Poetry Fridays: Trying to Understand

Rebecca Gambale, Poetry Program Associate

The Dodge Poetry Mini-festival at Millburn High School this Wednesday opened with a reading from the day’s three visiting poets. First to read was Patrick Phillips (above), who read  “My Lovely Assistant”. During his comments on the poem, Patrick made reference to his tumultuous household growing up. He pointed out the differences between his brother and himself, and noted that he often played the role of “the watcher” of his brother’s risky behavior. He talked about writing the poem as way to grapple with this relationship.   “You don’t write poetry about things you understand – you write about things you are trying to understand.” As the day went on, the other poets, Tara Betts and John Murillo, touched on this same topic.   We read and write poetry with hopes of fully experiencing those things that are hard to explain, difficult to express and ambiguous.

As a child in South Central Los Angeles, John Murillo (left) was interested in basketball, hip hop and breakdancing.  He wasn’t drawn to poetry until he was in his thirties when he pulled a Patrick Rosal book off of a bookshelf, and discovered he’d had similar life experiences. And while this sense of community initially drew him to poetry, John shared with students that he reads other poets in order to tap into their joy as well. Reading Aracelis Girmay’s “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me A Card” to students, he shared the joy he feels through reading. We are reminded of the range of human experience—outside of what comes naturally—when we read poetry.

Tara Betts (above) stressed the importance of empathy by reading a poem by Niki Herd.  The speaker of the poem is quite unexpected: Cookie Monster. In the poem Cookie Monster asks  Michelle Obama out on a date. Tara asked students, “Can you imagine writing from the voice of a cartoon character asking someone out? When you hear about a natural disaster on the news, can you imagine writing from the voice of the hurricane? What would the hurricane say?” This change in perspective helps to nurture empathy, creating personas and feelings which we may not understand, and sometimes may not want to understand. But in doing so, we’re getting closer to that which is not readily apparent to us.

Throughout the day, John, Patrick and Tara gave the students their insight into the mind of passionate writers, but also inquisitive readers.  They talked from both perspectives and emphasized the surprises that come from immersing oneself in poetry. 


The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program co-sponsors school festivals in New Jersey high schools. For more information, contact Michele Russo, Poetry Coordinator, mrusso@grdodge.org.

Did you know that the Dodge Poetry Program has a YouTube channel? Take a look – view video clips from past biennial Festivals! You can also join the conversation on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @dodgepoetryfest. See you there!

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