The 14th biennial Dodge Poetry Festival returns to Newark

Thursday’s sunny skies and crisp autumn breeze set the tone for opening day of the largest poetry festival in North America. The Dodge Poetry Festival runs through Sunday, Oct. 14 at the glittering New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, N.J.

The biennial festival has made its home in a number of locations over the years, including bucolic Waterloo Village in Stanhope, N.J, where poetry lovers listened to eloquent readings and performances in tents throughout the four-day event.

Then there was the year the festival moved to the magnificent grounds at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, N.J, where poet Paul Muldoon and novelist Joyce Carol Oates spoke as rain pelted the tents. The downpour washed away so much of the grounds, Duke Farms realized it wasn’t prepared to handle future poetry festivals, with audiences up to 20,000.

In 2010 the festival moved to NJPAC, the largest performing arts center in the state. There is some logic to choosing this city for this event. Newark is birthplace of Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Philip Roth, Stephen Crane and C.K. Williams, among others. Baraka and Williams are featured poets at this year’s festival.

This year, the trip has been made more convenient by New Jersey Transit, which is offering $10 round-trip train fare to festival ticket holders. Light rail service transfers visitors from Newark Penn Station to the arts center in one stop.

Outside the center, festival attendees line up for Thai and Empanada Man food trucks. Once inside, you pick up your festival program, which includes maps (pdf) to the different venues: Victoria Theatre and Prudential Hall at NJPAC, and nearby, in the First Peddie Baptist Memorial Church and the New Jersey Historical Society. There are tables set up in the lobby promoting arts organization and activities in Newark, from Aljira Center for Contemporary Art (another festival venue) to Open Doors Studio Tours.

NJPAC’s main stage

I made it through a set of double doors, then another, and yet another – sound modifiers – to get inside the dark performance space. There I met Wendy Steginsky, who is here for several days with a group of poets who are serial students of Chris Bursk’s popular poetry class at Bucks County Community College.

As poetry educators, they are here “to see what we can learn to take back to teaching,” said Liz Rivers, who is promoting her organization Poetry Wits: Writers in the Schools. “Our mission is for kids to publish poetry and we offer free editorial service.”

While listening to poet Eduardo C. Corral speak, Steginsky makes a note in her journal: “Pick up a phrase and image, start with one and finish with the other.” Since it is a day for teachers, Jane Hirshfield reads poems to honor teachers. “A day is vast until noon, then it’s over…” she begins. “You can never find time, but you can lose it.” 

Later, in conversation, Hirshfield said she doesn’t write poetry with an audience in mind. “Poems are private investigations that tear the fabric of my being I then have to darn across,” she says. “The poem is a recalibration of the self and the heart. Only later do I revise it for you, the audience. Standing up and speaking before strangers is a great irony.” It gets harder and harder to hear people’s words these days. And words are so important in poetry.

Dodge Foundation Founding Executive Director Scott McVay hosted Hirshfield in the days before the festival at his home in Princeton, where Hirshfield performed with the Paul Winter Consort.

“From the beginning the festival was a four-day event with students, who had earned it, on Thursdays, teachers on Fridays, and the general public on Saturday and Sunday — but poetry wonks could come for all four days if they wished,” recounts McVay who, with his wife Hella, has not missed a day of the festival since its founding.

“Also, the festival was only the outward face of the Dodge Poetry initiative since equal effort was placed on encouraging and supporting teachers in the schools. We also put out poetry kits for high school English teachers across America.” The biggest change McVay observes, besides the move to Newark, is in the ethnic diversity, “which we strove for from the beginning.”

In Prudential Hall, there is captioning for the hearing impaired. Sometimes you might be savoring a word or passage, and not yet ready to catch the next words out of the poet’s mouth. The captioning helps. Colleen, the typist who is able to keep up with it all and spew it out at lightening speed, has been at this work for five festivals.

Visiting another venue

At the Baptist Church, poets Henri Cole, Gregory Orr and Arthur Sze are discussing “A Music of Pause.” “Poetry is a little symphony of words of which pause is a part, but it’s not all a poem can be,” said Cole. “It has to be emotional – fear or desperation. Emotion is the counterbalance to the music.” Orr said poetry emerged, for him, from traumatic silence – “Shame, terror, fear — people around me didn’t want to hear about suffering.” He relates the passage in Helen Keller’s biography when her discovery of language “takes her out of bewildering terror.”

During a break, you can buy a cup of chamomile tea, then think twice about the combination of sleep-inducing beverage and sitting in a plush chair in a darkened room. It’s OK, you don’t have to hear every word, and if you do doze off listening to poetry, you may wake up a poet. Poetry is best when read aloud, but it’s nice to savor the words in books, and festival organizers have put together an enormous store of poetry at NJPAC.

The Dodge Poetry Festival continues through Sunday. Tickets can be obtained at the festival’s website.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.