Monday, October 04, 2004

From the Archives: Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, 2004

This is part of my "From the Archives" series, which consists of texts from e-mails I sent to friends describing my experiences at poetry events. I may have taken some small editorial liberties with these texts, and I have included related pictures and hyperlinks, but these are all BBB (Before BillyBlog). Remember, for me readings are enjoyable for two separate reasons: the love of poetry, and the mania for collecting. I am who I am. Enjoy!

Subject: Dodge Poetry Festival Report
Date: 10/4/2004 13:0:41 GMT

Here is my dispatch from Dodge. It's long, so you may need to read in several sittings. Hope you enjoy.


On Saturday, October 3, I arrived early at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey. It was a gloomy, overcast day. Rain threatened. I was nervous. So were my books. Mud was a problem, but I had checked the Dodge website so I knew to wear boots. It was lucky I arrived early, because the fields for parking closed because of the mud and the number of cars. When I left at the end of the day, I was handed a flier advising that all parking would be off site on Sunday. Attendees would have to shuttle in from 2.5 miles away. Fortunately, I was on site and only there Saturday. I made four trips back to the car during the day and early evening to rotate out books from my oversized Green Bay Packers duffle bag.

I first went to the main tent, holding two thousand seats. Coleman Barks was reading with the accompaniment of the Paul Winter Consort. Barks read Rumi [he is one of the foremost translators of the mystic poet] and some of his own work. He has a melodic Southern voice and is very good-natured. He's always a crowd-pleaser and he did not disappoint.

Barks ended at 9:15, and I went to the "South Island Tent" for a session called "Conversations on Craft" with Sandra Cisneros. I've never seen Cisneros, so this session was prioritized for me, especially since I have a rare paperback original first edition of My Wicked Wicked Ways. Anyway, Cisneros was fascinating, although she conversed less on craft and read more of her work, poems and prose.

She also read the work of Borges and Galeano (The Book of Embraces). Most striking was her talking about her time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop as being very difficult and troubling for her. Most interesting was her describing the writing process as follows, pardon the paraphrasing:

"It's like I'm dog-paddling in the ocean. I keep paddling until I come across a piece of driftwood. I cling to it. I keep paddling, but I at least have something to hold onto. I keep picking up pieces of driftwood. Eventually, I have enough where only part of me is in the ocean. I keep going, adding as I find things. Eventually, I only have to paddle. Then I have a boat. And finally I have a vessel that can take me places. When I strike land, I am finished."

I though it was a nice metaphor.

When the session was over, I approached for signing. She blank-signed my first of My Wicked Wicked Ways, my hardcover first of Wicked Ways, my first of Loose Woman, her page in my United States of Poetry anthology, and her page, Texas, in my NEA publication Writing America. [Click the Writing America link gives you a 112-page pdf file available for download - it's an amazing and scarce publication].

I then plodded downhill to the "Gingko Lane Tent." Concurrent with the Cisneros event was "Conversation: Going Public with Private Feelings." All the panelists were still lingering about, chatting and signing books. I first had Stephen Dunn sign 5 copies of my Best American Poetry (BAP). He signed '89, '91, '92, '93 and '03. He did not seem to be in very good shape. He had terrible hand tremors and apologized for not signing things nicely. I expressed my gratitude for his taking the time to sign everything for me.

Galway Kinnell
was around, but I didn't have anything for him to sign, yet. I have seen Kinnell at least a half a dozen times, so he has signed all my BAPs. I did catch Jane Hirshfield and reminded her of meeting me at Dodge '00. I thanked her again for signing my Poetry in Motion poster of "The Groundfall Pear" which is hanging in my office. I also got her to sign BAP '99, '01 and '04. Then, I hovered while Edward Hirsch chatted with some people for an interminable amount of time. Then, I had him sign BAP '03 and told him how much I enjoyed his weekly poetry column with The Washington Post.

Next, I went back to the car to dump the Cisneros books and reorganize my big bag o' poems.

I headed back and faced the conundrum of the "Poets Among Us" problem. These poets are the lesser ones, who do readings for an hour in groups of three. I had caught some of them while waiting for Ed Hirsch, but there were 18 poets reading simultaneously so I had to choose based on "most bang for the buck" vis-a-vis my BAP series. I caught the tail end of the trio of Catherine Doty, Wesley McNair and James Richardson. McNair signed my BAP '89 and '99 at the "Smartweeds Tent". I then ran over to the "Gingko Lane Tent" and had David Ray sign my BAP '99. There I had the embarrassing moment of the day when Ray, signing a poem about Hemingway, asked if I liked the Hemingway poem he had read just moments earlier. Of course, I was over at Smartweeds and had to fess up that I had missed the reading. Oh well. Then, the guy from Ginkgo that I did hear, Jim Daniels, signed my BAP '00.

I stopped by the Borders tent and picked up a paperback [Here There Was Once a Country] by the Lebanese poet Venus Khoury-Ghata, who was reading next at the Main Stage. She was reading with Marilyn Hacker, and they alternated reading Venus' poems, Hacker in English, Venus in French. Of note, was a long sequence about a cherry tree disappearing from her family yard the night of a big storm, and the fiction invented by the children that the tree had gone to America to make it big. The Main Tent featured signings after each reading, but they goofed and forgot to tell Khoury-Ghata to come to the signing. Right after she read, Paul Muldoon read.

Despite the difficult of his poems, I always enjoy his readings because of his self-deprecating Irish humor.

Post-reading, he came over, as did Khoury-Ghata and Hacker. I was at the head of the Muldoon line and he signed my BAP '03 and '04. I then hopped over to the Hacker/Khoury-Gata table and Ms. Hacker signed the book of Venus she had translated, her poem in BAP '92 and added another signature to my Toronto friend Brian's AIDS anthology, Poets for Life. Sorry, Brian, that's the only book of yours I had in tow. Then, Ms. Khoury-Ghata signed the book Hacker had
inscribed, but despite the simplicity of my name, she could not understand, so it is inscribed to Beuld, or something like that. Oh well.

Jane Hirshfield read on the main stage next. There was a bit of awkwardness when Jim Haba, the Dodge Poetry Festival organizer began his introduction of her, "Jane Kenyon is from Mill Valley...." He went on for at least a minute before someone signaled him and corrected him. Jane Kenyon died several years back and her husband, Donald Hall, was at the festival but I'm not sure if he was in the tent at the time. Anyway, she read some very moving poetry, including some work about Rwanda and Sudan that was very sobering. She ended with a very moving elegy to Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Laureate who had just passed back in August. It was the first time she had ever read it and professed to be very nervous about it. At the signing after the reading, she inscribed my proof of her last book Given Sugar, Given Salt, as well as her entry in the anthology First Loves, which is a book where poets introduce poems that first inspired them. I told her how much I had enjoyed the Milosz tribute and that it was his anthology A Book of Luminous Things where I had first read one of her poems.

Next, was Adonis (pronounced Ah-doh-neese), a Syrian poet who read in tandem with a translator, the Libyan-born Khaled Mattawa (a "Poet Among Us"). It was fascinating hearing the four poets in succession, the Lebanese French of Khoury-Ghata, the Irish Brogue of Muldoon, the plain American peacefulness of Hirshfield, and then the Arabic of Adonis. At the signing after the event, I just had Mattawa sign his entry in BAP '96. Nothing for Adonis.

Break time. I grabbed a bite at the food tent and ate it on the way back to the car. Shuffling of books and planning for the rest of the day. Sound exhausting? It was only 3:00 PM. I had 7 hours to go! Ah, I love Dodge! I was invigorated as I walked back the half-mile from the parking field and two deer galloped by fifty yards away.

There were several concurrent sessions next and I went to the one called "Finding Poetry's Inner Music, Saying the Unsaybale." The panelists were Coleman Barks, Marilyn Chin, Yusef Komunyakaa and C.K. Williams. This was a lively group and consisted mostly of Q&A. Some of the questions people were asking were pretty bizarre. Is there anything that is unsayable in the 21st century. Several people stated that everything was said in the 90's and nothing shocked
anymore, then we talked about The Patriot Act, and Barks praised Williams, who thanked Barks and then Chin scolded them for their male bonding. I was interested in meeting Chin, who was one of the performers at Dodge '94 and was featured in the Bill Moyers' special The Language of Life, which was such a transcendent series for me. She was very friendly and signed her entry in The Language of Life book, her entry in BAP '96, and an old copy of a poem in an old issue of The
Iowa Review
. The production of this Iowa Review caused Chin to regale me loudly as a "top-class collector!"

Williams signed his book The Singing (all of these are first editions, by the way, unless otherwise noted) and BAP '03. Komunyakaa signed his new book Taboo and BAP '03 and BAP '04 and the aforementioned First Loves anthology.

I ran to the "Mermaid Fountain Tent" to see if I could catch Donald Hall. He was there with Jane Hirshfield. Weird, considering the gaffe by Haba earlier. I thought it best not to bring it up. Billy Collins was ill, as I learned from signs posted that he would only be appearing on Sunday. Bummer. I was last in line for Hall, who signed BAP '99, '00,'01, and '02. He also signed a Poetry in Motion poster , the poem "Sew":


She kneels on the floor, snip snip

in the church of scraps,

tissue like moth's wings,

pins in the cushion of her mouth,

basting and hemming

until it stands up like a person

made out of whole cloth.

Still, I like folded

on the bolt in the dark warehouse,

dreaming my shapes.


I then stopped by Jane Hirshfield, who said "Hi Bill!" I showed her the Book of Luminous Things she had signed for me 4 years earlier and showed her where Milosz had inscribed it for me.

I then ran to the Gingko Lane tent, where they had been discussing "Poetry and Class" but Lucille Clifton, Philip Levine and Joyce Carol Oates had already left. But, I was consoled by Franz Wright, this year's Pulitzer winner who signed my Milosz anthology. I then walked over to "The Little Blue Stem" tent to get in line to do an open reading. I was standing there thinking how unusual it was that Wright was not in any BAP anthologies. I double-checked my spreadsheet to discover, alas, he was in BAP '92. I looked back at the Gingko Tent, but the musicians from the Ecuadorian band Yarina were playing and Wright had disappeared. My one big goof of the day.

I stood in line for about 45 minutes and then read to about 40 people, "Your Love is A Machete," for Shayna, which many of you have seen in the past week [click here to read it]. I got cheers. The next guy came up and started "I believe in the economy of words, so this will be short." It sounded like a shot at my poem, which didn't seem very long, but did have a lot of superfluous information in it. Later in the evening I wrote a response poem called "I Believe in the Economy of Words". If you want to see either of these poems, let me know and I will send them.

A little bit later, I went for my final trip to the car for reshuffling. This time, when I returned, the bag was noticeably lighter. Hurrah.

Home stretch. Reading from Cecilia Vicuña, Peruvian, shamanistic, incredible, artistic. Imagine if Yoko Ono could sing less in an avant-garde style, and she sang poetry, that was what Vicuña was like. Of course, I didn't have anything for her to sign, and still enjoyed her. So it's not all about the signing. Incredible irony: today at a garage sale I picked up an art/poetry anthology called ClothesLines. It includes a poem by, you guessed it, Vicuña.

Next, Ed Hirsch, who was good, and who later signed his poem in an old May Swenson anthology called American Sports Poems. He seemed surprised to see it. Then, Joyce Carol Oates, who was surprisingly good and good-natured. She read a poem called "$" and talked about Donald Trump, taking a shot at him, saying he didn't read, although he might have someone read to him. After her reading, she signed one of her novels that she had written as Rosamond Smith (Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon), a book put out by the New York Public Library called A Commonplace Book, and my First Loves anthology.

Then, the best of the evening, Philip Levine, who was very powerful and when he mentioned that he lived in brooklyn now, some dopes on the other side of the tent started screaming, he retorted, "That's it, I'm moving to Queens." The best part was when he was joined by Dave Douglas on trumpet and Uri Caine on piano. He read his wonderful poem "They Feed They Lion" to jazz accompaniment and then finished with two poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, most notably "New York (Office and Denunciation)".

When Levine signed, I introduced myself and said I had come to his office a few years back, "Yeah," he said, "you had a stack of books." Of course, in front of me I had a few, which he signed, the Richard Howard anthology Preferences, BAP '03, Jorie Graham's ECCO anthology, The Paris Review Anthology, First Loves, The Simple Truth (shocker! One of his books!) and an old Iowa Review in which he is interviewed by the novelist Howard Norman. He wasn't unhappy to see me go.

Finally, Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds did their joint reading thing that they always do at Dodge. It's a melange of their own poems and poems of others, alternating on a theme. This year it was "Marriage, A Conversation in Poems." They always bring the house down and this was no exception. Galway signed for me: Graham's ECCO anthology, an old Salmagundi magazine (thanks Brian), that NYPL book Oates also signed and The Paris Review anthology.

I had one thing for Olds, but the line was too long, it was almost 10, and it was only a poem in an issue of Ploughshares. Next time I catch her in NYC.

So, an amazing day. As I mentioned in my first e-mail, not only was the poetry great, but I fed my other obsession, collecting signatures in my ever-expanding repertoire of anthologies and literary magazines. 19 poets, 57 signatures in 31 different items. And if you think that's excessive, I missed Billy Collins and the chance to sign another Poetry in Motion poster. Also, I had two books for Lucille Clifton, who I missed completely, plus I had a book for Hall forgot to get signed, another anthology and 6 magazines that never made it out of the car.

But I'm not complaining.

Thanks for indulging me. Next Dodge is in 2006. Anyone want to join me?