The Dodge Poetry Festival celebrates verse: Students exposed to different aspects of poetry through a variety of media

Emily Ma and Rebecca Muratore

On Oct. 21, students attended the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey.  Since 1986, the festival has served as the largest poetry event in America, with appearances from some of the most prominent poets from around the nation and world. One of the main draws for the festival is a series of special programs designed for teachers and high school students alike.  Students from all over the country attended, and the poets gave advice to students based on their personal experiences as writers.

In September, students received letters inviting them to attend the festival, based on the recommendations of their English teachers. At the poetry festival, students were divided into groups of six, each of which were overseen by a different teacher.

All of the students first convened at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where poets Billy Collins and Rickey Laurentiis spoke.  The two poets did not have a theme to their poetry, but read and answered questions from the students about poetry style, technique, and general themes.  Laurentiis talked about his childhood, and how different factors in your childhood can influence your voice as a poet. Collins also explained how to find your voice as a poet and how to progress your writing.

“Your voice has an external source,” said Collins.  “It’s in libraries, in art books. You find your voice through reading, and you’ll make no headway unless you’re jealous. All the best artists start by imitating.”

After the question-and-answer session, the groups of students split up and went to different readings.  One group attended a reading by poets Mahogany L. Browne, R.A. Villanueva, and Robert Hass at Saint Patrick’s Pro- Cathedral, titled “From Homer to Hip-Hop: Poetry and the Oral Tradition.”  The theme of this reading was spoken poetry.  After each poet performed one of their works, they answered questions from the students pertaining to oral poetry.

“There are so many varieties of poetry,” said Browne.  “Just because I’m not like Whitman or Keats, doesn’t mean I can’t create. Continue writing and reading, and you’ll see that there is a space for you to be heard.”

Hass talked about his experiences growing up in San Francisco during time of beat poets.  He explained how poetry can transcend different generations and have an impact on everyone’s lives.  Villanueva added an interactive aspect to his performance, and led a call and response section among the audience. He also talked about how music influences his poetry.

“Through my poetry, I intermingle the sacred and the profane, the curse word and the praise song,” said Villanueva.  “Music and poetry are very similar because they remind me that we’re in this together.”

Students who attended the festival took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and learn from the poets.  It allowed them to be exposed to a medium that is not always available for high school students to be involved in or contribute to.

“I really enjoyed the variety of poets and poetry,” said senior Anna Watson. “They gave insightful advice those who asked meaningful questions.”