I returned yesterday from this year's Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. I was there for all four days, working as part of the staff along with other "Dodge Poets." One of the perks of this assignment is a nice hotel room. Mine was in the Holiday Inn Express. I had a lovely big room and wireless internet access. No restaurant, but I didn't need one as another perk is all meals provided in Waterloo Village's Meeting House. The food was excellent, and it was fun seeing all the poets assembled there in more casual moments. Two negatives this year: 1) rain for three of the four days, and 2) poorly functioning bathrooms! Yuck.
But the poetry was wonderful. Here are some photos and some notes from the events.
This photo is of the canal that runs by Waterloo Village. A group of students are planning their strategy. 5ooo of them altogether on Students' Day.
My first job on Thursday was introducing Maxine Kumin. This was one of several Poets on Poetry talks. She is frail as a result of her accident from 10 years ago. She made me nervous each time she leaned over to get a book from the side table. But when she spoke, her voice and mind were wonderful. She spoke about the value of memorization—and has clearly practiced that skill. She spoke also about the harm that negative feedback from early teachers can do. Asked why she writes, she replied: "It's a calling, an obsession. You can't help it."
Another shot of Maxine. She offered this advice: Join a group. Join workshops. Learn the craft. "Love yourself and love what you're doing." Asked how she knows when a poem is finished, she suggested that you put the poem aside and "let it come to room temperature." She suggested trying out the poem on others. "Sometimes the poem needs to sit for years in a drawer." She read a number of poems, ending with "Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief."
My next assignment was to monitor the Giving Voice session in the Gazebo. This year's poets were Etheridge Knight, Sappho, Anne Sexton, and Walt Whitman. Those who wanted to could go into the center of the Gazebo and read a poem by any of those four poets. I arrived while a previous session was still ongoing. I was amazed to see so many students lined up, circled up, piled up, to participate. Of course, there was some open reading going on as well. I got lucky here. The two people monitoring the previous session didn't want to leave!
So I went to hear Beth Ann Fennelly in another of the Poets on Poetry sessions. She has beautiful hair, full of red and gold. She reads well and had a lot of interesting observations. She spoke about writing poems on motherhood, and talked about the risk she took in shifting from writing about other people's lives to writing about her own. She is a morning writer and forbids herself to check email before noon. (Mental note for self!)
After lunch I went to hear Charles Simic. I wish you could visualize this huge tent completely full! Somewhere around 3000 people. He talked about his beginnings as a poet and living in New York after his discharge from the army and how lovely that was in spite of having no money.
I finished my afternoon with Sharon Olds. This session was one of several Poets for Teachers. She spoke of imagination and claimed not to have one, but said she has a "simile-making faculty." What was most interesting to me was hearing her say that she has done away with her earlier position of refusing to acknowledge that her poems are or are not autobiographical. "Of course they're autobiographical." But she still thinks it's most useful in class or workshop to talk of the speaker rather than "you" or "I." I agree with this. Her earlier position was important to me when I began writing poetry. I liked being free of the obligation to tell the back story. And still do. Olds now says she always thought it was obvious that the poems were autobiographical. "Who would make up that stuff?"