Poet and educator Michael Z Murphy, Festival Assistant since 2000, is visiting for a couple of days. He's going to give us an insider's view of the Dodge Poetry Festival.
Michael was a longtime New Jersey inner-city school teacher. Now he's taken his many talents to the Garden State's Union County College. His hot-shot professor webpage is: http://faculty.ucc.edu/english-mmurphy/ Go, Michael!
AA: Michael, let’s begin with your history with the Dodge Foundation. You became involved with them as a teacher participating in the "Clearing the Spring/Tending the Fountain" poetry sessions for teachers. How did the Dodge Poetry Program affect your teaching? Your writing? MZM: I honestly don’t remember when my awareness of and connection to Dodge began, but I do remember the circumstances. I was in the office of the high school where I taught going through my mailbox when a colleague hand me one of her pieces of “junk mail” with the words, “You might be interested in this."
It was an invitation to enroll for a course called Clearing the Spring/Tending the Fountain. It was about poetry. It was for teachers. It was free. I signed up. About a month later I attended the first session with my first “real” poetry teacher Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and I was hooked. When the course ended 6 weeks later I stood up and invited anyone who was interested in continuing to do the same work at my home. From that class, a group called HillPoets was formed. We are still together, still reading, still critiquing. We have produced two group chapbooks of our work.
(Full disclosure, readers. I was one of the original HillPoets and in Gillan's class with Michael. Michael has remained a dear friend since my move to Maryland. The group reunites at the festival. Here are some of us -- we missed you, Jean! -- last week. Margaret Valentine on the left. Michael standing behind Mary Florio. Me on the right. Poets and educators all.)
MZM: Most noteworthy of my experience with Spring/Fountain is the miracle it wrought in my classes which were general English 9, 11 and subsequently 12. Instantly, I began using more metaphor and image in my lessons and so did the students. Their interest level rose; the disruption factor fell.
When it came to teaching any genre of writing and the appreciation of any genre of literature my toolbox of techniques overflowed with ideas that grew directly from that first course. I am now a professor of communication in the English Department of Union County College where my increased facility with language is a major help in showing students who to impress others with words. I have taken Spring/Fountain courses whenever my schedule would permit. The quality of my own writing has continued to grow and diversify. I am able to set new writing goals and reach them. The exposure to poets of international acclaim [through the Dodge Poetry Program] has sustained my energy and now serves as the major underpinning of my work in the college classroom and as a writer. AA: I missed Student Day this year. It’s one of my favorite days of the Festival. Can you describe what the energy is like when the main stage audience is several thousand high school students? How do the headline poets respond to having kids in their audience?
MZM: On Student Day the buzz in Waterloo Village is palpable. Even the trees seem more alert. The main tent is packed throughout the day as are the other event tents and the open readings that occur simultaneously.
I have greeted students from across the nation—the most distant was from Alaska. They had saved for a year to make the journey. The headline poets emphatically state how honored and thrilled they are to see such an intense interest among teens.
Just a few months before she died, Gwendolyn Brooks read on Student Day. One of my responsibilities and thrills that day was to escort her back stage and make sure she safely got to the stage. She was very tiny and frail and tentative in her steps. She was introduced and magic occurred. On a gorgeous fall day 3000 students fell silent.
Ms. Brooks seemed to grow until she was a tower of strength. Her voice was as deep and strong as it ever was. She regaled them with fascinating stories and read her own poetry. What amazed me is that of 3000 students that day I don’t think there was one who realized they and she were not of the same generation.
After the reading Ms. Brooks was in the signing tent to autograph books. Although the day was warm and the line seemed to be miles long she would not leave until the last student was satisfied. Eventually, she did accept a chair. It was an incredible experience.
AA: You work with teen poets, helping them prepare for the New Jersey High School Poetry Contest Winners Reading. What do you think it’s like for them, coming to this festival where they find peers who care about language/writing as intensely as they do?
MZM: There are 20 winners each year, so that makes 40 for each Festival. Although many have gone off to college they do their darnedest to get to the Festival. It means taking off from college classes in the first month, travelling in various way for various distances. They do it because it is such an honor and such an adrenaline rush for them. They are language lovers who value being in the company of their ilk.
AA: What’s your best “behind the scenes” story?
The first year I didn’t realize that high school and college students had timing issues. I trusted that they knew what three minutes was. Well, once on stage of the main tent, one after the other the students went over time. One young man gave a two-minute intro to a two-minute poem. The poetry was good but the back up into the next event was not.
A few years ago one of the winning poets was autistic marked by extreme communication difficulties. He could email brilliantly and his writing was WOW. His mother and I agreed that in his place I would share two of his poems. More significantly they both agreed that when I introduced his work I was to mention that he was autistic. We all hoped to bust the myth that autism equals retardation. He and his mother sat near the stage for the program and I finally met them after the reading. He carried an electronic device on which he typed a beautiful thank you.Are you a teacher in New Jersey? Do you love poetry? Lucky you! Find out more about the Dodge Poetry Program and the Spring/Fountain workshops for teachers, online.
See you tomorrow for the rest of the interview and an original poem from Michael.