The magnitude of having attended the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in my hometown of Newark at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) this past weekend is almost too overwhelming to talk about. It’s not a very Newark thing to say but I can’t believe that I shared the same air space with 50 or so major poets.
My daughter and I attended sessions on Saturday and at some points there were as many as 10 events going on at the same time. Choosing from among them was brutal and in many cases we had to take solace in the fact that we had watched the internet simulcast of the opening night (Thursday) readings by 24 of the poets, including Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, and Sharon Olds.
We went to a session on craft conducted by Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time US Poet Laureate. She talked about the genesis of her beautiful and devastating poem, Parsley. She said that the poet should write according to her/his natural rhythm. Her rhythm involves writing in fragments—not necessarily chronologically–and having the pieces coalesce into a whole over time. I marvel at how wonderfully that works for her. When I read a Dove poem, I am struck by a sense of completeness and rightness.
After her session, we went down to the stage to say hello and shake her hand. She could not have been more gracious and genuine.
I was thrilled to hear poets Nancy Morejón, Dunya Mikhail, Kwame Dawes, and Malena Mörling (from Cuba, Iraq, Ghana, and Sweden, respectively) talk about traversing the borders of language and culture. They related how learning the English language affected their writing, in some cases to the extent of changing how they express themselves in their native tongue. Dawes talked about the challenges of being a man writing in the voice of a woman. (We heard Dove talk about the process of writing in the voice of the opposite gender, as well.) Morejón had interesting thoughts on the art of translation. Hearing Mihkail and Morejón’s read their poems in their respective languages was pure ear candy; Mikhail’s work translated to English, lyrical and gorgeous.
Tyehimba Jess was part of a panel that talked about writing poetry about historical figures and events–about the process of capturing a long ago moment in time and imagining how a person must have felt in those circumstances. During this session, he read his tour de force of a poem about conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy that visually on the page looked like it was split in half except for the first line and ending couplet; it could be read from first line to last or from last line to first, or by reading only the right or the left half with the same richness of content and still was grammatical. Amazing.
Some strong poetry was read by Jericho Brown, Michael Cirelli, Tara Betts, and Marjorie Barnes during their session on poetry and spoken word. However, I was disappointed overall that the panel seemed to equivocate on the specifics of spoken word as it differs from so-called “literary” poetry. For my part, I think the world of poetry benefits from diversity. Spoken word is a legitimate poetry category worthy of serious analysis of origin, mechanics, and performance art techniques. I was glad, though, that the panel broached the topic of racial and cultural biases against spoken word as an art form.
Baraka Sele, poet and Assistant Vice President of Programming at NJPAC, moderated a conversation with Amiri Baraka. He was witty, wise, funny, down-to-earth, humble, and magnetic. In the time allotted, he only touched on his vast legacy.
He talked about the richness of arts scene is Newark as he was growing up. He talked about his history of challenging the status quo during his life, his friendship with James Baldwin, national and local politics, and his association with another Newark native, Allen Ginsberg. He said what brought the Beat poets together was their mission to challenge “academic” poetry, with its rigidity to form and meter and the insistence on “poetic” language as opposed to that used by everyday people. During the question/answer period, a young women—an English major in college–noted that although Baraka bucked against academic poetry at one time, she is studying his work in class. Sele noted that she, too, had studied Baraka’s work in school, and by a show of hands–mine and my daughter’s included–many of us in the audience had studied Baraka’s work in school. Baraka seemed surprised and not totally convinced.
For me, Amiri Baraka embodies what I love about my hometown–intelligence, creativity, honesty, and attitude. And for what it’s worth, nothing about his work at any point in his career is mainstream or safe, fortunately—if that were ever a concern.
© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2010.