Poetry Fridays: Giving Voice with Leadership New Jersey and Leadership Newark

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

May 13, 2011

The Dodge Poetry Festival, the four PBS series’ on poetry hosted by Bill Moyers (all of which featured extensive footage from the Dodge Festival), the Favorite Poem Project and the poetry slams and open mikes that have sprung up across the country have all been part of a wave of events over the last several decades that have created greater public awareness of poetry’s important place in our lives.  They debunked the myth that poetry was an elitist art limited to specialists and academics, and proved there is an extensive community (though often underground) that cares deeply about poetry.

Another event that helped further debunk this myth was the Giving Voice session at this year’s two-day Arts Seminar for Leadership New Jersey and Leadership Newark, held at Newark Symphony Hall and NJPAC on May 10th and 11th.  These two organizations are made up of leaders from every sector: finance, social services, arts administration, marketing, real estate, education, media, health, engineering, insurance and government to name a few, and they all have a commitment to their communities.

(Leadership NJ Class of 2011)

Giving Voice is a familiar title and activity for the thousands of New Jersey teachers who have participated in Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain, Dodge’s poetry discussion groups designed specifically for them.  But this was the first time we offered this experience to a large group of professionals, most of whom worked outside of education.

I joined five Dodge Poets—Robert Carnevale, Catherine Doty, Madeline Tiger, BJ Ward and Gretna Wilkinson—in leading these sessions.  We were all excited and a little intimidated by the thought of leading groups that were not made up entirely of teachers.  We soon learned that some participants were far more apprehensive than we were.  One participant confessed he had dreaded the thought of participating in any activity that involved poetry.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has said that “high school is the place where poetry goes to die.”  Unfortunately, many of us were not lucky enough to have English teachers like those who participate in the Dodge Poetry Program, teachers passionate enough about poetry and their work to put their own personal time into deepening their connection to poetry and expand their reservoir of ways to share it with students.

But for many of us, our classroom encounters with poetry left us feeling alienated from it.  Perhaps because our failure to perceive in poems what our teacher could see with such apparent ease made us feel inadequate (forgetting he’d been reading and teaching the same texts for years or decades), we rejected poetry.  This is not unlike our response when we trip over a threshold and curse it: we attack what makes us feel clumsy or stupid.  Or, because our responses to poems were not acknowledged or validated, we dismissed poetry as just not for us.

But, as I wrote in the recent blog on Beginner’s Mind, there is nothing more natural, more essentially human, than for us to be drawn to poetry.  Even before we know a single word we are in love with creating rhythms with repeated speech sounds.  Baby-talk is full of rhyme, repetition, assonance and alliteration.  We grow up memorizing nursery rhymes, children’s poems and song lyrics.  In the aftermath of 9-11, newspaper editorial offices were swamped with poems, many from people who didn’t care if they were published.  They just needed someone to see the poems they had written.  On a very basic level, we all understand that for some experiences and emotions, only poetry will do.

Members of Leadership New Jersey and Leadership Newark had an opportunity, to re-experience this essential connection to poetry in their Giving Voice session on Tuesday.  Given a packet of diverse and engaging poems, they were asked to take some time to simply sit and read them. (A number of participants spoke of how much they treasured this rare opportunity to slow down for contemplation and reflection.)  Then they were asked to choose one poem they’d like to hear aloud right now, in this space, with this group, on this particular day.

Many years ago, at the Dodge Poetry Festival, Li-Young Lee paused in the middle of his main-stage reading to comment, “you can almost hear the listening,” the audience was so attentive.  The Giving Voice participants that afternoon honored each others’ offerings with that same quality of attentive listening.  No one was asked to explain the poems they chose, to analyze or interpret them.  Instead, we talked of our personal connections to them.  Afterwards, one Leadership New Jersey member said that over the past year he’d gotten to know his colleagues “in a business sense,” but this was the first time he felt “he’d really gotten to know them as people.”

As the day was wrapping up, all the Dodge Poets were filled with gratitude for the attentiveness and generosity of spirit they’d witnessed among the participants, and eager to introduce Giving Voice sessions to people from all walks of life.  The participant who’d confessed to dreading the activity all day?  He admitted, smiling warmly, “It really wasn’t all that bad.”

One participant said she found this experience so meditative and refreshing that she was going to take some time out of every day, even if only five minutes, to just sit quietly and read a poem or two.  We’ve probably all got a book somewhere in the house that contains some poems.  And there are plenty of sites on the web that feature poetry.  This weekend, between all the activities that fill the days, try giving yourself the gift of poetry, even for just a few moments.

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