Last weekend the largest poetry event in North America was held in New Jersey: The Dodge Poetry Festival. I expected to hear verse that would “tickle my synapses” (in the words of Alan Alda) and imagined my Moleskine pages would be full of so much ink that it would outweigh the carry-on baggage limits. Instead, my experience was listening to a collection of circular discussions teetering delicately on the cliffs of arrogance and the pits of such deep intelligence that it’s hard to convey or connect with the audience. Here is what I learned:
- Experienced poets are fantastic speakers. Maybe it’s the years of experience reading in front of audiences or because they’re immersed with writers most of the time that made every presenting poet I heard at the festival sound eloquent, confident and clear. Every presenter projected their thoughts with little hesitation in a relaxed, informal manner and expressed humility naturally. (You may think I’m contradicting myself because I first said it was hard for speakers to connect with the audience, and then in the very next paragraph I’m praising their speaking abilities, but what I mean is they spoke so well you didn’t realize you weren’t really learning anything unless you paid very close attention. A lot was discussed very well.)
- You don’t really need a fest pass. I bought a weekend pass and serendipity sent me two weekend passes. At the fest I learned anyone can just walk right in. There was no policing of the poets at any of the venues, which made it easy to get into and out of events, but also made me wonder what the value was in actually purchasing a pass to the festival.
- Don’t be a starving writer: Bring snacks. Dodge Fest is programmed in the same style as Bonnaroo. There are multiple events happening simultaneously and you are constantly burnt with the self-guilt that you’re missing out. A panel discussion on poetry’s evolution, a craft talk by a renowned poet, and a reading are just a few things happening at the same time. Also, there is no designated ‘lunch break’. Every event has a 20-minute window to allow you to scoot to the next venue, so if you need to grab a bite to eat it is very easy to miss the beginning or tail-end of a discussion you already don’t want to miss out on.
I was happy to get a copy of CK Williams’ Wait (part of my fall reading list) after hearing his discussion on the craft of his work. Out of all the poets I heard at the festival, Williams expressed the most objective self-awareness, open to understanding his own writing themes without compromising the integrity of his work.
The logistical team and volunteers who run Dodge are more than outstanding. The venues were always clean and ready, the speakers kept on time, and the volunteers were doing what they do best and happily offering assistance everywhere. For a festival of its size, I was ultra-impressed by the organization. Knowing how much work goes into planning a festival, this says a great deal about the hearts behind such a big writing event.
Although I wrote no new verse at the festival and left with no added inspiration, there was value in being surrounded by other writers. Attending writing events—whether a writers conference, book festival, pitch fest or retreat—is vital in balancing the act of laying down letter by letter and the craft of keeping your words from jumbling into a train wreck. I don’t regularly return to the same writing events year after year because I like new experiences, and I don’t plan on attending Dodge again, but it’s good to get to the national writing events as much as the local ones.
And bring a Moleskine, just in case.