & a session, Mr. Kooser read some poems from Valentines, since he wasn't planning on using that material for his Main Stage appearance. I love the idea that this collection was sent to women who requested to be on his mailing list (until it got too large and expensive to keep up with the mailings!) I wish I had been into his work at the time. But I have the book now, and that's all right, too. But I have to say that his reading of these poems was riveting. The man is a brilliant speaker!

Another event I attended was a panel discussion regarding history and poetry. This was part of the Conversation segment of the festival. The panel was comprised of Martin Espada, Joy Harjo, Robert Haas and Kevin Young. Individually, each poet/writer was fascinating, but since this was a new topic for 'conversation', I got the feeling that collectively, they were winging it a bit. Nevertheless, it was very interesting. Each talked about a collective history of people: Ms. Harjo, the Native American perspective; Mr. Espada, Hispanic and South American culture; Mr. Young, the African American experience, particular in the South and Mr. Haas, an assortment of historical issues.

One thing they brought out was how poetry keeps history true, and not part of a revisionist idea of what we should read about in school textbooks. However, while historical poetry did and does report on the experiences of the day, it can (and often is) tempered by the writer's point of view and his/her emotions on the subject matter. But what it doesn't do it make it 'nicer' or more 'optimistic' than it is. All four poets read from their works to punctuate their presentations and I thoroughly enjoyed that, too.

Later in the day, I signed up for the Open Mic. On Thursday, it was between 5 and 6 PM. Everyone who was doing Open Mic was given roughly 3 minutes to read one or two poems. Threre were a few poets whom I thought were really good. I felt kind of like a fish out of water, however, because out of all the readings, mine was the only one that had poems using traditional poetic form, rhyme and light verse. Pretty much all the others (with maybe one or two exceptions) were angsty and emotional - and most were of the free verse kind.

Among the readers: One woman, who was very uncomfortable about her work, read a poem about a dead child and another one that had her being a 17 year old who was shot to death in a concentration camp during WWII. Another woman read what was essentially a list poem about all the physical scars she bore from her life. A large, biker-looking guy loudly recited an angry politically tinged piece (which was more like a poetry slam experience, except that he checked his chapbook periodically.) An elderly man who said he lives in Florida and likes to write about folks living in condos there, read a poem he wrote about a what-if: what if Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe were aged neighbors living in a gated community in Southern Florida?

This man did make an interesting point, however, before reading his poem. He felt strongly about (and was an activist for) a movement to not allow grading of poetry in schools. He felt that poetry - and creativity in general - should be encouraged, and not be subjected to the subjectiveness of a teacher's (or school's) grading system.

While I don't know how students could NOT be graded on their work in schools, I also agree with this fellow's POV. Some things can be quantified, granted, but many other things - sometimes the things which might keep a kid in school when everything else fails - should not receive that almighty A - B - C - D - E. (Or whatever alphanumeric judging system is in place presently.) Food for thought, eh? Most definitely!

There were some other highlights from the day for me. For one thing, I love the architecture of some of the restoration homes which dot the landscape of Waterloo Village. One particular favorite is the Peter Smith house, which is a Second Empire Victorian home (not available to tour inside, alas) to the public. I am kinda sorta obsessed by Victorian homes, particularly SEcond Empire, since one such house figures prominently in a giant work-in-progress for me.

Another thing is the beauty of the place with the river and the little falls and the grist mill and such. Ah nature!

And finally...

There were two odd stories (well, odd for me) which occurred within a few minutes of each other - on a path I was walking. This path was, just then, (and also, only temporarily) pretty empty of festival-goers.

The first thing - on the path, I was heading up a hill, going towards one of the reading/discussion tents, when 3 teenage girls, walking abreast, passed me, heading down the hill. I overheard only one line of their conversation, but I thought it was pretty much a goody! One girl said to the other two: "I've always hated his name."

Now, I have no idea what that was all about, or who the person in question (with the hated name) was, but I thought it was a really nice moment of bizarreness.

The other thing which happened (just after passing the three girls) was that while I continued hiking up the hill, a golf cart (Note: some of the staff of the GRD organization were driving around to the various event tents in these carts) came up beside me. The man driving this particular cart asked me if I wanted a lift to the top of the hill.

It was a nice gesture, right? Even though getting into vehicles with strangers is a questionable activity, right?

But, at that moment, I had been in a bit of a reverie - and was clearly startled.

So, I declined the kind man's offer, saying some idiotically dumb thing like, "Oh, no thanks! I'm just enjoying the scenery," or some equally inane thing. As the man drove off, I suddenly had a V-8/slap your forehead moment. And I wanted to seriously kick myself for being such a dork.


Because the man was Jim Haba - the director of the festival! I've been wanting to meet him in person for years now! And I totally blew the chance to chat with him.

Figures, huh? Heavy sigh!

When I got to the top of the hill, Mr. Haba was just getting back into his cart (after apparently getting off to check out something.) I smiled at him and he waved back at me - and then took off.

Oh well.

That's the way it goes sometimes.

So anyway...

Here's looking forward to the next festival - in 2010!

Oh - and one other thing - in the next post, I will post my photos of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Yes, I took quite a few of 'em, as expected.

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