Dodge Poetry Festival: A multitude of masters

RICHARD BLANCO

RICHARD BLANCO

“I don’t consider a poem done until this happens,” said Richard Blanco, Thursday, making a vague gesture with his hands to signify the “this,” but clearly meaning: until the poem is read in a public setting. Until the words travel from his mouth to the ears of living, breathing poetry lovers, listening attentively.

There will be a whole lot of “this” happening through Sunday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and other Newark venues, as the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival — a biennial event that constitutes the largest poetry event in North America — completes its four-day run. For all the festival information, visit dodgepoetry.org.

Thursday’s events started out with something akin to a musical jam session: A “Poetry Sampler” at NJPAC’s largest performance space, Prudential Hall. Fifteen of the festival’s 70 featured poets — some dressed casually in T-shirts or sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers — read for five or six minutes apiece. Highlights included Blanco, who read at President Obama’s second inauguration, warmly inhabiting his “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” about a childhood vacation seen through the eyes of experience; Pulitzer Prize winner Sharon Olds reciting an rapturous ode to a part of her body that doesn’t usually get odes written to it; and Rachel Wiley working up a head of steam as she challenged societal prejudices against plus-size women in her angry but funny “Gorgon.”

“Mr. Lagerfeld/Is it so much easier to make us monsters/Than to simply make us dresses?” she asked, referring to fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

The format of the Sampler underscored the fact that poetry reading is a performance art. While a few poets read their words with little affect, most had figured out ways to maximize their dramatic impact. Olds, for instance, smiled sweetly as she said mildly shocking things; Saeed Jones, a former teacher at North Star Academy in Newark (which is hosting some festival events), was a more stentorian orator, letting each word resonate. It was good that the poets read in alphabetical order, as that meant Wiley, the morning’s dramatic show-stopper, went last.

I also attended two of the smaller sessions at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater. The first featured readings and conversations on the subject of “The Voice That Is Great Within Us,” with Gary Snyder, Alice Oswald and Yusef Komunyakaa; the second offered more brief readings and a question-and-answer session with Blanco, Olds and Stephen Kuusisto.

Not surprisingly, these master poets were eloquent even when they were answering basic questions about their craft, or tossing ideas around. I loved that Komunyakaa described his approach to poetry as “innuendo, insinuation … something akin to the blues,” and that Olds said “I don’t see myself as a confessional poet. I see myself as a complaining poet.”

I was particularly looking forward to seeing Snyder. As a teenager in the ’70s, I discovered the Beat writers, and they really changed my outlook on life. Snyder was not only part of that movement, but the main character of my favorite Jack Kerouac novel, “The Dharma Bums,” was based on him. Now 84, he didn’t disappoint, projecting a sense of Zen calm and sharing his wisdom with wry bemusement. Quoting the haiku poet Yosa Buson, he said the most important thing for a poet is to remain unprepared for writing poetry.

Coming up at the festival, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove and Billy Collins will be among those reading and speaking, and there will be a tribute to the late Newark poet Amiri Baraka, Sunday at noon. Among the conversation topics, Friday through Sunday, are “From Homer to Hip Hop/Poetry and the Oral Tradition,” “Present Imperfect: Poets on Poetry and Disability,” “Poetics of War: Writing the Military Experience,” “Poetry and Working Life,” “Poetry and Music” and “Poetry and Pride.”

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