Notes from the Nation’s Poetry Festival
As Reviewed By: Daniel Bosch
It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving, and as the Writing Studio at Walnut Hill’s recent visit to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival recedes in memory, I struggle to convey to you, dear readers of Contemporary Poetry Review, some sense of the ambivalence that I experienced at American poetry’s biennial. If in the following bullet points I raise unresolved contradictions, be assured that, for me, so did the Dodge Festival.
[private]Many years ago I had watched several segments from the Festival on starry-eyed Bill Moyers’ “Power of the Word” series, so I knew some portions of our two days at the Dodge would leave us baffled. The Writing Studio at Walnut Hill-fourteen high school-aged writers and three chaperone/teachers-had worked hard to prepare for the Festival, spending the first three weeks of September reading the epic of Gilgamesh, aloud, in David Ferry’s spectacular version, as if this would provide some kind of inoculation against the contemporary lyric. For five school days before our departure for Waterloo, New Jersey, we searched for good poems in the Paul Muldoon-edited Best American Poetry 2005, and even if it is true of every year’s Best American volume, I have sifted haystacks with more needles. As our bus sped south, I did not doubt that our writers would hear some good work at the Dodge Festival, but I also knew they would be expected to appreciate it all, which is a cost I consider too high to pay, even-or perhaps especially-when you are fifteen years old.
The friendly man in a green Festival tee shirt who boarded our bus to pass out Festival wristlets put it this way: “Welcome to Wordstock.”
Waterloo Village, New Jersey, feels remote. Not only that: the village is a museum, and to walk its leafy paths is to step into the eighteenth century. So it is all the more strange to feel a powerful sense-stronger with each session of the Dodge Poetry Festival one attends-that in Waterloo Village one stands at the center of contemporary American poetry. Even if one knows, intellectually, that contemporary American poetry has no center, the time-less-ness of the site feels eerily appropriate. What is it about Contemporary American Poetry that necessitates a museum setting? What is preserved here, this weekend? And why?
Was Woodstock multicultural? Wordstock is. At the Dodge Festival the carefully constructed roster includes, in a day and a half, the Native American, the African American, the East Asian (Chinese) American, the Jewish American, the Iranian American, the South Asian (Indian) American, the Arab American, the Over Seventy American, the American in her Thirties, the Gay American, the Academic American, seventeen Teen New Jersey Poets, and, in an amazingly ecumenical gesture, for the first time ever in a post-Colonial village, the Poet Laureate of England.
Korean poet Ko-Un speaks about poetry and reads some poems under a tent packed with high school students and teachers. He’s got two sidekicks: his real-time interpreter into English, Kim Kyeong-Soo, and his poet-translator, Richard Silberg. As Ko-Un speaks, slowly, deliberately, in a low, breathy, and aphoristic Korean, and as Kim Kyeong-Soo crafts that speech as best she can into English, Silberg glows. He’s in rapture, a semilunar smile on the verge of fracturing his cheeks. To Ko-Un’s Johnny Carson, Silberg is Ed McMahon, his face like a photographer’s umbrella, directing every photon back to Ko-Un, authorizing each audience member’s bewilderment at the pronouncements of this strangely intense man to ripen, almost immediately, into love.
What I mean is that it is only nine-thirty a.m. on Student Day at the Dodge Poetry Festival, and one standing-room-only crowd of fifteen- and sixteen-year olds has already heard what they most wanted to hear, things like “Every one of you is a poet in your heart,” and “We do not learn poetry from poets, but from the wind and the trees,” and “Poetry is life.” Of course the students-even my students-love Ko-Un.
The problem is that Ko-Un only seems to say these things. What a Korean Buddhist means by what my students hear as “you are a poet in your heart” is lost in translation. What’s found in translation? A kind of candy-discourse that is commensurate with the discourse by and about American poets that dominates the Festival.
I was predisposed to be impressed with Terrance Hayes’ performances at the Dodge Poetry Festival: ten years ago I had seen a poem by Hayes into print in Harvard Review, and over the summer I had read his brilliant epithalamium “Imaginary Wedding Song” in The New Yorker.
Still, Hayes is taller, and more handsome, and more articulate than most of the poets on the Festival bill, and as if to make himself irresistible to the crowds on Student day, he wore his hair in a thick tight stripe running from forehead to nape that brought to mind the word “lowhawk.” In light of such physical and personal charisma, I am grateful, on my students’ behalf, for the way Hayes focused on craft when he talked about poetry. Hayes didn’t avoid talking about his personality, but he named explicit strategies he uses to exploit his personality traits through and in verse. Hayes’s admits he’s obsessive-that he tends to dream while he’s awake, that he takes great delight in verbal play-but what my students needed to hear is that as an artist, he is active with regard to those elements of his “self”-he puts them to work. His recent poems demonstrate the success of that effort.
Most of my Studio writers do not want to hear this-they’d rather believe that writing is part of a “cure” for doctor-diagnosed and Big Pharma-endorsed personality orders and disorders to which they are passively subject. Yet Hayes described a set of poetic practices that does not lament a preoccupation with particular materials or a recurrence of certain psychological impulses. For Hayes, emotional or intellectual patterns, behavioral tics, and attachments to particular stories aren’t necessarily symptoms to be gotten over. He told his audience about how, as a verse writer, he deals with such “issues”; how his obsessive pursuit of “the truth” with regard to a particular narrative (the subject position of young black men on American streets, for example) led him not to anxiety about how he was going to deal with his “symptom,” but to the library-to Donne, and Sidney, and Dickinson, with a sound-track from Coltrane. (Hayes’ fourth attempt to get that story “right,” has led him to compose “Pine” from Wind in a Box). Four times he’s returned-obsessively-to the site, and in “Pine” a late-twentieth century black youth is twenty feet high in a tree in an oblique but powerful incorporation of early twentieth century lynching. (The box Hayes builds himself here is “Pine.”) As Hayes approaches them-with honesty and a commitment to exploring and using how poems have been made-personality traits and personal experiences are enlarged in ways that don’t diminish their gravity.
Leaving Mark Doty’s “Poets on Poetry” session, one of my students recalls Doty saying, with a certain amount of satisfaction, that readers have identified a certain kind of thinking as a “signature” in his poetry.
“But who,” says my student, “would want a signature like that?”
Doty had just told his audience that he did a substantial amount of his artistic training in an anonymous workshop environment-that his teacher or teachers circulated packets of student work that were not attributed to any student in particular, and that the focus of workshops was (to a high degree) on the work itself, on how each object was made. The problem with such an approach, says Doty, is the strong implication that “there is a right way to make a poem.” The tone of Doty’s voice and his brief outline of his current workshop practices indicate that he is glad to have escaped such a regime, that he is proud to be leading students along another path.
I am amazed to hear that any teaching artist (especially an artist with the reach and power of someone like Doty) would withhold from their students the kinds of workshop training that they themselves received. What if certain kinds of workshop training led, at least in part, to their own powerful accomplishments? How could one substitute other approaches for those that made the difference? Why does a workshop convene, if not under the premise that one piece of writing may be better-more “right”-than another? And what, exactly, is so threatening to a growing artist about the notion that there is a right way to make a work of art? Is it not the singular effect of every masterpiece ever created (no matter how manifestly it differs from other masterpieces) that an extraordinary degree of rightness has been achieved? Does not each masterpiece instruct us that here, right here, is one example of the right way to make a poem?
Though it’s early, Mark Doty is as sparked-up as Reddy Kilowatt, the old Pacific Gas & Electric spokes-symbol. He teaches teachers, talks about poetry, and reads poems, so intelligently and affably that it is impossible for me to imagine that his declared workshop practice is a non sequitur or an elaborate act of bad faith. Still, it takes me many days and some discussion with fellow writers to feel I have a handle on why an artist like Doty might disown the workshop training he received.
Several writers find Doty’s strategy a no-brainer: why, they press me, would any teacher want to re-create the painful parts of any artistic up-bringing? But isn’t coming of age always hard? Isn’t good training always difficult, even painful? I’m not willing to endorse any sweeping conflation of an artist’s suffering with her training. And even if Doty is just a caring teacher, and his shift away from his own training is some sort of ameliorative, that wouldn’t explain why he would want to expunge a notion of a “right”-way-to-make from his pedagogy.
In that I suspect he’s responding to the demands of that long table, the rogue’s gallery he faces each semester, another twelve or fifteen students of mixed ability, each of whom hopes to be discovered as the next . . . well, Mark Doty. If Doty’s approach is not nonsensical, and not a sham-not a betrayal of sound principles he was brought up to believe in, even as he grappled with them-perhaps that is because he denies that the workshop is where an artist’s real training takes place. And if there is no necessary connection between workshops and the production of great poems-as, alas, seems pretty obvious at the turn of this new century, after fifty years and more of workshop instruction-then why shouldn’t an artist experiment with pedagogies that might work-especially if they are more pleasant for workshop participants? If the workshop isn’t where poems are made, why should one’s workshop be focused on “right” ways of making? The workshop model (no matter how it is run) may sound artsy-crafty and guild-like, but it’s really an academic convention, designed to produce tuition, not to certify practitioners.
Gerald Stern can’t quite recall James Merrill: “There was this poet died about twenty years ago and he left this big house-he used to wear a white shirt-for poets, for posterity, to live and work in.”
To the right of the main stage, a digital display monitor is meant to help out audience members whose hearing is impaired.
The folks at the keyboard try to keep up, but frequently can’t. The monitor either can’t or doesn’t show line construction and stanza breaks. Some of the typists aren’t very good spellers. Found poems occur at a surprising rate, and some of these surpass the works being read. Tonight Gerald Stern is reported, by the monitor, to have read, “the smell of ban Nannas . . . .” Our subversive, unauthorized delight is in his recognizing the difference between what we know the typist was supposed to show us and what they managed, under pressure, to punch in.
This difference/delight ratio is a metaphor for much of my experience of poems at the Dodge Festival. Take the work of Brian Turner, who has been described as a “war poet.” He is an incredibly earnest young man, and it is not hard to imagine why the Festival invited him to read here. But his work-what he’s managed, under pressure, to punch in-embodies an impoverished imagination and a determination to trade on his experiences in only the most likable and predictable ways. Nearly always competent, his verse is yet frequently artless (“to dismantle death, to take it apart piece by piece, the bravest thing I’d ever seen,” “. . . in the dream our orgasm destroys the nation . . .”) and much too frequently invested in the demonstration of his own virtue. As if in fulfillment of a vow, Turner repeatedly reads a poem by which he means, so he tells us, to restore to public memory the name of a fellow soldier-a suicide-who had been expunged from an official accounting of U.S. losses. At each reading he recites the title poem of his first volume, an apostrophe addressed by a only-partly self-loathing soldier to an anonymous “Bullet,” and this poem, too, comes with a sentimental-but “true”-story that Turner parades like the Stars and Stripes. Unfortunately, to alter a phrase by Wilfred Owen, the poetry is in the preface. Some Studio Writers squirmed in their seats as Turner read; some of them bought his book.
It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the Writing Studio’s visit to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival recedes in memory….
Yet in the wake of a post-prandial Thanksgiving excursion to see “Borat” I could not help but imagine that erstwhile fictional Kazakh pulling up at Waterloo Village in his ice cream truck, eager to learn the secrets of America and, perhaps, to spot Pamela Sue Anderson. No doubt the film’s production schedule precluded such a visit, but the Dodge Festival might have provided Sacha Baron Cohen with a foil for the rodeo segment in his film, when a crowd of expectant fans mistakes Borat’s blood-thirsty rhetoric for the usual patriotic gore. I can easily imagine Borat charming his way to a microphone at the Dodge Festival in order to recite some “traditional Kazakh” verse, the admiring crowd clapping him along. For just as there can be no bad patriot-Dr. Johnson’s admonition notwithstanding-at the Dodge Festival there is no bad poet.
With the help of a generous grant from the parents of an alum, my students are allotted a thirty-dollar stipend to buy books at the enormous Borders Bookstore tent near the center of the Festival. Even when they are exhausted, even when they can’t stand to hear another poem, students are eager to wait in line to have their purchases autographed by Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Tony Hoagland, Linda Gregg, Billy Collins, Matthea Harvey, or Andrew Motion, for example, and they proudly show each new fetish object to their peers. I recall how important to me it has been to possess books-especially books signed by the author.
In my view, one of the most impressive moments of the Dodge Festival took place in the Main Stage tent while Jorie Graham addressed more than a thousand high school students about poetry. Impressive for two reasons: 1) because I had seen Graham teach before (through floor-to-ceiling windows of a fishbowl classroom, while I waited for a talk to begin) but I’d never heard her talk, for an extended time, about specific poems; and 2) because her performance made clear to me how one cannot discuss, with children, the somatic effects of verse-they have to be demonstrated.
Graham was a narrow, black, cyclonic vortex behind the microphone, passionately spinning her tale. Since I am one of the converted, I can testify: this was no mere Harvard professor; this was typhoon Jorie, Category Five, an unrelenting deluge of recitation, explication, and commentary. I have never seen a more powerful witness on behalf of the mysterious force called poetry. Graham mustered the best examples: Frost, Dickinson, and classical haiku. She pushed hard against two high-pressure systems-one, the urge-to-silence that poets must strive to disrupt and countermand; two, the start time for the next star poet’s performance. Graham’s principal message? That to read a poem well is to have a bodily experience-poetry is not, in essence, intellectual. And Graham the evangelist was lit by the spirit that only the letter can offer. All the same, if 95% of that adolescent audience understood a word of what Graham said, I’d be surprised. There was an unbridgeable discursive gulf between this audience and this performer. (The water can’t listen to a storm.) To read a poem well is to have a bodily experience-but Graham seemed to have forgotten that no one can have that kind of experience by proxy, no matter how whipped up the witness, that such an argument makes sense only when the audience is intellectual (in venues, like English departments, where poetry has been taken over by the mind.) Later I tried to explain what I’d heard from Graham under the Big Tent that morning, but finished with: “I guess you had to be there.”
I think it must be harder to write a strong poem than it is to walk a high tightrope; in every circus some tightrope artist works without a net.
One can write beautiful poems in isolation; some people say that to write beautiful poems requires isolation. Contra poetry, the tightrope walker only practices when she’s isolated, away from her audience, and that practice is itself likely to be at best semi-private. The performances that count, for her-her real moments of truth-come under the Big Top, in the glare of floodlights.
Contrariwise, if Gerald Stern wanders and wastes my time during one of his performances at the Dodge Festival, this says nothing about his worth as an artist. Part of my appreciation of his accomplishment in a strong poem is my understanding that in order to write that poem Stern must have walked across deep chasms without a net, even if right now, in front of me, he is facile and self-indulgent.
The Dodge Poetry Festival is all net. Here Contemporary American Poetry gathers itself from all points; its fans hum, bedazzled by the concentration of its usually separate practitioners. So it is the custom of the Dodge Festival to applaud every work, without exception, that is read aloud.
Meanwhile the elephantine main stage camera boom tries, desperately, and fails, to get each poet’s attention.
It’s two o’clock on Friday, and my students, or most of them, are lying on what grass they can find outside the Main Stage tent, which is packed. The loudspeakers carry the voices of poets over the heads of the overflow. Even the Writing Studio is barely able to listen any more. They are exhausted, and they huddle together as if they were cold, chatting and petting each other, their heads resting on each other’s hips, several bedenimed legs spiked onto the paved pathway. I recall how Elizabeth Bishop once described spent cigarettes in an ashtray.
For most readers, most of the time, poems come in trickles that originate from discrete sources, in moments separated by ellipses: page 78 of that week’s The New Yorker, English class, the FM radio suddenly halting its search on The Writer’s Almanac, a few pages of Whitman by the bedside, a few stanzas of Auden on the john. At the Dodge Poetry Festival, poems come in a fire hose blast, steady, unrelenting; at the end of a day, drenched with poems, one can wonder if the goal was to get the crowd to disperse.
By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song
And a celebration . . .
Two of my college housemates were among the mud bespattered “stardust” that crowded Yasgur’s Farm in 1969. Their “Woodstock” is remembered-differently, but in the same words-by both Joni Mitchell’s coffeehouse bluesy ballad “Woodstock” and the Crosby, Stills, and Nash anthem for a generation. These college housemates gathered (whether they knew it or not) as part of a mass-movement, and many of that cohort, even if only a small minority, were accomplished protesters, culture critics, advocates for change, accustomed not to standing-room-only but to standing up against “Bomber Death planes / Riding shotgun in the sky . . .” Their generation was explicitly eager to see these machines “(turn) into butterflies / Above our nation.”
At “Wordstock,” poets and lovers of poetry gather 20,000 strong, but in 2006, though the U.S. is at war, there is no galvanizing coherence for the mass to celebrate, so even if it is sign of cultural health that there is no song we can all agree to sing, the comparison to 1969 emphasizes certain feats of de-contextualization the Dodge Poetry Festival induces. We poets and lovers of poetry have gathered at the Dodge Foundation’s “signature effort” to “help make society more humane and the world more livable,” but as the Writing Studio climbs on to the bus to head back to Massachusetts, it is not clear how poetry can do this. During our two-day visit, two dreams stood out as most frequently celebrated: that each person’s individual voice is uniquely valuable, and that one of the highest achievements of any such individual voice would be to hold forth under the Big Tent. What does it mean-about us, and about the Dodge-that both these dreams seem so attainable?
We are eager to return in 2008, if only to see how and whether our own aspirations have changed.[/private]