April 12, 2016

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Poetry Outreach in New Jersey

Poet Khalil Murrell is Poetry-in-the-Schools Assistant for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which puts on the fabulous biennial poetry festival in northern NJ.
As part of his position at Dodge, Khalil does outreach to New Jersey's neediest school districts. Here is the final part of our interview.
KM: The Dodge Poetry Program’s interest in doing outreach in under served communities in urban and rural areas is simply to make our student and teacher-centered programs reflect the actual demographics here in the state [of NJ]. We have been curious as to how we can get the word out to students and teachers in such cities as Camden, Elizabeth, Paterson, and Vineland. Last year, we began meeting with Department Chairs in Newark to inform them of these programs and surveying teachers about how we may best reach other faculty members in their school and district. As a result of our outreach, we registered for Student Day a record number of high school students and high schools overall in Camden, my hometown. [Non-New Jerseyans, the city of Camden has been struggling for decades -- since its major manufacturer, Campbell’s Soup, left the area. The city was also Walt Whitman's last home. Whitman is pictured, left.] I have also received feedback from friends, poets reading at the Festival, and Festival attendees hugely applauding the growing diversity of the line-up, both in terms of cultural background and artistic style. AA: What’s your best “behind the scenes” Dodge Festival story?
KM: I try never to “geek out” over celebrities or famous poets. I was in line for lunch, chatting with a friend, when Robert Hass walked up behind us and joined the conversation, perfectly down to earth and kind, as he always is. He said, “Hi, I’m Bob.” I opened my mouth to speak but for 3 or 4 seconds nothing came out, and he’s looking at me, bright-eyed and smiling, until I finally retrieved my voice box to say, “Uh…uh…I know who you are. You’re Robert Hass.” (I’m guessing he’s probably known that for some years now.) He chuckled a little and patted me on the back. Afterwards, I was so embarrassed. AA: Which poets made an impression on you at this year’s festival? What did you like about their work?
KM: I loved how poets and poems spoke to each other throughout the 4 days. A great complement to Sharon Olds’s “Ode to Douche Bag” was Kevin Young’s great reading of “Ode to Pork” on Saturday night. It was a magical moment when he said, “Babe,” and the crowd took a second to catch the movie reference before laughing and applauding loudly. Having suggested we invite him to Festival, I was also looking forward to seeing Chris Abani. For me, Chris was the star in Stanhope, if there was one. He was so generous in conversation, so brilliant, yet humble, and so likable. He offered such fresh perspectives to the conversations and his readings were impressive.
AA: Chris Abani was a star. Great reader, personable. Even though some of his poems dealt with difficult subjects, Abani's humor and optimism drew in the audience.
Thanks for your insights, Khalil!
I wish I had time to share more about the festival. Never did get to my critique of the Borders Book Tent. Never told you about Robert Hass comparing being U.S. Poet Laureate to Monty Python's Encyclopedia Salesman sketch ("Can I interest you in a nice sestina?" Watch the original sketch here: ) But, it's time to stop dragging my heels and move on.
Hope to see you at the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival, y'all.

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