Poetry Fridays: A Place for Poetry

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

A number of years ago, Founding Director Jim Haba wrote of the Dodge Poetry Festival that it provided “a space in which poetry can assume its rightful place at the center of our imaginative and emotional lives.” For more than two decades, that space existed for a few days in the Festival’s “Poetry Village,” which seemed to magically appear and disappear during every even-numbered year.

Of course, the Festival did not appear by magic. It took vision, imagination, determination, persistence, and even downright stubbornness. It took dozens of people working, sometimes to the point of near delirium from exhaustion, to make it happen. Although no magic was involved, a miracle of sorts was: During decades when poetry was consistently the poorest funded of all the arts, the Dodge Foundation sponsored a Festival that grew to be widely recognized as the largest poetry event in North America.

But the rising cost of producing the Festival came up against the harsh realities of the recent stock market crash. Earlier this year, David Grant, Dodge’s President and CEO, had the painful task of announcing that the Foundation could no longer sustain a Festival of its previous scale at Waterloo Village.

And then something utterly unpredictable happened.

Within days of that announcement, Dodge received a call from Joe Hartnett, Montclair’s Township Manager, proposing we partner with Montclair to save the Festival. Then we heard from Anne LaBate, Chair of the Arts and Business Council of Greater Trenton, urging us to consider the State Capitol. By the time Newark and Asbury Park contacted us, we were coming to the startling and inspiring realization that the people of New Jersey were not going to allow the Festival to go gentle into that good night.

We released a “Request for Proposals from Potential Partners” in the spring, and heard from a dozen New Jersey communities, received proposals from eight, put together a Poetry Committee of staff and trustees, and spent the summer months reviewing proposals and scouting sites. What we found on our visits were people from all over the state who were eager to help “save the Festival.” Their passion and determination refutes any claims that poetry is a fringe art with a small audience.

With Anne LaBate and Kathleen Crotty of the State Capitol Joint Management Commission as our tireless, patient and knowledgeable Trenton guides, the Dodge Poetry Committee had a first-class tour of our gorgeously restored Capitol District. Joe Hartnett, Eileen Sheehan and the many folks from Montclair who met with us reminded us what a vibrant cultural center Montclair is, with its beautiful churches, its arts, historical and literary organizations, its shops, galleries and many restaurants.

To witness, first-hand, the amazing rejuvenation of Asbury Park’s downtown, to be reminded that one of the twentieth century’s most influential poets made his home in Rutherford, and to discover the architectural and cultural gems of Dodge’s hometown of Morristown, led all of us on the Poetry Committee to feel we had rediscovered our home state.

Because these towns and cities had so much to offer, and because their representatives were so enthusiastic and dedicated, it was far more difficult to narrow our options and make a final choice than we could have anticipated. Eight months ago, we had sadly come to the conclusion that we might not be able to hold a Festival at all. Here we were in September, feeling there were half a dozen viable locations to choose from.

We found ourselves in this enviable position because of the enthusiastic support of the residents of New Jersey. That Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg all made New Jersey their home is not the only reason the state of poetry is strong in the Garden State. The Dodge Foundation has nurtured poetry for over two decades. The poetry community Dodge nurtured for so many years came together to rescue the Festival. The seeds Founding Dodge Executive Director Scott McVay and Jim Haba planted all those years ago when they envisioned the first Dodge Festival in 1986 have flourished. They should be justly pleased that this gift to poetry and the world will live on.

Those of us who have attended the Festival know it was never confined by its duration of a mere four days, or by the boundaries of Waterloo Village or Duke Farms. The Festival, like poetry itself, lived on in the thousands who had gathered and listened together under those tents. And now it moves to one of our nation’s most diverse and complex cities, with a rich heritage and history.

Newark started out as New Ark, its name a symbol of hope in the New World. Its churches served as field hospitals for both the Colonial and British armies during the Revolutionary War. The waves of immigration, the Industrial Age, the Great Migration, and the tumult of the 1960’s were all played out here. Its decades-long climb back to its place as the cultural center of the state is an amazing American story. The Dodge Foundation is proud to partner with NJPAC and the people and passion of Newark itself in bringing the Dodge Festival to Newark in the autumn of 2010.

Visit dodgepoetry.org in the months ahead for further details, and to sign up for our e-mailing list to receive the latest news.

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