Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dodgy about Dodge

The first flyer for the 2010 Dodge Festival reached the house this week. On the website, there's a photo of the NJPAC with a great and colorful crowd in and around it. The site talks at some length about how the new location (used to be in Waterloo Village, and one unfortunate year at Duke Farms) will be co-located with the vibrant Newark arts scene and "greener" because it will enable attendance by public transportation. This is all true, I suppose, but I can't help but feel this will be a very, very, different experience than prior festivals, and it will be missing some of what, for me, were the best experiences of the festival.

At Waterloo, there were occasionally long walks between selected venues - I guess for many people, these were an inconvenience, but for me, they were a chance to digest whatever event I had just been in, breath for a minute, and get ready to give myself over to the next experience. Can you imagine, for example, going from Anne Waldman to Coleman Barks without a sorbet-like stroll separating?

The spread-out nature of the festival permitted spontaneous gatherings; you'd sometimes see a group of (ahem) younger aspiring poets gathered in circle talking, or even having an impromptu critique group meeting. It also permitted the strolling musicians - like Yarina, who are featured prominently on the website - to really stroll. I'm hopeful the planners are considering this, though I'm not sure how it's going to happen.

The particular venues of the Waterloo layout also contributed to some events - storytelling in the barn, spiritual poems in the old church, the crazy joy of the high school kids' reading from the gazebo. I can't see how those venues can be recreated around NJPAC - different ones, maybe, but newer, pre-fab ones.

Probably what I'll miss most are those moments where I wander away to the side of the Morris Canal and just unplug from the intellectual energy of the event. Looking back over past festivals, those times are what I seem to remember most clearly. Walking along that quiet path down by the canal, toward those two buildings that always seemed somehow forgotten, to that tent across the canal that always seemed to collect all the water from all the other tents, thinking about the 6,000 stories in Dovie Thomason's repertoire, about meeting poets like Beth Ann Fennelly whose work I knew for 6 years before I met her, about Taha Mohammad Ali's experiences and Mark Doty's great joy for whatever he was doing (reading, chatting, greeting people on the walk. We'll see if those experiences can be recreated in Newark. Maybe they'll open the ball park for us.

I'll accept the "greener" label and its good intentions for now, though that's a very hard thing to prove. Most "greener" claims simply displace waste to a different location or trade waste for energy (like how hand dryers eliminate a bit of waste at the expense of bit of increased electricity consumption), but it's probably true that some people will take advantage of the public transportation, which would have been running anyway.

In any event, I just need to adjust my expectations for a different kind of Dodge. Even if it's not what I'm used to and some of the things I personally looked forward to each time, it's still a terrific gathering of premier poets, and worth the effort to get used to something new.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Few Tips From Brother Joseph and Sister Michael

Via Steven Schroeder, today I read this post by Chris O. Cook, in which he calls out the 600-pound gorilla by saying "Poetry readings are boring." While I don't share his vehemence, I think he makes some excellent points that my high school forensics coach and first director* would share.

Chris makes some excellent points, but it really all boils down to a lack of awareness of what engages the audience and a lack of effort (sometimes deriving from a lack of comfort) to be entertaining.

Here are a few things many poets can do a better job of:

  • Plan to engage the audience. Bad coaches tell you to open with a joke, good ones tell you you need a hook to catch them and make them listen. Either way, you have a responsibiltiy to push the START button on the reading somehow.
  • Understand but don't partition your audience. As you're starting and during the "casual" dialog, you should be aware of the demographics of your listeners (usually obtainable from a quick look around the room as you settle in at the microphone). It's good to speak to them once in a while, but try not to exclude anyone in the crowd when you do so (I've been inadvertently excluded based on gender, age, education, favorite poets, and politics).
  • Drop the mousy humility. If you're really uncomfortable reading, don't read. If you're going to read, doing act like you hate it. It sounds almost too silly to point out, but remember that your discomfort will make the audience uncomfortable.
  • Be aware of presentation technology. Spend a minute to understand your microphone before you read. Get there early enough to experience the venue, the lights, the layout of the space.
  • Cast off the monotony. Basic public speaking tip: Vary volume and speed. Your poems and your banter with the audience will have different mood and tone and meaning at diffreent points in your reading; why would you suppress your natrual voice at those moments to make them sound the same?

Truthfully, I've not had a reader in my series in 9 years who was genuinely difficult to enjoy because of weak presentation, but I make a serious point to understand the probability of a weak presentation when I sign someone up. In most cases I've seen them before or have a first-hand recommendation; in a rare case, I'll trust a large personality offstage to carry over onto the stage.

Give Chris's post a read - he's more eloquent than I on this issue, and I'm curious what points strike you as on the mark, and if you think he's missig anything. Let me know; we haven't even touched on how basic dance chorus training can be useful for your readings!

* - names altered, but they know who they are....

Friday, March 19, 2010

In Which We Turn Around And Realize A Month Has Passed...

Hoo boy. Things do happen, don't they? Let's have a quick catch-up post so we can move on to better things in the days to come, shall we?


Had a great visit from Joan Cusack Handler to the Spoken Word Series this month. I know my six loyal readers are tired of hearing this, but the generosity of the NJ poetry community continues to refresh and amaze me. Joan is the Publisher at CavanKerry Press, which produces some of the most physically and poetically beautiful books around, and a terrific poet besides. Not only was her reading great (which I expected), but she handled the typically interactive enthusiasm of our little crowd with great humor, and gave several of us some specific and helpful publishing guidance besides. Isn't it true that those with the most confidence in themselves tend to be the most generous with their coaching?

BTW, if you enjoy poetry presented live, you need to go here. It doesn't get much better.


Word is starting to leak out about the upcoming Hanover Press anthology Crush, to which I contributed a favorite poem that had yet to find a home in print. Editor Faith Vicinanza has this to say about the book:

"Most poets are intrigued, if not enthralled, with the notion of love. And it doesn’t require a belief in love as a viable construct nor as a human emotion that is, by its nature, unavoidable, to find the subject worthy of contemplation and a poem or two.

Still, poets know there isn’t a hewing cry for more unrequited love poems. I prefer to call these almost love poems, or better, versified flirtations.

This collection is meant to delight in the familiar, to share knowingly in the humor underlying the obsessive, and at times, to tease, perhaps even seduce."

This book should be a lot of fun.

As an aside, the truism that a poem is never really done (that most poems can always be revised and improved) applies to me in spades in this case. I presented the earliest version of the poem Faith includes in the book at an open 2004. The final product is a recognizable cousin - related, but different in many good ways. And yes, I mean that as a compliment to my cousins.


Finally noticed a press reference to the fun event at Gary's Wine and Marketplace last month, which featured Laura Boss, Maria Gillan, and a Who's-Who in New Jersey at the open mic. The article reflects a bit of distance from the poetry community (some of the references are pure textbook stuff), but it's still worth a read. And a nice DeBaun Series event reference on page 2 (for which THANKS!)

And yes, that's me in the second row.


My first chapbook, which I've made several oblique references to in past weeks, will be out in time for Father's Day this year. It was a long process to complete the commitment to self-publishing it and validating that opinion with poets and publishers I respect. I've been reading from the prototype in public recently. I feel about self-publishing like Wil Wheaton did about making an infomercial: It will send clear signals to some and create a perception that I'm an artist on a certain level of talent. Nevertheless, it's clearly the right decision for me in this case and I'm comfortable understanding what some people will think of me. "Some people" aren't the audience for this book. Thanks to those who helped me get home on this issue; you know who you are.


The waters are starting to recede in New Jersey, but we are reminded that we are part of the fragile world after all. The tree that was leaning over my house for the past week has been tended to, and in its leaving has taken with it all the metaphors it introduced into my little universe. I'm thankful, and looking forward to a great and renewing Spring.

Stick around for it, won't you?