~ Alicia Ostriker ~

Dodge Poetry Festival 2016: A poetry-film maker’s reflections

Martin Farewell, Director of the Dodge Poetry Program asks audience to give a hand to ten poets and two musical groups at Poetry like Bread: Poems of Social and Political Consciousness.

Martin Farawell, Director of the Dodge Poetry Program asks audience to give a hand to ten poets and two musical groups at Poetry like Bread: Poems of Social and Political Consciousness.

There is no such thing as art and politics, there is only life.
Amira Baraka

Through the years I had always been curious about the Dodge Poetry Festival. The closest I got to it was while living in Hunterdon County, New Jersey when it was held in quaint Waterloo Village in Stanhope. But for one reason or another I never went. Finally, this year, on the 30th anniversary of the festival, I didn’t have to think twice about getting a four-day pass to the event. It was held in Newark at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) as well as several other venues, including two historic churches, the Newark Museum, Aljira Art Gallery and North Star Academy. At first I was worried I would have to walk all over Newark for the readings and events, but nearly all were close by, including a tent for open mic each day in Military Park. That was a thoughtful touch for people who wanted to simply test out their poetry mojo in a public space, and I watched a few people give performances there. I attended the festival for three-out-of-four days, and was somewhat disappointed on Day One, but the second and third days more than made up for it. Unfortunately, I could only speak to a few of the terrific poets, and I’m sure missed others who would have provided me with further insight into the role of poets and poetry in our society, which is the education I was seeking going into the festival.

Dodge Poetry Festival catalog and 4-day passI should be transparent right up front: all readers of this post, poets and artists alike, may find my knowledge of poetry somewhat lacking. But I do know quality and what touches me emotionally. I went to the festival with no preconceived notions of what I might find. I was concerned about whether I might become bored, bouncing around on my iPhone, and from time to time I did do that. Dodge must have realized there would be people like me and they created an app to check in, see schedules, get information about the poets, map locations, look up restaurant information, post photos, make comments and rate each session, all of which I used. The app was a closed forum and only a handful of other people posted photos, discussion, likes and comments. I wondered why Dodge spent the money on an app and didn’t just open the social media to their Facebook page instead. Nonetheless, I found myself mesmerized by the poets and words spoken. Mark Doty, Mahogany L. Brown, Juan Felipe Herrera (NJ and US Poet Laureate), Alicia Ostriker, Anne Waldman, Jane Hirshfield, Martín Espada, Tim Seibles and Claudia Rankine stood out to me because their collective voices mirrored the human condition from the past, as it exists at this moment and could be seen as through a crystal ball into the future. The festival is certainly not for the weak of heart or mind. Or, as my husband suggested, only for progressive thinkers in NJPAC’s Prudential Hall on Saturday night.

On opening day I went to several sessions. One was “Poetry and Storytelling” with Katha Pollitt who also writes for The Nation. The venue, Peddie Baptist Church, is undergoing exterior renovation, but it is just gorgeous inside. A few of the things Pollitt said resonated with me: “A poem doesn’t need to be narrative, but still needs to tell a story… and poems have a resonance with other poems, in tone, sound and images.” She spoke about poetry being “open to many interpretations” and having a sense of “ambiguity,” which confirmed my thoughts as a maker of film poems. I thought since she spoke a good deal about visuality and images she would have an interest in filmpoetry. I patiently waited for her to sign books for two young women, probably seniors in high school. After they left I asked her about filmpoetry and she said she had little to no knowledge about the subject. I explained about visual storytelling and poetry as a collaboration and I could see her eyes glaze over. I guess I’m accustomed to the online poets and mixers from Moving Poems and Poetry Storehouse who have been nothing but passionate, encouraging, and enthusiastically supportive. With that experience I decided to hang back and just listen to each session without trying to push my personal thoughts and just let things happen naturally. That worked well and the best experiences were simply led by serendipity.

I sat in on a Poets Forum Conversation: Poets on Poetry (all Poets Forums were sponsored by the Academy of American Poets) with Linda Gregerson, Alicia Ostriker and Alberto Rios. Alicia Ostriker read Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem,” written in 1968 and I was astounded with the parallel to today’s world. (See “Learning to Breathe under Water: Considering Muriel Rukeyser’s oceanic work” by Alicia Ostriker.)

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

Ostriker explained the poem as “a balancing act between despair and hope… We write poems for ourselves with the hope they will reach others.” Linda Gregerson said poetry is an “urgent form of sanity-making.” For me these thoughts hit right to the core of why I am so drawn to poetry. The concept of poetry as a way to “draw our dreams into daylight” and its “ability to be meditative” are ideas which make poetry so alluring to me and why I feel compelled to create filmpoems. In another forum, Elizabeth Alexander also referenced Rukeyser’s “Poem” and thought Rukeyser’s approach was to “help heal a broken society… Poets have a stable place to discuss the world and record human feeling.”

Another Poet’s Forum, Poets on Activism included Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Khaled Mattawa and Anne Waldman. Waldman spoke to what she has found to be a “cognitive dissonance” in our society. As a divided nation (which is obvious to anyone in this election cycle, unless you’ve decided to hide under a rock), we are simply overwhelmed and stressed out. These poets encouraged risk-taking, collaborative work and living in a way which supports what you believe. Herrera spoke about when he first began to “stand up and project his voice” in third grade. He said his voice took shape through song, encouraged by a teacher who told him he had a beautiful voice. She was right: his voice and wonderful cadence was demonstrated beautifully on Saturday night when he enlisted a drummer from one of the music groups to accompany him on a few poems. A student asked the poet mentors a relevant question: “What is the greatest risk in activism?” Answers included, “speaking truth to power” and the “risk of being embarrassed,” but regardless, as citizens the responsibility, as Brenda Hillman stated, is to “get off your ass and do something.” I completely agree.

Juan Felipe Herrera

In Poets Forum: Making a Life in Poetry, the same theme seemed to repeat again with Elizabeth Alexander (she too read Rukeyser’s “Poem”), Mark Doty, Jane Hirshfield and Alicia Ostriker. Mark Doty read his poem “In Two Seconds,” and the discussion revolved around the fact that we are tired and anxious. Doty quoted Stanley Kunitz, “At every stage of life we need to create a life we can live and bear with.” Ostriker went on to say she was affected by Rumi who allowed her to “write from the spirit,” and felt that “people should write what they are afraid of.” This session didn’t necessarily focus on what the life of a poet meant, and an astute high school student came forward and asked how to deal with rejection. Jane Hirshfield said, “Listen to the inner voice and just let it ride,” and Elizabeth Alexander said she felt that writing poems is a mysterious necessity, and she doesn’t know where it will take her — “It’s hard, but also incredible.” Their comments reflect the idea of writing poetry for oneself, and having the courage to put it out in the world for others to identify with (or not) and wait to see what happens. In other words, keep plugging away, don’t get discouraged and eventually you’ll get published. I think if you listened between the lines it appears that a career as a poet and writer must be supported by another type of money-making activity. But that went unsaid.

Mark Doty and Jane Hirshfield illustrations with notes by attendee Jenny Linn Loveland.

Mark Doty and Jane Hirshfield illustrations with notes by attendee Jenny Linn Loveland.

I had the opportunity to attend a “Poetry Sampler”, where I heard Martín Espada for the first time. He has a tremendous presence and booming voice — you can’t help but listen and be mesmerized. Marilyn Chin is highly expressive, energetic and just plain entertaining to hear, and Celeste Gainey was interesting because she explained how she became one of the first woman lighting gaffers in Hollywood. Her book published in 2015, The Gaffer, highlights experiences she had in a male-dominated field. When I heard her story I immediately thought she was someone I wanted to talk with later, but the sessions move fast and it’s not easy to catch the poets midstream. You can imagine my surprise when I actually bumped into her in the bookstore where I had a stack of books; two on the top were Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. I really hate to admit this, but when I selected the books I had no idea who Claudia Rankine was, nor that she just won a MacArthur Foundation “genius award.” I hadn’t even read about her in the catalog. I would find out I’d have the opportunity to hear her read an hour later.

A voice out of nowhere said, “Claudia Rankine is terrific,” and suddenly I was face-to-face with Celeste Gainey who was wearing incredibly cool round-shaped black glasses. I said in my direct way, “I don’t have a clue who she is, but these two books spoke to me immediately because they’re mixed media and the topics are about social justice.” We got to talking and Celeste couldn’t have been warmer and more encouraging when I talked about my work and future project plans. She’s had a diverse creative life as the first woman to be admitted as a gaffer to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (I.A.T.S.E.). In addition to lighting dozens of documentaries, she worked for 60 Minutes, ABC Close-Up, 20/20, and feature films, most notably Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and The Wiz. She was an early member of New York Women in Film and Television, serving two terms as President, from 1983-1985. Later, she started a company to light restaurants and architectural spaces.

The very next session, with Claudia Rankine, was Poetry and Social Justice moderated by NPR’s Brian Lehrer. It was at the cross section of civic dialogue and poetry, certainly subjects close to my heart.

Martin Espada

Claudia Rankine

(Read the full poem at poets.org)

The poets grappled with the question, “How do you deal with people who don’t want to be attentive?” This is always the question of change and engagement. Rankine said the question should be reframed as, “How do we listen to each other? Everyone is backed into corners… We need relational living.” But Martín Espada countered, “Some people don’t want to listen and we are engaged in a great power struggle.” Katha Pollitt said, “Relating on a human level, we don’t know how to talk about our differences” and Juan Felipe Herrera reminded everyone that sometimes we simply feel helpless, we don’t know what to do. His hope was that “the intimate nature of a poem opens up the possibility to hearing and seeing things in a new light.” But, as we can see with the 2016 presidential election, we are all struggling under the disenchantment of politics and statements from someone I don’t even need to reference by name, as we all know who I mean: “It’s just words folks, it’s just words.” Since when did words not mean anything?

The overall theme of the Dodge Poetry Festival seemed to be everything connected with social justice. After three days I wasn’t sure if it was just my selection of sessions to participate in, or if that was indeed the umbrella that went over the entire festival. My husband accompanied me on the third evening, and first we had a great dinner at Casa Vasca in the Spanish Portuguese section of Newark (a restaurant I’ve been visiting for nearly 30 years) and then off we went to the festival. The evening was definitely the pièce de résistance with “Poetry like Bread: Poems of Social and Political Consciousness.” The title of the performance came from a poem by Roque Dalton, “Like You”: “I believe the world is beautiful and poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”

Tim Seibles at the podium

Tim Seibles

It was an incredible lineup of 10 heavy-hitter poets: Mahogany L. Brown, Marilyn Chin, Robert Hass, Martin Espada, Juan Felipe Herrara, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, Vijay Seshadi, Gary Snyder and Tim Seibles and the music of Jamila Woods and the three Parkington Sisters. Claudia Rankine was there in spirit with a video essay collaboration with her filmmaker husband John Lucas, “Situation 8,” about the spate of US police shootings — a haunting hybrid of poetry and original footage as well as victim evidenced YouTube videos. The evening was supposed to run for two hours, but went to three. The poets simply got up in varied order, I imagine sequentially done for the purpose of smooth storytelling, although it wasn’t immediately obvious. Despite being a fidgeter with a short attention span, I didn’t even think about leaving my seat or doing more than listen — glued to every WORD. One poem after the other was necessary to hear. Some poets weren’t as good readers as others, but the WORDS! Oh the words. Often I watched the words form and move on the closed caption system, happy I could hear and SEE them.

Thirty years ago,
your linen-gowned father stop
in the dayroom of the VA hospital,
grabbing at the plastic
identification bracelet
marked Negro,
shouting I’m not!
Take it off!
I’m Other!
Martín Espada, “From an Island You Cannot Name” (Alabanza)

The poetry soared through the night with an urgency my soul truly needed. The subjects included the environment, citizenry, pop culture, memory, the economy, immigration, police and race, weapons and guns, war, and love. I sat there thinking how nourished I felt, but at the same time ashamed of our country’s politics in the recent aftermath of the presidential debates. Few if any of these same topics have even come to bare with the election only a few weeks away. It seems to me these poet’s WORDS are exactly the issues many people have been wanting to hear discussed, along with solutions.

Let us celebrate the lives of all
As we reflect & pray & meditate on their brutal deaths
Let us celebrate those who marched at night who spoke of peace
& chanted Black Lives Matter
Let us celebrate the officers dressed in Blues ready to protect
Juan Felipe Herrera, “@ the Crossroads—A Sudden American Poem

Juan Felipe Herrara illustration with notes by attendee Jenny Linn Loveland.

Juan Felipe Herrara illustration with notes by attendee Jenny Linn Loveland.

During intermission I spoke with Michael Szewczyk, a kind and entertaining social studies/science teacher at Irvington High School whose arms, I couldn’t help but notice, had some fierce tattoos. He has been coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival every other year since 1996 when it was held at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, NJ. He waxed nostalgic about the early days, but I thought he would be able to shed some light on the fact that there was so much political discussion. I asked him if this year was different since it’s an election year and perhaps they curated the poetry to reflect the time, and he said, “yes and no.” He told me to watch Bill Moyers documentary, Fooling with Words. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter how they curated the poets for the time or the poetry performed. I think perhaps Lucille Clifton states it well in the Bill Moyer’s documentary:

oh pray that what we want
is worth this running,
pray that what we’re running
toward is what we want.

My first Dodge Poetry Festival makes me wonder why in hell I didn’t run there sooner. It was an incredible experience which I will not forget anytime soon. The books I brought home and the discussions I had will keep me satiated until 2018 when I know for sure I’ll be attending. Until then I will keep developing my own work in collaboration with others and just keep putting it out there. What comes of it I have no idea, but I am definitely on this journey for the long haul and looking forward to where it takes me.