The Dodge Poetry Festival

In late October, I was lucky enough to attend 3 days out of 4 for the 30th Anniversary of the Dodge Poetry Festival (the largest poetry festival in North America).

One my favorite aspects of Dodge is hearing from poets I didn’t know before. When Mahogany Browne read her poem about the skating rink, I knew it was one I wanted to bring back to my students.

Perhaps I should have taken more detailed notes but here were some things that stood out to me.

Billy Collins spoke about the “traces of dragon smoke” or mystery of poems. I really loved that image. His recommendation for how to discuss poems with students included looking at how a poem moves, how we can follow it as a set of maneuvers because it shifts points.

Li-Young Lee proclaimed that “Reading is the deepest form of love.” He also spoke about how he believes “Poems should inspire action, not just more poems.”

“Silence is a syllable of speech.” – Jane Hirshfield

“When we read poetry, we read differently.” – Jane Hirshfield.

If you are able to attend the next festival, I would highly recommend it. Teachers get professional development hours. You can even register to bring students on Student Day for free. If you are unable to come to the festival, try to attend some of their other teacher events, like “Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain.” This is also a free opportunity (except if you choose to attend the Common Gathering). I have heard many teachers shy away from exploring poetry with their students. The events at Dodge are a great way to learn more and gain resources to bring back to your classroom.

What are some of your favorite poems and poets? Specifically, ones that are great to share with students.


Below are the sessions I chose to attend.

Thursday’s Schedule (Teacher Day):

  1. Welcome and Poets on Poetry (Laureates for Teachers): Billy Collins
  2. Poets on Poetry: Li-Young Lee
  3. Poets for Teachers: Fatimah Asghar, Rickey Laurentiis, and Safiya Sinclair
  4. Poets on Poetry: Martin Espada

Saturday’s Schedule:

  1. In Praise: Martin Espada, Mahogany L. Browne, Parkington Sisters, and the Newark Boys Chorus
  2. Washing in Clear Water – Asian Poetry in America: Marilyn Chin, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Li-Young Lee, Gary Snyder
  3. Poet’s Forum – The Poetic Line: Mark Doty, Linda Gregerson, Jane Hirshfield, and Arthur Sze.
  4. Main Stage Readings: Li-Young Lee and Tim Seibles

Sunday’s Schedule:

  1. From Homer to Hip-Hop – Poetry and the Oral Traditon: Fatimah Asghar, Martin Espada, Li-Young Lee, Tim Seibles, and Safiya Sinclair
  2. I, Too Sing America – Poetry and Race: Marilyn Chin, Juan Felipe Herrera, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankine, and Vijay Seshadri
  3. Tribute to Galway Kinnell: Billy Collins, Martin Espada, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, Mirah Kozodoy, and Tim Seibles
  4. Main Stage Readings: Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Gary Snyder




Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I ordered Eleanor & Park after reading John Green’s review in the New York Times.  Apparently, I am easily persuaded by John Green and his nerdfighter powers.  And I had every intention of reading it immediately, as evidenced by its permanent place on my bed.  But the life of the teacher is not his or her own and the chaos of spring and the end of year kicked in and I really wasn’t reading much at all.  When I did crawl into bed after offering feedback on student work and grading, my brain was incapable of giving this story the attention it deserved.

So here we are in June.  The bottom line is that the book is amazing and everyone should read it.  I couldn’t put it down and ended up reading it in less than a day.  I was even tempted to take it with me when I took my dog for his morning walk.

The gist is that in 1986 Eleanor is a teenager who is just returning to her dysfunctional home after being kicked out by her mother’s substance abusing husband, who also happens to have a violent streak.  Adolescence is a treacherous path as it is without these added land mines.

Sometimes high schools sucks.  Ms. Rowell does justice to what it really feels like to be the new kid looking for a seat on the bus and all the other awkwardness that follows.  On top of that there are other elements that make Eleanor an outcast.  She doesn’t wear the right clothes, her physical appearance makes her stand out (and as far as she is concerned not in a good way).  I think at some point we have all experienced moments like Eleanor. She becomes an easy target and faces ridicule from her peers.

But for me what I think makes this book so special and what resonates is the authenticity from which Rowell writes.  When you have to keep other people’s secrets, especially those of a domestic nature, they also become your secrets.  Rowell’s portrayal of Eleanor’s internal struggle is spot on. #nailedit

Eleanor’s need or want to have something of her own is understandable, especially given the cramped quarters that she occupies.  Eleanor finds that something in Park.  I think that when you are subjected to those kinds of life circumstances you attempt to compartmentalize your life.  You have this great thing and you don’t want it spoiled by your home life.  But you can’t be totally vulnerable with the other person, because you fear they will reject you because of the secrets you have so closely guarded.  There are really only two outcomes here: either you don’t let the person in and the relationship dissolves (or implodes as the case may be) or you let them see the truth of your life (and who wants to risk that?).

The novel explores other teenage issues as well – from Eleanor’s body image to Park’s struggle with parental expectations and identity, which are equally important to explore.  I think many teenagers will connect to these characters and many adult readers will be taken back to their own past experiences (I know I was).

Towards the end, I thought that Ms. Rowell was going to crush my soul, but then in true Eleanor fashion came the unexpected.   I couldn’t even start a new book right away, because I needed to savor this story a little bit longer.

There are no gimmicks – no smoke and mirrors here – that might attract a fast movie deal.  Things don’t blow up, people don’t die, the end of the world as we know it is not at stake. But what the reader does get is writing that is just lush and beautiful.  Rainbow Rowell masterfully captures first love and all of its mysteries as well as the agony of adolescence.  Ms. Rowell transitions seamlessly between the two narrators.  It is a book I wish I could read again for the first time and one I have already started recommending to my former students.  This book was perfection.  It is by far my favorite YA book of the year.

I don’t think this entry even does this book justice.  Eleanor & Park You need to just read it.


The Dodge Poetry Festival

Poetry died with Byron, and all the other white guys, some would say.  Poetry? That’s just something they force down your throat in school.  Poetry is irrelevant.  Poetry is a luxury.


On Friday, my co-worker and I took two students to the Dodge Poetry Festival.  The first session we attended was a Festival Poet Reading in the Victoria Theatre with Brian Barker, Henri Cole, Sharon Dolin, Nikky Finney, and John Murillo.  Although everyone was good, I was most impressed with Nikky Finney and John Murillo.  John Murillo had swag. One of our students wondered how he would write some of the sounds he used in his reading. I am curious to see how his work translates when written.  Nikky Finney is someone I never knew of before this session.  The Dodge store did not have the book I wanted, which included one of the poem’s she read, Elephantine.  [update: obvi I bought this online]

Our second session involved a short walk down the block and around the corner to the Center for Arts Education to see Kurtis Lamkin perform.  He was very engaging.  I learned a lot about the instrument he plays called a Kora.

One of the sessions I was particularly interested in was with Gregory Orr.  I had used his I Believe essay on poetry as survival.  My friend Janice and I have spoken about the connection you can feel to other people and animals, especially when there is an unspoken familiarity between you and this other.  That is how I feel about Gregory Orr’s work.  I appreciate his candor.  I left this session with what I think is a good idea for a prompt with my students.  One that is similar to my first writing assignment of the year and that is also my students’ overwhelming favorite.

It was a long day and we decided to go eat (reluctantly).

Our last session of the day was called “Conversation: on the Life of the Poet” with John Murillo, Larissa Szporluk., and Raul Zurita.  We found this the least engaging of the day’s sessions.  I am sure this was also partially influenced by the fact that it was our last session after a long day.  Raul Zurita was very funny and his humorous responses made me want to read his writing, even though I knew he did not write about light topics.


Day 2

Our second day at Dodge started at “In Praise: Music and Poetry” with Kurits Lamkin, Jane Hirshfield, and the Newark Boys Choir in Prudential Hall.  I enjoyed this more than I was expecting to.  Also, I found myself enjoying Lamkin’s pieces more today than yesterday.  I went to buy his cd, but they were sold out!

Next, we stayed in the Prudential Hall for “Conversation: Poetry and Working Life” with Eavan Boland, Dorianne Laux, Philip Levine, and Joseph Millar.   The only writer in this group I had heard of before was Philip Levine.  And I wasn’t even that familiar with his work.  But I really enjoyed his sense of humor so I bought two of his books.

For the next session, we stayed where we were for “Conversation: A Voice for the Voiceless” with Philip Levine, Juan Felipe Herrera, Natasha Trethewey, and Raul Zurita.

Our final session for the day was “Conversation: From Homer to Hip Hop/Poetry and the Oral Tradition” with Kurtis Lamkin, Rachel McKibbens, and Taylor Mali.  I wish the poets had read more of their own pieces and shared more of their own knowledge.  There was a very long question and answer period that I did not find useful or engaging.


Day 3

Sunday started with more Festival Poet Readings with Adele Kenny, Taylor Mali, Raul Zurita and Narubi Selah.  Because of yesterday’s hip-hop session we wanted to see more of Taylor Mali and he did not disappoint.  I also wanted to hear Adele Kenny.  In 1996, when I was in eighth grade, Ms. Kenny workshopped a poem I wrote and submitted to the Teen Arts Festival.  She is part of my (limited) writing history and I felt compelled to hear her.  She was just as lovely as I remember.

Our next session was one the that originally solidified my decision to attend the Dodge Festival: “Giving Voice to Lucille Clifton” with Nikky Finney, Natasha Trethewey, and Lucille Clifton’s daughters” Aexia Clifton, Gillian Clifton, and Sydney Clifton.  Hearing the personal stories of Ms. Finney and Clifton’s daughters gave me a new appreciation for her writing.

The next session we attended was “Blood Dazzler at the Octoroon Balls” with Patricia Smith and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra String Quartet in Prudential Hall.  I felt a little disjointed and I feel like had I read the work in advance I might have been more engaged.  I did find the concept of the music with the writing to be an interesting approach.

With some spare time, we headed back into the book tent.  How fortuitous, as we bumped into Newark Mayor Corey Booker (swoon).  Dodge ended with some readings on the main stage.  We snuck in to hear Natasha Trethewey.

I left with less money in my bank account and more books than I have time to read, but what an amazing experience.  Perhaps, a poetry club is in my professional future tbc  . . .

In Case of Emergency

Dear Reader,

I’d like you to imagine for a minute that you are on an airplane en route to whatever destination that you desire.  You hit what you assume to be a normal patch of turbulence.  Then the captain’s voice booms through the speakers of the aircraft announcing some ambiguous flying crisis.  In the mass chaos that will undoubtedly ensue, please indulge the possible scenario: a mother first nestles the oxygen masks around the faces of her children before reaching for her own.  Maternal instinct, some might say.  Our gut propels us to meet the needs of those for whose welfare we have assumed responsibility.  But we now know that in order to maximize survival, a mother first needs to place the mask around her own face.  I believe this analogy applies to the nature of the relationship between a teacher and his or her students.

Students are often the center of education conversations so much so that we rarely leave room for teachers to be thought about.  Since teachers are an indispensable part of the equation, it seems essential that we spend some time exploring what they need as professionals and people.  What do I need?  To best serve my students, I must first address my own needs or else I risk burning out or losing my passion for teaching altogether.

I have had the opportunity to participate in several programs like the Summer Institute through the Kean University Writing Project and the Artist / Teacher Institute sponsored by the New Jersey Council for the Arts and Arts Horizons.  These past two years have made me expand the vision that I had of myself as an educator.  They made me consider my potential as more than a teacher in a classroom, but as a leader both in and outside of my district.

All good things,  The Craziest Book Lady