Dodge Q&A: Martin Farawell on the Dodge Poetry Festival

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The Dodge Q&A series is designed to introduce you to Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation staff as they share what they’re learning and thinking about as they visit with nonprofits around the state. They’ll also reveal a few things about themselves you might not have known.

With the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival coming up on Oct. 23 to 26 (full details here), we will be speaking to some of the people who help make it happen or who will be playing a special role. 

Today we talk to Martin Farawell, Poetry Program Director. 

140602_dodgeWhat led you to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program?

I was a graduate student studying with Galway Kinnell in NYU’s creative writing program when he told the class about this poetry festival happening in New Jersey. He and Sharon Olds, who also taught in the program, were both going to be there. I lived in Montclair at the time and decided to check it out.

It was the first time I heard Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Carolyn Kizer, Stanley Kunitz, Derek Walcott, Mary Oliver and others read in person.

Some of the poets were living legends. Others were local New Jersey poets like me. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of walking into the first 1986 Dodge Poetry Festival and knowing you were with your tribe. Poetry was much more of a fringe art 30 years ago. What can I say? I’ve been to all four days of every Dodge Festival ever since. I brought my own students when I taught high school and college. Read as a poet in 1996. Worked as a Festival Assistant in 1998 and never left.

What is your favorite part about planning the Dodge Poetry Festival?

Discovering new voices. We spend a lot of time reviewing every submission people send us. And we do review everything. Much of my time is spent listening to recordings, watching videos online, going to readings, reading poetry.

I’m amazed at the number of poets who are writing original, powerful, imaginative, moving poems who are virtually unknown or, at least, unknown outside of their local areas. There are always far more poets we want to invite than we could possibly have space for in any given year. Anyone who thinks poetry isn’t very much alive in contemporary America simply doesn’t know what’s going on out there. We’re in a renaissance.

On par with this is the actual work of putting together the program itself. You spend months going over the work of these poets, and when you start putting them together into readings and panel talks, there’s this excitement of realizing something very exciting is coming together. I’m reminded of something the late great theatrical director Paul Barry used to say, that 90 percent of a director’s job is casting. You get that right, and everything else is easy. That’s how I feel about the Festival Poets. You get the right ones together, and the rest is easy. Of course, I get tremendous help from the Poetry staff at every stage of this work. They make this look easy.

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?

This may sound like an evasive answer, but it’s not. What I’m most looking forward to is the Festival itself. By that I mean the energy and sense of community that is the Dodge Festival. For four days, thousands of poets and people who care about poetry, or who are just curious about it, come together and do some of the most intense listening of their lives.

The poet Li-Young Lee paused in the middle of one of his readings at Dodge to say, “You can almost hear the listening.” You’re in them idle of this rare paradox. Each person is having their own private experience, connecting with one other human being, the poet. But they’re having that private connection in a very public setting, surrounded by thousands of other people going through their own private experience.

This is what a great poetry reading shares with great theater: it’s completely private and personal, and yet a shared and communal. This is true of all powerful experiences in life. Birth, love, death are universal experiences. There’s nothing unique about them, but at the same time they are intimately personal, profoundly our own when we live through them.

This will be the third year the Dodge Poetry Festival will be held in Newark. Do you have any recommendations for things to do for festival-goers who have never been to Newark?

While they’re here, they should go to the Dodge Poetry Festival! And by that I mean all nine venues. The churches, the Newark Museum, the New Jersey Historical Society, Military Park, Aljira — there is amazing architecture in Downtown Newark, and the churches have a rich history. Visiting them is worth the trip. And the Newark Museum is a gem. It has the largest collection of Tibetan art outside of Tibet!

What attendees should do is discover all the reasons they have to come back. NJPAC has a world-class concert hall. I don’t think many New Jerseyans realize what a stunning space it is, and the line-up of performers they bring in there is amazing.

What does poetry mean to you? Do you consider yourself a poet?

I think poetry is the essence of what makes us human: the capacity to make metaphor, to see in our imaginations, without the actual objects in front of us, that this is like that, or the opposite, this is not like that, is the beginning of human thought.

Poetry is the attempt to say the unsayable. That’s what all human speech is, a series of abstract symbols meant to convey some sense of our experience of what it means to be a creature living on the earth. The first hominid who shaped a sound to represent an abstract idea or emotion was creating the first metaphor, the first poem. The moment our minds developed that capacity, and it’s actually much more complicated than merely the capacity to speak, we began to become human.

Poetry has existed in every known culture in history, and the first preserved texts in writing were poems. That we’ve never lost poetry over the millennia, despite the development of fiction, theater, radio, film, television, computer games, virtual realities, is proof of how much it is a part of our natures. The huge groundswell of interest in poetry we see among young people in recent decades — we witness this all the time in our visits to high schools — is a direct response to the pervasiveness of computers and personal devices, which are quite impersonal. It’s as if young people know something essential is missing, and poetry provides that.

Do I consider myself a poet? I started writing poetry when I was 10 years old. By 13, I knew this was what I wanted to dedicate my life to. I’m still working at it. So either I’m a poet or a hopeless optimist.

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