copyright (c) 1991 by Robert Kendall and Poets & Writers, Inc.
The restored village-turned-museum of Waterloo has a certain magical charm about it any
time of year, with its majestic Victorian houses, working grist mill, blacksmith's shop,
and other venerable buildings nestled in an idyllic lakeside setting in rural New Jersey.
But every other autumn I suspect the influence of some higher sorcery upon this preserve
of nineteenth-century life. That's when poetry undergoes a rather astonishing
transformation here, as the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival moves in.
Everyone knows that in real life, poetry is an underprivileged art form that scarcely
attracts notice. Yet the three days of poetic festivities at Waterloo last September drew
5,000 people, including television crews and 2,600 eager (yes, that's the right word) high
From early each morning until about ten o'clock at night, the third biennial Dodge
Festival swept me and the host of other participants along in a grueling but exhilarating
marathon of poetry activity. The fare included readings, panel discussions, and talks by
over 40 poets (among them some of the biggest names in American poetry), as well as other
activities such as traditional storytelling. The first two days also included enough
offerings specifically for high school students and teachers to constitute a veritable
festival within a festival--the culmination of year-round efforts by the sponsoring
Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to give poetry a place in our schools.
Outdoor settings for many events, along with music, food, and a strolling theater
troupe, gave the whole affair the character of a bona fide festival rather than just
another writers' conference. This undoubtedly helped account for its wide attraction,
which extended beyond the usual reading-circuit crowd. Such broad public appeal bespeaks a
certain success in bringing poetry "back to the center of people's lives," a
primary festival goal according to Scott McVay, executive director of the Dodge
Another measure of the festival's wide-ranging impact is the inclusion of the 1988
Dodge Festival in two episodes of the Emmy-winning PBS series "Moyers: The Power of
the Word," hosted by Bill Moyers. This series brought contemporary poetry to 12
million TV viewers in 1989. A second "Power of the Word" series, now in the
making, will include segments from last year's festival.
Each morning I arrived at Waterloo to find groups of poetry lovers sprouting up in and
around the historic buildings. Most were listening to prominent poets, such as Maxine
Kumin and Richard Wilbur, deliver talks about their chosen art form. Some of the
festival's high school contingent were engaged in workshops scattered over the grounds.
The village gazebo hosted all-day marathon readings of three writers from different
corners of the poetry world: seventeenth-century haiku master Basho, Countee Cullen, and
Elizabeth Bishop. To underscore the shared, oral nature of poetry, festival goers were
encouraged to take part in these. Making poetry a participatory as well as a spectator art
is one way festival organizer James Haba hoped to accomplish his main objective: getting
poetry off the page.
For me, one of the most revealing moments of the festival came the morning I sauntered
into Waterloo's old church while Quincy Troupe was speaking about poetry. The size of the
crowd made it difficult even to find a place to stand. What I found so striking was the
rapt attention of the audience as it hung on the poet's every word--striking because the
listeners were all high school kids.
The scene belied the conventional wisdom that pronounces today's teenager incapable of
serious interest in anything that doesn't come by way of a channel changer. Granted, it
was the rap-like rhythms of Troupe's work and his renegade personality that seemed to
captivate the adolescents, making him, I was told, the perennial favorite of the
festival's high school set. But his topic that morning was pretty serious stuff. After
reading his brutal portrayal of a life of violence, "River Town Packin House
Blues," he discussed his hope that putting violence in front of people in all its
ugliness could deter them from it.
I encountered the same enthusiasm and seriousness among the students when I
eavesdropped on a few of their morning workshops, stirring in me a hope that there may be
a future for poetry in this country after all. These outdoor gatherings clearly gave the
participants a taste of how poetry could converge with and illuminate the central concerns
of their lives.
Another surprise was the respectable level of accomplishment some of the students
revealed in their finished work (it made me shudder to think of my own writing at that
age). I had a chance to hear some of the best when twelve winners of the statewide New
Jersey High School Poetry Contest took the stage to read. The reading was given added
weight by such eminent figures as Howard Nemerov, Lucille Clifton, and Maxine Kumin, who
shared the bill with the students.
The pace accelerated each afternoon to a bustle of panel discussions, readings by local
poets, and open readings for students. There were also sessions by storyteller Susan
Danoff in the village's reconstructed carriage barn. With simple eloquence, she spun
retellings of ingenious tales from a variety of folk traditions. It wasn't poetry, but I
heard no complaints from the members of her entranced audiences.
Since many afternoon events ran concurrently, I often found myself frustrated by what
could be called Waterloo's Prime Law of Simultaneity, which decrees that the things I'm
most interested in be scheduled at the same time. On the other hand, I was never bored; if
something turned out to be a disappointment, I could slip away to another event already
When poetry glut occasionally set in, many a scenic walk through the grounds beckoned.
Or I might browse in the festival bookstore or just seek out the company of other poetry
lovers, some from distant parts of the country.
The many public discussions presented a unique opportunity to hear renowned poetry
veterans talk about the ways they have coped with that disturbing social disability--being
a poet. And of course they covered related topics ranging from the meaning to the
mechanics of poetry.
I especially enjoyed the session pairing Philip Levine and Joyce Carol Oates. They
devoted their allotted time to fielding questions from a standing-room-only audience, and
Levine's razor wit particularly enlivened the responses. The subject matter ranged from
inspiration (which Levine defined as a condition "in which you are so totally
yourself you don't know who you are") and perspiration (Levine mentioned cases where
he thought that persistence would win out over raw talent in the comparative achievements
of poets) to the merits of replacing literary criticism with boxing matches between
At another session, Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, and Alicia Ostriker
joined forces to discuss women and poetry. They reminisced about the bad old days, Kumin
recalling having a poem rejected by the editor of a prestigious magazine because he
"had printed a woman last month." Yes, things were better now, they agreed, but
they lamented the gender discrimination they felt existed still even among some women
editors and critics (whom they dubbed "men in drag" for their indifference to
They also addressed the problems of juggling the demands of child-rearing and writing.
The best course of action: turn the problem into the solution. Use parenthood as a topic
for poetry. Ostriker pointed out that undoubtedly "nobody ever said to Dante, 'How
can you ever be a poet when you're so messed up by being in love with that Beatrice all
the time.'" That was his material.
Evenings at Waterloo were reserved for the festival's biggest drawing cards--readings
by the resident literary notables. Standing ovations aren't something I generally
associate with poetry readings, but at Waterloo, they became almost commonplace. Maybe
some extra excitement goes along with the unusual setting for the festival readings: a
huge tent, which prompted reader Jimmy Santiago Baca to joke about running away with the
For nearly four hours every evening I sat under the big top to enjoy the cavalcade of
poetry luminaries, punctuated by interludes of live music. The proceedings were often
inspirational and never short of educational. Even when the poetry didn't suit my taste,
it made for good listening, since festival organizer Haba selected readers as much for
their command of the podium as for the quality of their work.
Performance styles spanned the entire gamut and not an evening went by without a few
surprises. Jimmy Santiago Baca--one of those who brought the audience to its feet--sang,
shouted, and ranted his poetry. Richard Wilbur and Howard Nemerov offered subdued wit and
elegance. The black street rhythms of Quincy Troupe provided a marked contrast to the
rustic Waterloo setting.
Music played a prominent role in many of the presentations, reflecting Haba's desire to
restore the partnership of music and poetry that was fundamental to so many oral
traditions. Just how effective this partnership can be became apparent when Carolyn Kizer
and Lucille Clifton teamed up with the Paul Winter Consort for the grand finale of the
The Winter Consort--an unusual ensemble that mixes elements of jazz and Classical
music--has made accompanying poets something of a specialty, having worked with Gary
Snyder and Robert Bly at previous Dodge Festivals. This experience showed in a remarkably
polished performance, the music intertwining seamlessly with poems read by Clifton and
Kizer and bringing out subtle shifts of mood. It was the best performance of its kind I've
heard and prompted the most enthusiastic of the ovations given by the Waterloo audience.
Coleman Barks was among the other poets who brought music to the evening stage. After
reading his own work, Barks delivered his translation of Jelaluddin Rumi (a
thirteenth-century Persian mystical poet) to strains of acoustic guitar and bamboo flute,
reviving the spirit if not the actual sound of Persian tradition. These quirky,
consciousness-jarring poems proved so engaging that the audience demanded an encore.
More controversial were the folk-inspired musical efforts of Chilean poet Cecilia
Vicuņa. After a ceremonial introduction complete with drum and rattle, her chanting and
humming embellished both her reading in Spanish and Eliot Weinberger's reading of the
English versions. Whether one found the results haunting or merely theatrical, she
certainly provided an interesting solution to the problem of holding the attention of an
audience that doesn't understand a word of what's being said.
Joy Harjo took a different tack, attempting to fuse her poetry with her own saxophone
playing and the music of rock guitarist Keith Stoutenberg. For me, though, the results
merely underscored the prime danger of musicopoetic ventures: the music can all too easily
overpower the words.
Owing to a conscious effort on the part of festival organizers, the readings presented
a real patchwork of ethnic backgrounds. In addition to poets of black, Chicano, Native
American, South American, and Indonesian heritage, the Waterloo stage featured two of
China's most prominent poets in exile. Bei Dao and Duoduo read in their own language with
Eliot Weinberger and Allen Ginsberg reading translations.
The populist nature of the festival also mandated an emphasis on accessibility,
excluding "difficult" poets from the list of headliners. Haba confesses a
certain uneasiness about this exclusivity and hopes future festivals can encompass
more-experimental work, such as the "Language" poetry given brief exposure in
the first Dodge Festival of 1986. Maintaining broad popularity obviously has its price,
Most of us who stuck with the Dodge Festival for its entire three-day span felt both
uplifted and exhausted by the end. We'd consumed more than even the most avid poetry lover
can devour without some mental and emotional indigestion. After putting in a full
eight-hour day of poetry, keeping mind and spirit on the job for more readings each
evening required real self-discipline.
I confess that as I dragged my weary body and soul back to my car on the last evening,
I felt relieved that it was finally all over. But when the real world raised its head the
next day, I felt an odd hollowness--almost a feeling of exile. For I hadn't left just
another stop on the poetry circuit; I'd left an unlikely little kingdom where poetry ruled