It’s often called the Woodstock of poetry festivals.
The Dodge Poetry Festival – the largest poetry event in North America – will bring the rock stars of the art form to Newark Oct. 23 to 26. Former U.S. Poet Laureates Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove will read from their work and engage in public conversations about the medium, as will former New York State Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize Winner Sharon Olds; 2013 U.S. inaugural poet Richard Blanco; Pulitzer Prize winners Yusef Komunyakaa, Claudia Emerson and Gary Snyder; and 65 others.
This is the 15th biannual festival, and the third time it will take place in Newark, where 120 readings over four days will be within walking distance of each other (map).The main stage is at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center – the largest performing arts center in the state — and additional stages will be set up at the Newark Museum, the New Jersey Historical Society, Aljira Center for Contemporary Art, and the First Peddie Baptist Memorial Church.
Since it’s beginning in 1986, the festival has attempted to bring together diverse voices. Formerly held at Waterloo Village, a restored 19th-century village in Stanhope, the festival could only be reached by car, but Newark is at the hub of all bus and train lines in the Northeast – and attendees do come from all over the world. The festival is 20 minutes from Manhattan and one hour from Philadelphia.
Newark is the birthplace of poets Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Philip Roth, Stephen Crane and C.K. Williams. Even its mayor, Ras Baraka (son of Amiri Baraka), is a poet.
This year’s festival will include a tribute to Amiri Baraka, who died in January. Baraka was a featured poet at the festival throughout its history. Formerly known as LeRoi Jones, he helped forge a community in Newark’s Central Ward between artists, playwrights, musicians and members of the Black Power movement.
A founder of the Black Arts Literary Movement and the last Poet Laureate of New Jersey (the position was abolished after Baraka read his controversial poem, “Somebody Blew up America,” at the festival in 2002), Baraka “nurtured artists and is considered a godfather to (the Newark arts) community,” says Martin Farawell, director of the Dodge Poetry Program.
For the tribute, “we’ll get his poems back in the air through the voices of people to whom it has mattered and who have been influenced by him,” says Farawell, who has held his post since 2009; before that he was associate director. Also, Gary Snyder, who was published by Baraka, will be among those to read his work.
Farawell – he has attended every festival since its inception – believes poetry is undergoing a renaissance. “If you look through the out and about section of any newspaper, you’ll see open mikes and readings everywhere, even in small towns like Milford, where I live. That wasn’t true 30 years ago.”
He says there are more poetry magazines and books and four times as many MFA programs in poetry than a few decades ago. “Spoken word poetry has taken off, and there’s so much vibrant, brave, quirky and brilliant stuff out there.” So much so, he has a tough job weeding through all the talented poets to choose the lucky few who read at the festival.
And the renaissance is not just among adults. “In high schools we see teen slams, poetry jams and poetry cafes,” says Farawell. “When I was in high school, people on the literary magazine were on the fringe. Now it’s really cool. It’s an antidote to social media, smart phones, computer games, Netflix and TV – the renaissance is happening because people are missing a connection. Through poetry, when one human being shares their innermost thoughts, it forges a bond that young people hunger for.”
What about Newark’s renaissance? Is the poetry festival a contributing factor? “I don’t want to be grandiose,” says Farawell, “but it’s part of the excitement. People come to Newark for the first time, they see a world class symphony space, cathedrals that make your jaw drop, and the Newark Museum which has the largest collection of Tibetan Buddhist art.” Farawell says the Dodge Foundation conducts surveys of those who come to the festival to learn whether they will return to Newark, and the response is “overwhelmingly positive.”
Up to 19,000 people come to hear the poets read aloud for just that reason – to hear them read aloud. “Poems were meant to be read aloud – it’s been both an oral and an aural tradition for millennia. When poets put it out into the air, people are moved by the shape, texture and melody, and by being present with the writer,” says Farawell. “People who have never heard poetry read aloud — their only experience is having studied it in school – tell us how emotional an experience it is to have direct communication between speaker and audience.
“As we see a live human being speak the words they have struggled to put together, to tell their perspective so the audience can enter their way of thinking — they may be articulating sorrow or joy in a way you share but cannot find the words for – that’s the excitement of the communal experience, like really powerful theater.”
It is often said that more people write poetry than read it, but Farawell says that’s not true. “Not that many people announce themselves as poetry readers, but at critical times – weddings, christenings, funerals, 9/11 – people turn to poetry. They may not buy poetry books very week, but when they don’t have words, they turn to poetry.”
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.