Hello. My name is Kim and I’m a poetry addict. I recently indulged in a four-day bender at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ. I wasn’t a pretty sight: bloodshot eyes from scrutinizing the schedule, cramped fingers from scribbling half a composition book of notes, dry mouth and shortness of breath from running down legends like Robert Hass and Billy Collins. Ultimately, I’ve accepted my condition and decided to embrace my addiction. Follow this 12-step program to grow your own inner poet.
12 takeaways from the Dodge
Don’t be afraid of emotion—When Mahogany Browne read “Black Girl Magic” to a small crowd at Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral, an older African-American woman wept loudly for a long moment. The audience held an empathetic breath and Jonterri Gadson reached a hand out toward the lady as a gesture that said take a moment, it’s beautiful. Laurie Ann Guerrero recited poems of her beloved, deceased grandfather with a voice, at the end, broken with tears. Ricky Laurentiis, who won the VCU Levis Reading Prize for Boy with Thorn, addressed the audience with, I’m sure you feel what is happening here. I want you to know that I’m here with you. It’s special, and then told Browne that this is the little brother to the girl you spoke of in your poem, before reading his title poem.
Don’t be emotional—Guerrero’s grandfather was a master carpenter before he died. She wanted to build something to honor him and decided sonnets could be a box to place my grief. However, she said she needed to put her heart aside while constructing them, and then grieved anew once they were completed and the emotions came back.
Billy Collins says to write, or at least edit, with a cool head in sunlight. You want to make the reader emotional, not you. He says, I stop reading when I see the word cicada. It's shorthand for, I'm sitting here alone. He knows an authentic voice when he sees it, and it’s not one that immediately makes demands on a reader like we’re in the back of an ambulance going to the psychiatric hospital. I don’t know why I’m there. We haven’t been introduced. Collins says to be aware of the reader. I like when a poet talks to me instead of writes in front of me.
Embrace your anonymity—Li-Young Lee says art lives in two places-scarcity (journals, prizes) and abundance (your working self). According to him, the more you write the more you reveal your true self to yourself. When a high school student asked a question about publishing, Lee replied that anonymity is a gift that should be embraced-get as weird and dark as you want to. After you publish, scarcity impedes on you and that validation can be taken away. You’re like a tree and if you get found too soon they are going to chop you up in boards and you’re done, so guard your anonymity and expand and grow bigger first.
Remember the poetry community is a landscape not a single tower—Considering the current political atmosphere, Katha Pollitt’s metaphor during the feminist panel, Silence Is Become Speech, struck a resounding chord. She elaborated that the poetry world is no longer one giant tower with Shakespeare at the top, but has expanded to become this cityscape with gardens and many different types of buildings-with room for everyone.
Even though I could listen to Billy Collins or Robert Hass all day, after a while it’s refreshing to take a break from the headliners and hear an array of voices.
Be playful—Use humor to get the reader’s defenses down, then take a more serious turn. Billy Collins read “The Swan at Edgewater Park” by Ruth Schwartz, as an example of this technique, with the turn coming after, …Clevelanders walk by saying look at that big duck!
Marilyn Chin uses humor in her poems, some of which have sexy connotations. One audience member exclaimed, We're in a church, and the entire crowd burst out laughing when a group of middle school students entered immediately after Chin read one of her “cougar” series poems. Jokes aside, Chin’s humor gets readers engaged. She uses Chinese quatrains; each of which she considers to be a little pearl, with some imperfect, little f bombs but when she strings them together it forms a perfect necklace.
During his reading of “First Kiss,” Tim Seibles got a chuckle out of the legendary Gary Snyder, which seemed like a pretty impressive accomplishment.
See poetry in all things—Robert Hass referred to William Stafford’s household verse as notations on daily life, and read one of his own poems of interacting with his young children. Billy Collins mentioned Wordsworth and Frank O’Hara bringing a relaxation of poetry into a personal, almost haphazard, recording of what you did in a day.
Alicia Ostriker’s “How Fortunate the Boy” keeps popping into my head. After her move to a new neighborhood in NYC, she started writing about the locale. Her poem is a heart-wrenching document to an accident that occurred on her street corner. In a lighter verse, she turns the local vegetable stand into cathedral windows.
Several poets mentioned to slow down and be present, poetry is all around us.
Be courageous—One of the most poignant moments for me at the Dodge was when a high school student recited Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift” to him and a packed crowd at Peddie Baptist Church. She did it beautifully, seemingly without fear, and I envied her that ability at such a young age. Laurie Ann Guerrero summed up how to grow-Be Courageous. Name your fear and then do it anyway.
One of the themes touched on at the festival was political activism. Brenda Hillman, when asked what the greatest thing she’d risked during her years of political activism, replied, embarrassment. She also said that she’d decided I can’t be angry all the time. I’m just gonna be angry on Fridays.
Sometimes you just have to work past the fear and through the learning curve to get to the good stuff. On student day (over 5,000 students attended sessions on Friday) Billy Collins advised, At birth you have 200 bad poems in you. Did you know that? It’s your birthright. And high school is a great place to get rid of them.
Angel Nafis said she forces herself to write through writer’s block and eventually she will circle back to what she wants to say. Her inspirational motto for herself when she’s struggling is, Girl, one day you’re about to slay this—but not now.
Learn from other poets, but work on your unique delivery—Collins said the best advice he could give to aspiring poets was to read for 10,000 hours and that you have to be jealous of other poets, take a little from each poem. Martin Espada stood in line to have Tim Seibles sign his book. Stephanie Lenox models poems after studying other’s poems.
I’ll admit, at one point in the four days, comments like batshit crazy and self-indulgent sprung up in my notes. But even then, I found it incredibly interesting to see the delivery styles of so many different poets; their hand gestures, body language, and inflictions. You don’t have to be a spoken-word poet to draw your audience in with a performance. Each of the many poets I heard read had lovely quirks uniquely theirs. Marilyn Chin had an infectious cackling laugh, Billy Collins a dry, almost tangible, wit, Robert Hass read his poems like he was having a conversation with you, Li-Young Lee has this deep, insightful nature that somehow comes through physically, and I could go on and on for each poet. Of course, not only their reading but also their writing styles are tweaked to fit themselves as well. Martin Espada said it best when he said, be vivid.
Wear down their defenses—This takeaway is a little bit harder than the others. During the “Poetry like Bread-Poems of Social and Political Consciousness” event, I broke down and cried uncontrollably in the third row for what seemed like hours, but was probably a solid 15 minutes. The night was filled with poems on injustices, but what first wore me down was Hass’s long poem, “Dancing,” which chronicles the history of weapons from the early beginnings of man to present day. What starts out dry gets harder and harder to bear. Add to that, a film documentary on black lives matter with Claudia Rankine’s hypnotic voice asking, can I trust you, while black men get shot by police, and my defenses were totally dissolved.
The contrast of Brenda Hillman’s high-pitched voice with her reading of being beaten at the UC Berkeley protests in “A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility” gave another twist on what bravery is, and a deeper meaning to her husband’s (Robert Hass) later comment about poetry keeping you company in jail.
Martin Espada discussed his immigrant, Puerto Rican father being jailed for not sitting in the back of the bus, and that he later told his son that week in jail was the best of his life because he figured out what to do with the rest of it-fight for equality. The rest of Espada’s previous quote is— Be vivid. The best shot to get somebody to listen is to be vivid. And to, oh, listen yourself.
Keep working/building—At the beginning of Hass’s Poets on Poetry session, he gave an anecdote about Rembrandt meeting a group of students for the first time by coming out of his studio covered in paint. Then, Hass commented that, I feel like I’m this old guy completely smeared in poetry. You have to immerse yourself in the craft by working.
Many of the poets referred to creating poems as building something. Billy Collins said you are doing something greater than expressing yourself, you are making something for the reader like a chest of drawers or, at least, assembling something from IKEA. You should be able to assign yourself a grade for each poem based on how well it’s constructed.
When Angel Nafis wrote a poem to her sister with lupus, “Ode to Dalya’s Bald Spot,” she said she knew it wasn’t a cure, but she wanted to make something her sister could hold like an amulet. After the Paris massacre, Juan Felipe Herrera wrote a poem for the family and friends of Nohemi Gonzalez, a slain American woman, because he wanted them to know he cared. He said her roommates hung the poem on their dorm wall, a solid reminder of their friend.
Fight for your right to poetry—Bryan Borland spoke about starting his own press, Sibling Rivalry Press, and self-publishing his first collection. He said he didn’t want to get stuck in that phase of his life when he had already worked through those specific issues. He wanted to move on with his poetry and said, If you can’t find a door—make one. And, if you can’t do that—break the wall down. He is an LGBTQ poet. This point goes back to number 4 and the array of voices that can be seen in the landscape now, but sometimes you still have to construct your own spot. Embracing our contrasts makes life interesting. Whether you come from a LGBTQ, black, female, immigrant, or whichever point-of-view, you can build a place for your voice. Stephanie Lenox started an online journal, and said you should make a game out of rejections while continuing to seek your audience.
Seek a true and deeper meaning—Li-Young Lee calls poetry a mode of being that can add a saturated quality of meaning to your life. Hass defines it as praise and trying to obtain a right relation to the powers of the universe, maybe the beloved. He says that poetry feels like a bodily rhythm and advises poets read poems to each other and memorize them so that, you’ll never be bored if you get arrested. Poetry makes wonderful company. Hass calls poems either odes or eulogies-either trying to get in touch with the good or ward off death.
Khaled Mattawa beautifully said, Every new idea is a refugee and the poet's heart is where it is housed. Herrera encouraged that activism is not that far, all you have to do is take a small action like picking up a pen. He said activism has to start with you speaking with your beautiful voice a truth you need to address. Hass said, the first Stevens poem I read felt like someone was telling me the truth for the first time.