Oct '02 [Home]

Series Reviews

The Dodge Festival (9/19-22); the St. George Festival (9/21)

The New Yorker Festival (9/27-29)

. . Contrasting Aesthetics:  Dodge and St. George
by Joel Allegretti

A rarity occurred the third weekend in September:  two poetry festivals held forth simultaneously within reach of Manhattan. The biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Festival in Waterloo Village, NJ is an institution, a four-day sprawl of readings by celebrity and emerging poets, conversations on craft, open mics, sessions for high school students, and intellectual discourses on poetry's societal obligations. The Saint George Poetry Festival was a maiden voyage with a modest purpose:   to raise money for a destitute Staten Island theater bearing the name of the event's titular dragon slayer.

It would be unfair to compare Dodge and St. George in terms of scale. The Dodge is sustained by longevity and a capacious budget. Its ambitions are grand. The St. George was a beneficent gesture by a small group of young poets and their magazines. That aside, comparing scope is, frankly, dull.

The difference in poetic content, however, was striking. Two very distinct aesthetics were at work, a contrast that warrants elaboration.

Déjà-Vu and Ballyhoo at Dodge

The Dodge Festival envisages poetry as a binding agent, as much a means of achieving world unity as a literary form. Befitting such a populist objective, the featured poetry tends toward the multicultural and confessional. The Beat ethic gets a respectful nod. Surrealists, language poets and new formalists do not. Local New Jersey poets and others not sufficiently renowned to appear on the main stage, which is generally reserved for poets of national accomplishment, are called "Poets Among Us," conveying a Whitmanesque concept of the community bard. If there is a political statement expressed, it more often than not makes a left turn.

Since this was the first Dodge Festival since September 11, it was no surprise that Islam made a prominent showing, through appearances by Taha Muhammad Ali, an Arab poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American, Peter Cole, a poet and translator of medieval Arab and Hebrew literature (who read beautifully), Coleman Barks, our foremost translator of Rumi, and Robert Bly, who, with Barks, conducted a delightful Sunday morning lecture on ecstasy and grandiosity that referred again and again to Rumi. In addition, there was a special two-hour open mic devoted to poetic responses to September 11.

The Dodge Festival attracts marquee names and, consequently, thousands of poetry fans. The 2002 festival, in particular, represented a convocation of royalty, closing out Sunday with "An Afternoon of Poets Laureate." The segment commenced on a local note with Gerald Stern, the former New Jersey Poet Laureate, and Amiri Baraka, the current one. Baraka had created a stir a couple of days earlier when he read a poem that recycled a Protocols-of-the-Elders-of- Zion-type rumor that four thousand Israeli workers had called in sick the morning of September 11. New Jersey Governor James McGreevey called for Baraka's resignation as Poet Laureate; Baraka refused. (As I didn't hear the poem and have not seen it in print, I offer no opinion.) On Sunday, the offending piece was absent from Baraka's set, and apparently, all was forgiven by then. The audience blessed him with a standing ovation.

Stern and Baraka were followed by a succession of former U.S. Poets Laureate:   Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz (still a marvel at 97), and, finally, our present Laureate, Billy Collins, who is quickly becoming overexposed, a condition most poets aspire to.

Where Dodge 2002 fell short was in imaginative booking. Out of twenty-one featured poets this year, nine had appeared at the previous festival, and Baraka was there in 1998. The Dodge Festival is a wonderful experience, and I have eagerly looked forward to it, especially because it occurs only every two years, but the line-up for 2002 was disappointing. As the saying goes, it was déjà-vu all over again.

Conspicuously absent were the literary magazines, which are the lifeblood of poetry. For some reason, perhaps contractual (Borders Books & Music is the official publication vendor at Dodge), poetry journals do not exhibit at the Dodge. It would be nice if, in the future, the Festival would offer the magazines booth space, thereby enabling the editors and the audience, which consists primarily of poets, to interact with each other.

Saint George Meets Breton

The Saint George is a baroque cavern of a theater that would warm the heart of the Phantom of the Opera. A relic of an earlier time, it stands dark and abandoned a short walk from the docks of the Staten Island Ferry. Poets primarily associated with two avant-garde journals, Fence and Verse, convened inside the theater's shadowy recesses to raise money for its revitalization.

The majority of the poets were young, in their twenties and thirties (as compared to Dodge, where the poets are often a generation or two older). Most are just beginning their literary careers and, therefore, are undoubtedly unknown to the general poetry audience, though some have won prestigious awards. There were a few older, respected poets on hand, such as Dara Wier and John Yau. The one stellar name was James Tate. Now, I have to say up front that any festival that includes James Tate on the bill automatically earns stars in my book. Tate is an odd duck. Despite his stature, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and a major publisher, he still dwells on the boundaries of the poetry establishment like a mischievous imp, a situation seemingly engineered by personal choice. He appears to be a spiritual godfather to these younger poets, though some of them are closer to Jorie Graham.

The lengthy program, which began at 1 p.m. and lasted until midnight, encompassed experimental verse, a sound play performed by a small cast wearing black hoods, translations of French poetry and of Catullus, and short collaborative poems improvised on the spot by Joshua Beckman, the festival organizer, and by Matthew Rohrer, who won the National Poetry Series a few years back. There were also films and recordings of poets played over the PA system during the breaks.

The scarcity of people to read to—at its peak, the audience numbered only about 40—did not dampen the poets' spirits.

The Saint George Festival practiced its own form of egalitarianism. Everyone was allotted equal time of about ten minutes, and all, James Tate included, were introduced by name only.

Ironically, the young poets at the Saint George Festival reached farther back for their inspiration than did the older Dodge poets. Whereas the Dodge ethos derives from the Confessional and Beat movements of the 50's and 60's, the Saint George poets take their cues from an earlier era, that of Gertrude Stein and the French Surrealists. One could easily have imagined Anne Sexton at Dodge and Jean Cocteau at Saint George, but not vice versa.

Nevertheless, a significant commonality linked both festivals:  the joyful realization that poetry can make a difference, if not in the world at large, then most certainly in the lives of those who write it and share it.

(Joel Allegretti's first collection, The Plague Psalms, appeared in 2000 from The Poet's Press. He lives in Fort Lee, NJ.)

~ . ~

The New Yorker Festival
by Kimberly Burwick, Series Review Editor

The New Yorker Festival—Marking the Craft:
David Remnick Interviews Seamus Heaney
(Celeste Bartos Forum 9/29)

"It begins with a bleep rather than a hum, a particular mistake made about someone's name, little tricks of memory," Seamus Heaney said of his poetry. He was grinning throughout the length of his answer, a grandfather's grin. Wide-eyed and cherub-faced, sitting three feet away from David Remnick, Editor-in-Chief of The New Yorker. Remnick's question, born of Brodsky's poetics, was this:  "Does a poem begin with a hum rather than an idea?" Heaney, perched gently on his chair added with a thick Irish brogue, "These bleeps of association evolve into a tuning up." Remnick pushed further, wanting to know whether the same held true for political poems. The answer:  a quick shrug of the shoulders and then another smile. Heaney's "bleep" marked a fresh and honest mastery of craft.

Throughout the interview Remnick was attentive to the idea of discovery, which meshed well with Heaney's childlike excitement about poetry. When asked about his poetic relationship to place and the specific moment when a place becomes magical, an impatient wave of the hands and long sigh presupposed his answer, before Heaney reflected on the loneliness of boarding school. "It was a place where you got yourself gathered," and with this statement, the perky smile of a twelve-year-old boy telling his story for the fifth time. Then a softer look, a slightly straighter face, that seemed to confirm the genuine sadness of a youthful romantic coupled with the nonchalant demeanor of a perfectly aged artist.

It was impossible to ignore Heaney's idiosyncrasies. They were the highlight of the interview, exposing him in a way that set him apart from other poets. His hands redirected praise like a traffic cop. Both palms turned toward the ceiling as he confessed of his young adulthood, "I wasn't sure what it meant to be a poet." In his modest way, he waved off questions about winning the Nobel Prize with a gesture of self-deprecation, an anecdote about a farmer in County Derry who, confusing the award with the lottery, congratulated him on his "winnings." Something Heaney found equally sincere. In fact, these idiosyncrasies were more than simply amusing. They artfully exposed Heaney as both a grandfather of craft as well as a young boy who still takes pleasure in the act of discovery.

The New Yorker Festival—Transmutations of the Text:
An Afternoon with Elizabeth Bishop
(Town Hall 9/29)

There's nothing more enchanting than an afternoon dedicated to life through the works of a spectacular dead poet, except one thing:   intermezzos that honor the deceased, performed by other artists in a soft graze along the edges of their own mortality. When we celebrate an artist who is no longer living, we are sure to expound the most sophisticated details. Living artists, however, are subject to different laws of elevation. So, in effect, what we saw late in the afternoon on the last day of the New Yorker Festival was the best of Bishop, her most celebrated poems, a collection of her watercolors projected on a screen behind the microphone, her deeply sympathetic and humorous letters and egregious narratives from trusted friends. Bishop fell just short of heroine and outlaw.

A three-hour-long affair, the festival featured Robert Pinsky, Jorie Graham, Alice Quinn and James Fenton, among others. The festival was dedicated to, but not limited by, the texts themselves. Soon, the driving force became the sign language performed stage right, as two men dressed in black, waved their hands ecstatically, translating Bishop's longest metaphors. When Pinsky began with the timeless "At the Fishhouses," the reading immediately became an interpretive performance, a transmutation of the text:  the poet's own nervous gestures juxtaposed with the signers' frenzied fingers struggling to interpret line by line.

Bishop's "Visits to St. Elizabeths" and "Conversation" were quickly transformed into a musical piece performed by Ned Rorem and Scott Murphee. Slightly reminiscent of fourteenth century polyphony, they attempted the ineffable, trying desperately to invoke a sort of religious, artistic experience. "Insomnia," set by Luciana Souza, became a jazzy rendition of Brazilian folk music, a strange and sultry interpretation of modern poetry that one might expect to find on a cable television special.

Nothing strikes a deeper chord than the discovery of some small, unknown detail of an artist's personal life. By this token, we were given the best of Bishop's private letters, beautifully read by Robert Giroux, complete with her first brushes with fame:  a cocktail party she secretly couldn't wait to leave, the perm-a-grin frozen on her face throughout the evening. Minute details were carefully exposed, together leading to the discovery of a personality behind the poet, and the daunting thought that besides being a talented writer, Bishop was charming—a model every speaker tried to live up to.

[Note:  A snafu involving an email originating through festwire1-outgoing@mail.bootsoft.com ("Tenant shall have no right to keep pets…") has reportedly drawn appropriate concern from the publishers. The attachment should not be opened. Since direct replies will apparently bounce to all recipients, the better course is to send an independent email to:  webcomments@newyorker.com.—Eds.]