April 12, 2016

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Freelance Flashback: Dodge Festival at Waterloo Village

Until 1999, I had lived in northern New Jersey all my life. While there, I taught high school English. I was just one month into the first real work experience of my life when my supervisor asked me to chaperone a field trip. Another teacher's creative writing class was going to the Dodge Poetry Festival.

I'd been to the first in 1986 as a high school senior. (Some memories of that festival are in this post.) I had no idea that the festivals had continued, every other year, while I was in college and graduate school. After taking students to Dodge, I went to every festival. I called the Dodge office to volunteer and ended up with a paying summer job as a festival assistant, working at the event.
The big festival tent at Dodge's original location,
Waterloo Village. From The Star Ledger.

When we moved to Maryland, I recommended a friend for my Dodge position. I was sad to let it go. But soon, I was freelancing for the Baltimore Sun. I convinced an editor to let me cover the festival in 2002. Why should the Sun cover it? Because Lucille Clifton, who lived in Maryland, was a headliner.

Here is my 2002 article on the Dodge Poetry Festival, as it appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn

Every two years, poetry lovers quietly gather in New Jersey to celebrate the magic of words

Postcard: Poetry Central

September 29, 2002|| By Laura Shovan,Special to the Sun
After four hours of driving, I turn off the highway into the Skylands region of northern New Jersey. The two-lane road is wooded. Breaks in the trees offer glimpses of unfarmed fields and quiet ponds. At 6 p.m., the parking lot of Historic Waterloo Village is still crowded.

The last of several school groups are loading teen-agers onto buses. Though they've been here since early this morning, students from the Milwaukee High School of the Arts in Wisconsin are debating about who gets to stay for the evening concert. The kids are exhausted, but want to see and hear more. Their enthusiasm is not for pop artists or even classical musicians. At this event, the main attraction is poetry; the stars are poets.

This historic New Jersey village is home to the biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a four-day event billed as the largest poetry festival in North America.
One of the beautiful scenes at Waterloo Village, from
New Jersey Leisure Guide.
Students, teachers and the general public -- a crowd 15,000 strong -- come here every other year not only to enjoy the spoken word, but also to meet and chat with poets famous and unknown. It's not unusual to bump into old friends. Such reunions give the event a homey atmosphere, despite the large crowds.

The first two days, while open to the general public, are designated for students and teachers. Over 6,500 of them are attending free of charge. The tab is picked up by the Geraldine R. (as in Rockefeller) Dodge Foundation. The foundation is known for its generosity to the arts, particularly in New Jersey, where festival director Jim Haba also spearheads a poetry outreach program in the schools.

It is a short walk from the parking lot to the village entrance, but passing through a tunnel of trees and emerging out of sight of the cars is like entering a world apart. Waterloo's restored historic buildings and centuries-old canal intermingle with tents, large and small, where the poets read.

The enormous concert tent houses the evening events. Poets Marie Howe, Marilyn Nelson, Gerald Stern and Lucille Clifton each read for half an hour. Each "set" is punctuated by live music.

Clifton, a Maryland resident and one-time state poet laureate, has been a "Featured Poet" at every festival but the first, in 1986. She says the festival draws so many people "because poetry speaks to something in us that so wants to be filled. It speaks to the great hunger of the soul. ... I think that this [event] feeds that."

Clifton reading at the Dodge Festival.
More than 65 poets would participate this year. Top billing went to the five U.S. poets laureate from 1993 to present: Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz and Billy Collins, whose term ends next year. It's also a festival tradition to include international poets. Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali and Adam Zagajewski of Poland were among this year's featured poets.

Community in poetry

Despite the all-star lineup, Haba says, this is not a gathering of the poetry "in crowd." JC Todd, a poet and translator, said, "When you come to the Dodge, you see those barriers are completely permeable." The poets become real people. Poetry becomes something that everyone can participate in -- a community event.

In the first morning session, Ali is reading with his translator in a small tent near a willow-lined stream. Ali is charming and grandfatherly, with a deep, gravelly voice. It's a wonder to hear him read his poems in Arabic and then watch him as translator Peter Cole reads in English. He plays the role of conductor -- gesturing, smiling and nodding the poem along. [BTW -- This is one of my all-time favorite Dodge Festival moments, Taha Ali reading his poem, "Revenge."]

Between sessions, attendees are serenaded by Yarina, a group of musicians from Ecuador. A festival mainstay, these brothers play traditional Andean music on panpipe, guitar and drum, literally dancing around Waterloo Village.

The job of nurturing the event's celebratory atmosphere -- music, location, even the carefully chosen concessions -- belongs to Haba. "This is really a whole person experience," Haba said. "What the festival has the luxury of doing is imagining the whole person and trying to provide for it." Attention is even paid to how often the bathrooms are cleaned. He wants people to remember the poetry, not bland food or dirty toilets.

At lunch, poetry lovers choose from among a dozen food stands. At picnic tables near a waterfall, they discuss the poetry heard that morning.

Michael Murphy, who teaches at an urban New Jersey middle school, finds the setting idyllic.

"It's very hard to find silence anywhere [in daily life] and the setting, of course, is perfect for augmenting that. There is space for quiet conversations. You lean on a tree, you listen to the wind and you go back and you listen to a poet."
This church was one of the reading venues.

Veterans of the event often have great festival stories. Margaret Valentine, a New Jersey high school teacher, describes walking with poet W.S. Merwin at the 2000 festival. Just as he signed her book, she says, "Behind us there was this hole in the ground where these baby turtles about walnut size started coming out of the ground." The newly hatched turtles were rescued and brought to the pond.
Valentine points out that those who rush around trying to see everything miss the heart of the festival. It is better, she says, "letting the whole place happen to you. It's kind of a gluttony of words. It's just such a wonderful, freeing experience." And moments shared between poets and poetry lovers are part of what makes the Dodge festival unique.

Erma Terrezza, serving lunch at one of the food stands, Big Joe's Deep Fried Turkeys, has found herself caught up in the spirit of the event. "The atmosphere is beautiful," she said. "I was just amazed that everyone comes from all over and they're so excited." Terrezza says she plans to take time off from her turkey to hear Billy Collins read. And she will return to the next festival, she says, whether or not Big Joe's is back.

Some insider notes:

2002 was probably the most scandalous of the Dodge festivals. Headliner Amiri Baraka read a poem that got him booted from his post as New Jersey poet laureate. The state has not had a poet laureate since. (A brief article about the controversy.)

Jim Haba retired before the 2010 festival. Poet Martin Farawell became the director of Dodge's Poetry Program. When Waterloo Village closed under dubious circumstances, several cities bid to host the poetry festival. It made its urban debut, in Newark, NJ in 2010 and was held there again this October. 

You may recognize this Dodge venue from TV --
it's used for America's Got Talent.

Thanks to several of my friends who have cameos in this article: poets and educators JC Todd, Michael Z Murphy and Margaret Valentine.

Also, thanks to poet Irene Latham who, unanimously and all by herself, voted for this piece as the next Freelance Flashback.

If you'd like to vote on the next Freelance Flashback post, leave a comment. The choices are:
  • Elementary School Handbell Choir
  • Student Chess Tournament
  • University of Maryland's Working Farm


Pat Valdata said...


Thank you for posting this article. I was at that festival and and I have attended it many other years. Thanks also for posting that video clip--that was the most moving poetry reading I ever experienced at the Dodge.

Too bad we never met while we both lived in New Jersey! I am glad to know you now that we are both in Maryland.

Pat Valdata

Author Amok said...

Hi, Pat. Thanks for the comment. I was there for the Baraka reading too and remember the gasp in the crowd. I think the Sun editors were annoyed that I filed this "postcard" and missed the controversial story. But now we have this slice of what the festival was like and I'm grateful for that.

Diane Mayr said...

Thanks for this post about the Festival. I've only been to the last two, but I'm already looking forward to attending as many as my old bones will allow. (I'm 63--in my youth I never thought I'd get even this far!)