Celebrating a New Tradition: the Newark High School Poetry Festival

We are so grateful to the city of Newark and the communities that live and work there for welcoming the Dodge Poetry Festival with warmth, kindness and absolute love for poetry when we host our Festival in the downtown arts district every other year. We want to make sure to offer a Dodge Poetry experience for Newark students every fall, not just when the national Festival is in town. That’s why we created the biennial Newark High School Poetry Festival in October 2017, and we were so happy to host the second one last month, on October 24, 2019, at the Rutgers-Newark Paul Robeson Student Center.

About 500 students and teachers from every public high school in Newark attended the festival, thanks to the diligent work of Margaret El, Director of Visual & Performing Arts for the Newark Public School District, who is always the ultimate champion for making sure Newark students get to the Dodge Poetry Festival and experience poetry (and all of the arts) in a deeply meaningful way.

Poets Nicole Homer, Mia X and Naomi Extra talk about "Poetry and Herstory." Photo by Marisa Benson.

Poets Nicole Homer, Mia X and Naomi Extra talk about “Poetry and Herstory.” Photo by Marisa Benson.

Throughout the day, students moved among spaces in the Paul Robeson Center for a variety of different poetry experiences, with sessions led by an outstanding lineup of poets, most of whom have a close personal connection to Newark, or even call the city home: Ana Portnoy Brimmer, Naomi Extra, Reg E. Gaines, Nicole Homer, Khalil Murrell, Vincent Toro, Joe Weil and Mia X.

When they first arrived in the morning, students were treated to a poetry and music jam between poets and saxophonist Irwin Hall. Then the students broke out into smaller sessions—some sessions featured several poets reading poems, conversing and addressing questions about a topic (like politics, the art of storytelling, or “herstory”), while others joined a single poet to learn more about that poet’s life. Still others journeyed to the Dance Theater for a performance workshop. Every group experienced three different sessions, giving them the chance to meet different poets and connect with poetry in different ways. The poets told us at lunchtime that they were blown away by the students’ thoughtful questions and expressed how deeply moved they were by their interactions.

Poets Ana Portnoy Brimmer and Vincent Toro. Photo by Marisa Benson.

Poets Ana Portnoy Brimmer and Vincent Toro. Photo by Marisa Benson.

We want to give a huge thank you to Rutgers-Newark for donating the space for the day, to Sonam Shah, her excellent staff and the lovely NJPAC volunteers for making sure everything ran smoothly—and for being so pleasant throughout it all, no matter what challenges arose.

And of course, thank you to the poets, the teachers and the students for bringing their open hearts and minds, their love for poetry and stories, and their attentiveness to the art and each other. We’re so happy to have started this tradition and look forward to many more.

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