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30th anniversary Dodge Poetry Festival, Oct. 20 to 23, has urban flavor

October 17, 2016 GMT

Poetry, once upon a time, was linked to two other “P’s.” Pretty. And Pastoral.

Odes to nightingales, elegies written in country churchyards, spreading chestnut trees where the village smithy stands — these were the poems that grade school students recited to beaming teachers. Nature, in these poems, was exalted. The simple life was held up as the genteel ideal. Poetry, in short, was the preserve of country, not city, mice.

No wonder The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, in its early years, was held in places like historic Waterloo Village in Sussex County, with its quaint 19th century gristmills and apothecaries, or the rolling lawns of the Doris Duke estate in Hillsborough. All bucolic places. All, so to speak, pretty as a poem.

But in the decades since Allen Ginsberg howled, and several generations of urban poets hipped and hopped, poetry has lost a bit of its lace-doily politeness. We don’t recite poems anymore — we slam them.

And so it makes sense that the biennial Dodge Festival, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, will be staged for the fourth consecutive time in a setting as edgy and street-smart as some of the verse. Newark’s NJPAC, and more than a half-dozen other venues in the city’s downtown arts district, will be the setting of a festival that is expected to draw as many as 12,000 over four days.

“Poetry is happening in the present, it’s contemporary, it’s alive,” says poet Martin Farawell, director of the festival.

“Waterloo Village was a beautiful setting, but it kind of had a retreat feeling,” Farawell says. “You were going to this isolated place, surrounded by a state forest. You were kind of stepping out of the present. [Newark] is a vital city. The change in the setting reflects that change in the feeling. We’re underlining the fact that poetry is a contemporary art. It’s not something bucolic from another culture, written by dead people. America in 2016 is very complicated, vivid, diverse. And so is contemporary poetry.”

Some 150 poetry events will be held, often concurrently, at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall and other venues in the downtown arts district of Newark over four days, in what is billed as North America’s largest poetry event.

The all-star, event-packed, high-density nature of the festival may be something new under the sun.

Poetry, as conventionally thought of, is small, solitary, still. “We have a sense that [poetry] is not a big art, because it doesn’t have the kind of spectacle that the halftime show at the Super Bowl does,” Farawell says.

This year’s Dodge Festival, by contrast, is an extravaganza. Past and present U.S. poets laureate will be there: Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Juan Felipe Herrera (the current poet laureate). So will Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, himself a poet and the son of a poet (his father was the late poet and playwright Amiri Baraka). And plenty of other big names, including Alicia Ostriker, Martin Espada, Jane Hirshfield, Gary Snyder, Claudia Rankine and many more.

There will be panels on subjects ranging from spoken-word poetry (“From Homer to Hip Hop: Poetry and the Oral Tradition”) to poetry and the LGBTQ community (“Poetry and Pride.”) WNYC’s Brian Lehrer will moderate a panel called “The Work to Be Done: Poetry and Social Justice.” The Academy of American Poets will, simultaneously and for the first time, be having its annual “Poet’s Forum” meeting in Newark. This event, incorporated into the festival, will also include readings, and is also open to the public.

“To have a poetry festival in Newark is entirely appropriate, because of Newark’s diversity,” says David Rodriguez of Englewood, NJPAC’s executive producer. “It’s that diversity that makes art exciting, that makes poetry exciting.”

Newark’s other great advantage: it’s a transportation hub. Unlike Waterloo Village and the Duke estate, reachable only by car, Newark is accessible by train, plane, bus. Which may explain why some 4,500 high school students, from as far away as Florida, Georgia and Maine, will descend on the event on Friday’s “Student Day.”

“To have literally thousands of young people experiencing poetry, reading poetry to each other, having new doors open to them, new thoughts and cultures through poetry, is probably the most exiting part of the festival to me,” Rodriguez says.

Today’s young people have a different relation to poetry than kids of a generation or two past, Farawell believes.

America, we like to think, is a country of sports-lovers more than sonnet-readers. That may have been true at one time (though our great-grandparents could recite “Casey at the Bat” and “Trees” without breaking a sweat). But today, when the poetry of pop music and hip-hop is blasting out of every car stereo, kids are more comfortable with dense language, complex rhyme schemes, alliteration and assonance than ever before.

“We go into high schools now, and students who are the school poets are not embarrassed by that title,” Farawell says. “When I went to high school, if you were a boy who wrote poetry, this was not information you shared with your friends. Young people now have a different feeling about what it is to be a poet.”

Indeed, poetry — for today’s generation — may be more important than ever before, Farawell believes.

“I think one reason is there are so many other distractions in the culture, with movies, iPhones, music, TV,” Farawell says. “We are bombarded, 24 hours a day, with distraction, noise, sensation. Poetry is one of those arts that does the opposite. It slows us down. It makes us look inward. It makes us look at each other closer. It’s the opposite of distraction, the opposite of escape.”

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com