Poetry is not my comfort zone. It never fully clicked with me. I could read it and interpret it for class, but I rarely enjoyed it as a student. The exception was epic and narrative poetry that told stories, which is where I’m at home. So when I decided to attend the Dodge Poetry Festival this past week, well, I don’t know what I was thinking.
Actually, I do. I wanted a jolt, a kick in the pants to push me to both appreciate poetry better and use it in my classroom more. And what a jolt it was! Dodge brings in the best poets in the entire country for four days of readings and discussions. And part of what makes Dodge special is the both the diversity and level of the talent that is brought in.
The day began with a “sampler” of fifteen poets reading one or two of their poems. Of course not every poem clicked with me, but a few of them gave me visceral reactions. I actually jolted back in my seat at Brendan Constantine’s “Dementia, My Darling,” a poem imagining his mother’s mind unraveling with dementia. Saeed Jones and Rachel Wiley read pieces that also gut-punched me.
The first session I attended was a panel of four poets who were also actively teaching. This session had a mix of useful suggestions for engaging students with poetry, entertaining stories, and a few utterly impractical perspectives. By this I mean I was reminded how different teaching an undergraduate poetry workshop is from teaching general education 7th grade language arts. Simply telling students there are no rules and to do whatever they want might work with really, really advanced students, but not for squirrely 12 year olds.
Then I attended a panel on women in poetry. I was one of 5 or 6 men in a crowd of about 75. I was pretty uncomfortable, especially when the session began with Jan Beatty’s “Shooter,” a poem about shooting all the men who ever harmed her. But I think it’s okay to be uncomfortable. After women spent centuries being the object (rather than the subject) of dominant white male poetic culture, I think I can sit in a poetry reading for an hour and a quarter and feel marginalized. It was a good perspective-shifter.
Maybe the best session was with Robert Pinsky, who I saw back in 2004 or so when I was a college student. His advice was practical and honest for teachers, and his sense of fun and gravitas was perfectly balanced. . He also created the Favorite Poem Project, a site of videos with people reading their favorite poems aloud.
The final reading was by Yusef Komunyakaa. He is a brilliant poet who thinks about poetry and sound a lot. As far as being able to use his advice in the classroom, well, it was all rather abstract. A lot of “I think of sound…and tone… and beauty” type commentary. Still, it was a pleasure to sit two rows from one of America’s preeminent poets and hear him read.
The Dodge Poetry Festival only happens once every two years. It brings some of America’s most beautiful words to the heart of Newark, one of America’s ugliest places. I hope to go again in 2016, and in the meantime, become better engaged with poetry.