When I first started taking my writing seriously, I saw the Bill Moyer’s special on the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, The Language of Life. I remember seeing the rain and hearing the patter of the water on the canvas of the white tents . . . seeing water roll off the corners. I also remember seeing lots of poets who I was just starting to read and seeing people, smiling, with armloads of poetry books waiting in line to get their copies signed. For many years since then, I continued to hope that I would find the opportunity to participate in such a gathering as an audience member. And when I received the invitation to participate in the 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I couldn’t believe it. I remember reading the e-mail from Martin Farawell over and over again. I was thrilled.
So when I arrived in Newark, NJ a day before the festival launch, I knew that I was going to have trouble sleeping. There’s something about the energy of the Festival . . . the adrenaline rush, the thrill . . . that superseded my conscious need for a good night’s rest. And unfortunately, I had brought with me a slight cold that would only grow over the next few days and nights.
I hit the ground running. I met up with some of my old friends who were also Festival Poets: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rigoberto Gonzàlez, Tyehimba Jess, and Santee Frazier, and we had dinner. I couldn’t help but look around the dining facilities and marvel at all the poets I admired who were participating: Sharon Olds, Kwame Dawes, Bob Hicok, Dorrianne Laux, and a host of others. We were in the same tent that housed all the poetry books, and I couldn’t help but remember The Language of Life video that I had seen years before.
What became abundantly clear to me while I was chatting, dining, book browsing, and people watching was that there was no way I was going to be able to sleep at all during the weekend. I wanted to see and experience everything. We quickly went from the dining area to New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) for the Festival launch and Poetry Sampler. NJPAC’s Prudential Hall is an astoundingly gorgeous place to hear a poetry reading and I couldn’t help but look around in wonder. I got to hear poets whom I had never heard read before—MartÍn Espada, Amiri Baraka, and many others. Meanwhile the scratch in my throat was beginning to make me slightly hoarse from all the talking and carousing.
I could go on and on and give you the play-by-play of what happened during the Dodge Poetry Festival, but here are the highlights for me. The best audience for a poetry reading that I have ever experienced is the audience during the Dodge Poetry Festival’s High School Student Day. Busloads and busloads of students from surrounding towns, counties, and states came to Newark to listen to poets read and talk about poetry. I had a wonderful tandem reading with poets whose work was new to me: Michael Cirelli, an exquisite and spirited reader; and Dunya Mikhail whose harrowing poetry provided the audience with a palpable understanding of how dangerous being a writer can be. I watched these poets read from the backstage wing of the theater and could see that there was not a single empty seat. The audience packed the auditorium, some of them having to stand in the back. I could also see how rapt the audience was in the readings by these poets. The air was definitely charged. I could feel the current rise from my feet to my shiny, bald head.
Later that day, I held a Poets on Poetry discussion with a group of fun-loving high school students at Peddie Baptist Church. I read a few poems, but mostly I talked about what it was like to be a writer and what it was like to do what I do. I think this was the particular moment that consolidated my early experience as a beginning poet watching the Bill Moyer’s special to being an active participant. I treated the talk as if I were talking to my younger self who had wanted so badly to become a writer. I looked around the church. The sunlight was flooding the pews with the colors from the stained glass windows. Everywhere I looked, someone was touched by the color of the glass. It was a marvelous venue for an intimate talk about what I do and what I love.
I did a lot of spirited talking and reading on High School Student Day. I was having such a great time that when I woke up the next morning, I realized that I had lost my voice. I had laryngitis. Unfortunately, I was to be a part of the Main Stage Reading in the evening at the NJPAC. There are all sorts of anxiety dreams that public speakers have: the naked dream, the heckler dream . . . this was the laryngitis dream. I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to read for much of the day, but all the participating festival poets, old friends and new, as well as many audience members showed me great support. I can’t tell you how many people offered throat lozenges, cough drops, and an assortment of throat remedies. I managed to read my poems and get a hug from Sharon Olds that evening (another highlight). After, Matthew Dickman made me a Hot Toddy to help soothe my throat.
Despite my cold and despite my laryngitis, participating in The Dodge Poetry Festival as both a Festival Poet and a poetry lover is one of the highlights of my life. Much like the Bill Moyer’s feature on the Festival, I saw happy people carrying armloads of books. I saw poets chatting with audience members, signing autographs, and having lunch together. I drank my first Hot Toddy. I reconnected with old friends and made new ones. The literary community that assembles at the festival is so profoundly generous in spirit and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. While my long-time hope of attending The Dodge Poetry Festival was met, I have a new set of hopes—I hope can attend again and again. Only when I do, I’ll leave my cold behind.
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