Inside the 15th Biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

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Fifteen poets kicked off the 15th Biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival Thursday morning with readings of their work at the first of 120 events planned at the four-day poetry celebration.

Prudential Hall at NJPAC was packed with hundreds of teachers and people passionate about poetry during the morning Poetry Sampler, the first of two that day. In addition to the samplers, poet readings and conversations, the day included special programming aimed at teaching poetry.

This is the sixth Dodge Poetry Festival Bill Goncalo, 52, of Fall River, Mass., has attended. The English teacher at Diman Regional High School says coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival is like “recharging my battery.”

“The paperwork, the curriculum, this gets me back to what I love about teaching,” Goncalo says. “This is the stuff that makes you whole.”

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One of the poets Goncalo came to see is legendary environmental poet Gary Snyder. Snyder joined poets Yusef Komunyakaa and Alice Oswald Thursday morning for a conversation titled “The Voice That Is Great.”

Snyder read his 13-word poem “A Dent in a Bucket” first, followed by several other short works.

“I love the way a long poem and a short poem are the same length,” Oswald said in response during the session. “They both have to be infinite.”

But it was a reading by poet Natalie Diaz during the morning sampler that sparked in Goncalo what he described as a “teardrop moment.”

In “Why I Hate Raisins” — what Diaz called an “ode to government food” — she describes growing up poor and eating a whole box of raisins that makes her sick. Her mother quiets her when she complains they cannot afford sandwiches, like the white kids she knows. Reflecting back on that memory as an adult, she realizes her mother went without any raisins that day.

“It caught me off guard,” Goncalo says. “I love that about poetry, that it can stir you.”

Madison High School English teacher Doug Oswin, 26, has been coming to the Festival since he was a student at Lenape Valley Regional High School.

“I love how mysterious poetry is. There’s a feeling that overwhelms me when I hear it performed that I can’t explain,” Oswin says.

Oswin said he just completed reading “Beowulf” with his students, calling the epic poem the “Jersey Shore” of the time.

“I like to connect poetry with what society needs,” Oswin said. “The students understand that, understand the value of poetry as essential to our being.”

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During an afternoon conversation with poets Richard Blanco, Sharon Olds and Stephen Kuusisto, an audience member asked about the confessional nature of poetry.

“I never feel exposed in my poetry,” Blanco said. “You develop a persona in your poems. It’s like someone that’s not you and you at the same time. … There’s something about looking at yourself as someone else that is a relief.”

Olds, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet known for her unflinching accounts of the human body, said she doesn’t consider herself a confessional poet.

“I see myself as a complaining poet,” she quipped. “There is something weird and wonderful about me that I’m not embarrassed. … Something happens when it’s art.”

A highlight of the day for Aevon Watts, 27, a West New York Middle School teacher, was a performance by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

“It was overwhelming — breathtaking,” Watts said. “It made you think of how life is an orchestra, everything moving together to make a sweet melody.”

Nancy Hind, 62, traveled from Long Beach, Ca., to attend the Dodge Poetry Festival, her first. She shared a plane with poet Brendan Constantine but didn’t know it until they retrieved their luggage at the airport.

“I was looking for poets. I thought the whole plane would be filled with people coming here, that’s how excited I am,” Hind said. “I saw (Brendan) wearing a tech-y T-shirt and a button that said ‘sub-human’ and asked if he was going to ‘The Festival.'”

Hind said the curriculum at her school does not include poetry, but she teaches it anyway.

“Our kids are afraid of words — of being wrong,” she said. “Poetry surprises them. They’ll write poems and I will help them edit out extra words and when they read it again, things connect. The looks on their faces, ‘I wrote that?’ it gets kids hooked.”

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During the evening Poetry Sampler, Chris Daggett, Dodge Foundation President & CEO, acknowledged the foundation’s Board of Trustees for their dedication to and “unbelievable” support of the Dodge Poetry Festival and welcomed Dodge Poetry Director Martin Farawell, who introduced each of the 25 poets.

One-by-one, poets took to the stage and performed short readings, some saying a few words about their craft or the energy of the festival.

“This room is packed and it is amazing that it’s filled with poetry readers,” Cathy Park Hong said before diving into her reading.

View more photos from the Thursday evening Poetry Sampler:

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For more information and live coverage of the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival, visit DodgePoetry.org, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter #DPF14 and Instagram. 

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