No shortage of words

Power outage fails to dim spirit of Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.


It may be difficult to get the news from poems, as New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams once wrote – but get a few hundred poets together in one place, and you’ll find they have the news very much on their minds.


As the biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival filled NJPAC and venues across Newark with verses and song for four days, October 18-21, more than 80 acclaimed and award-winning poets who took part in readings, panel discussions, conversations and Q&As were almost as likely to address the day’s headlines as they were the muse.


The first big “Sampler” reading on the Prudential Hall stage, which would welcome dozens of poets over the course of the festival, featured poems about Trayvon Martin and protest marches in Charlottesville, Va., and things only got more topical from there.


“Jamal Khashoggi, he’s us, he’s one of us,” said poet Eileen Myles at a panel on poetry and identity during the festival’s first day.


“It’s not insignificant that the first thing they did to him was they cut off his fingers, that’s what he wrote with.”


“There is no water, there is no light!” cried Ntozake Shange, the famous poet and playwright, while reading a dramatic poem about the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.


“We want equality, and we have it in law, but we don’t have the expansive empathy that would really let it in. Maybe that’s where poetry comes in. So if you can’t go to a protest, maybe you should read a poem,” said Khaled Mattawa at a forum on poetry and democracy hosted by the Academy of American Poets.


“And vote!” immediately added his fellow panelist, Elizabeth Alexander.


That the poets honored at the festival would have something to say about current events was something its organizers anticipated, said Martin Farawell, the festival’s director.


“The programming of the festival is rooted in the belief that poetry comes out of the present, and that one of the impacts of poetry is that it creates common ground where how we’re experiencing this moment can be shared. It was inevitable that in a time when so much language is used to divide us that the Dodge Poetry Festival would create a space where people felt free to speak across divides in search of community and connection,” he said.


“Honestly, I think the history of American poetry is a history of political poetry,” said the Atlanta-based poet Jericho Brown, who was one of several poets interviewed publicly by NPR’s Krista Tippett, host of On Being, for a later broadcast.


This passionate discussion of both poetry and current events was met with warm, vocal responses from audiences who trekked from the NJPAC campus to the Newark Museum, Express Newark in the Hahne’s building, Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral in Military Park and the First Baptist Peddie Memorial Church on Broad Street through stiff autumn breezes to hear their favorites speak and read.


Millennials and teenagers – including the 4,000 high school students from more than 200 schools and 10 states who turned NJPAC into a school of sorts all day Friday when they attended the festival for free – snapped their fingers in the air at phrases they savored. Older listeners kept up a rippling murmur of approval. (When Rachel Wiley read a poem about her 4-year-old niece pretending to be a lion, one listener let out a loud “ROAR!” in approving response.)


A temporary bookstore popped up in NJPAC’s Chase Room, where fans waited on long, snaking lines to buy books by poets they admired.


Meanwhile, on the Prudential stage, frequent Dodge visitors The Parkington Sisters, who sing and play guitar and violin, worked with poet Gregory Orr to create The Beloved, a song-cycle based on Orr’s verses about love, loss and redemption. The poet would read a verse or two, and then the musicians sang the lines back to him, amplifying their emotion. 


Although deeply sorrowful for much of the work, the performance ended with The Parkington Sisters joyfully caroling one of Orr’s lines about finally finding happiness – “If we’re not supposed to dance, why all this music?” – over and over, until it echoed throughout Prudential Hall. The performance was greeted with whoops and thundering applause.


Perhaps the most telling tribute to the power of poetry, however, came late on Saturday, when an underground transformer fire first shut down Center Street in front of NJPAC – and then caused a power outage that plunged a wide swath of Newark’s downtown into darkness, forcing the cancellation of some that night’s events.


Poetry fans scrambled down walls at Military Park, and drove in circles around Newark’s downtown to reach NJPAC despite multiple street closings. PSE&G and NJPAC staff worked through the night to get power restored, and all the events slated for Sunday were relocated from still-blacked-out downtown venues and into NJPAC’s Center for Arts Education.


“The fact that the largest power utility on the East Coast thinks turning the lights back on at a poetry festival is worth staying up all night for – that’s important!” said a jubilant Farawell on Sunday, introducing a mainstage reading in Prudential Hall that only hours before he had feared would have to be canceled.


“The Arts Center is proud to be the home of the Dodge Poetry Festival, and we are endlessly inspired by the words of the poets who make The Dodge such an important event in American letters,” said John Schreiber, NJPAC’s President and CEO.


“But on this particular occasion, the words that echoed in our ears were: The show must go on! Everyone at NJPAC did their utmost to keep the festival running. I’m enormously proud of our staff and volunteers, whose dedication kept the festival on track despite decidedly unexpected obstacles.”


Ed. note: The festival was one of the last public appearances by playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, who passed three days after this story was posted. 


Oct. 24, 2018