On the upper level of the double-decker your brain flips through past experiences at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, home to the biennial festival from 1986 to 2006. You couldn’t take the train to Waterloo, but the fall foliage reflecting in ponds made a perfect setting. There, in tents, poetry lovers were transported as they listened for four days to the enlightened thinking expressed in eloquent language.
You recall the late evenings listening to the Paul Winter Consort, accompanied by Rumi translator and interpreter Coleman Barks; the workshop with U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.
Then there was the year the festival moved to the magnificent grounds at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, where you heard Paul Muldoon and Joyce Carol Oates as rain pelted the tents – a rain that washed away so much of the grounds, Duke Farms realized it wasn’t prepared to handle future poetry festivals, with audiences up to 20,000.
In 2010 the festival moved to NJPAC, itself attracting 7 million visitors a year. This is your first visit to the largest performing arts center in the state, opened in 1997 – and in fact your second visit to Newark, the third oldest city in the U.S. (not counting the times you transferred at Newark Penn Station). There you detrain, where your options are to walk or take the light rail.
You choose light rail because the signs are more apparent than any for a street exit. Across from the ticket machine is a tile mural and a larger-than-life bronze sculptural installation of an old-fashioned token booth and pedestrians going by.
One stop on the light rail and you’re at NJPAC, a sparkling gem of a building. Dr. and Mrs. Herbert A. Goldfarb, please know your named brick in the sea of many on the plaza has been noted. Festival attendees line up for Thai and the Empanada Man food trucks. Here you can feed gluten-free vegan poets for 8 bucks – just don’t expect a napkin.
Inside you pick up your festival program, which includes maps to the different venues: Victoria Theatre and Prudential Hall at NJPAC, and nearby, in the First Peddie Baptist Memorial Church and the New Jersey Historical Society. There are tables set up in the lobby promoting arts organization and activities in Newark, from Aljira Center for Contemporary Art (another festival venue) to Open Doors Studio Tours. With NJPAC as a catalyst, the city, under Newark Mayor Cory Booker, is revitalizing its center with a cultural district.
Newark is the birthplace of Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Philip Roth, Stephen Crane and C.K. Williams, among others. Baraka and Williams are featured poets at this year’s festival.
You walk through a set of double doors, then another, and yet another – sound modifiers – to get inside the dark performance space. There you run into Wendy Steginsky, who is here for several days with a group of poets who are serial students of Chris Bursk’s popular poetry class at Bucks County Community College. As poetry educators, they are here “to see what we can learn to take back to teaching,” says Liz Rivers, who is promoting her organization Poetry Wits: Writers in the Schools. “Our mission is for kids to publish poetry and we offer free editorial service.”
While listening to poet Eduardo C. Corral speak, Steginsky makes a note in her journal: “Pick up a phrase and image, start with one and finish with the other.”
Since it is a day for teachers, Jane Hirshfield reads poems to honor teachers. “A day is vast until noon, then it’s over…” she begins. “You can never find time, but you can lose it.”
Dodge Foundation Founding Executive Director Scott McVay hosted Hirshfield in the days before the festival at his home in Princeton, where Hirshfield performed with the Paul Winter Consort.
“From the beginning the festival was a four-day event with students, who had earned it, on Thursdays, teachers on Fridays, and the general public on Saturday and Sunday — but poetry wonks could come for all four days if they wished,” recounts McVay who, with his wife Hella, has not missed a day of the festival since its founding. “Also, the festival was only the outward face of the Dodge Poetry initiative since equal effort was placed on encouraging and supporting teachers in the schools. We also put out poetry kits for high school English teachers across America.”
The biggest change McVay observes, besides the move to Newark, is in the ethnic diversity “which we strove for from the beginning.”
Later, in conversation, Hirshfield says she doesn’t write poetry with an audience in mind. “Poems are private investigations that tear the fabric of my being I then have to darn across,” she says. “The poem is a recalibration of the self and the heart. Only later do I revise it for you, the audience. Standing up and speaking before strangers is a great irony.”
It gets harder and harder to hear people’s words these days. And words are so important in poetry. In Prudential Hall, there is captioning for the hearing impaired. Sometimes you might be savoring a word or passage, and not yet ready to catch the next words out of the poet’s mouth. The captioning helps. Colleen, the typist who is able to keep up with it all and spew it out at lightening speed, has been at this work for five festivals.
At the Baptist Church, poets Henri Cole, Gregory Orr and Arthur Sze are discussing “A Music of Pause.”
“Poetry is a little symphony of words of which pause is a part, but it’s not all a poem can be,” says Cole. “It has to be emotional – fear or desperation. Emotion is the counterbalance to the music.”
Orr says poetry emerged, for him, from traumatic silence – “Shame, terror, fear — people around me didn’t want to hear about suffering.” He relates the passage in Helen Keller’s biography when her discovery of language “takes her out of bewildering terror.”
During a break, you buy a cup of chamomile tea, then think twice about the combination of sleep-inducing beverage and sitting in a plush chair in a darkened room. It’s OK, you tell yourself, you don’t have to hear every word, and if you do doze off listening to poetry, you may wake up a poet.
Poetry is best when read aloud, but it’s nice to savor the words in books, and festival organizers have put together an enormous store of poetry at NJPAC.
The walk back to Penn Station takes less time than waiting for the light rail, though is not as scenic as you’d hoped. Once on the express train to Princeton Junction you can read books purchased at the festival, or listen to the audio and video archives on the Dodge site. You could even sleep off the chamomile tea.