Jul '02 [Home]

Series on Series

About, For, and On the River

An FAQ-style background on this year's first-ever poetry event at the Hudson Clearwater Festival at Croton Point (June 15, 16)
by Angelo Verga

[For photos/article from 2001, see Series Review, Jul '01—Eds.]

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How did poetry come to have a booth at this year's Hudson Clearwater Festival?

Clearwater has been a folk music and environmental activist event for over thirty years. Hal Sutcliff, a poet and Hudson Valley resident, has been a crew member on Pete Seeger's sloop for five years and a volunteer at the Clearwater event for decades. He had recently been to Brazil, and thought the cordel concept might be a great way to introduce poetry into the annual two-day grab bag of entertainment and education, culture and commerce, politics and food, that Clearwater has evolved into. He contacted me, I contacted Golda Solomon, and a gang of three poetry coordinators was formed.

What exactly is a cordel?

There's a long hispanic tradition of poetry being literally in the marketplace, the public square, the church courtyard. Lorca talks about the practice in Spain. Poets sit in the marketplace and display their wares on clothesline. Yes, lines on lines, words on the wind. They even create poems right on the spot for purchase.

How many poets were involved in the festival?

First we needed volunteers to set up our "booth," set up tents, string line, duplicate poems, make food, carry water, and acquire a rudimentary sound system. We found many who were delighted to pitch in. We had about twenty writers and performers, all of whom contributed greatly, but in particular, Taylor Mali, Susan Hoover, Frank Simone, Vicki Hudspith, Marj Hahne, and Tony Gloeggler were real troopers.

What's the connection between the poetry and the Festival's environmental issues?

The Clearwater Festival and the replication of the Hudson sloop began as a way of raising awareness about environmental issues and about pollution of the Hudson River in particular. It's been very successful. The quality of the water and conditions for aquatic life in the River have been greatly improved due to such work. Coalitions have been built among communities and political activists, recreational users and fishermen.

Poets also need to reach new audiences, bridge gulfs between factions, draw out isolated individuals, small groups here and there, and revive and restore the language to something capable of and wholesome for conveying information and ideas to listeners who wouldn't ordinarily come to poetry "readings." Also, the combination of music and verse is a very powerful tool that can and should be used more effectively.

Is the cordel just for activist poets?

Not at all. The poets and their poetry are not confined to any agenda of political or even environmental issues, but I personally believe poetry should serve causes larger than individual self-expression, and I think the idea that poets might serve and help create communities that aren't confined to exclusively literary ends is gaining ground in America, once again:  Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Grace Paley, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Martin Espada, Adrienne Rich.

Was poetry's first year at the Clearwater Festival a success?

Yes and no. It was great first date and there is potential for a long-term marriage. But we had problems as well. (Apart from the heavy rain!) We would want to be in a higher traffic area of the fair grounds—preferably among the other "crafts"—and we need to tailor our programs to conditions on the ground and in the open air and to offer specific events that are posted and promoted well in advance, such as a teen open mic, spoken song lyrics, and river themed poems. We also need a better sound set-up, and a real table for displaying and selling poems, journals, books, CD's, etc.

Will there be another cordel next year and, if so, what's being planned?

If we can tap into the reservoir of talent and energy in both the downstate and upstate poetry communities, and find some modest funding, say, through publishers, NYSCA, and private contributions, then, yes, I think poetry about, for and on the Hudson has a bright future.

And I must add, it's nice to get out of the smoky dark poetry venues in NYC once in a while and breathe under the trees. I loved it; may start writing "nature" poems, odes to trout and sailboats.

Anyone who is interested in helping or participating in any way should please contact me at (212) 217-6009 or bronxpoet@earthlink.net.