May You Be Struck Too: A Dispatch from the Dodge Poetry Festival10/17/2012
If we’re not supposed to dance,—Gregory Orr, “To Be Alive”
Why all this music?
In a recent essay in Poetry magazine, Will Oldham (a remarkable songwriter) wrote, “Sitting there on the paper, a poem makes me feel ignorant and insane.” I suspect he’s not alone. But if I could offer one sound piece of advice to Mr. Oldham and others who might also say “I don’t understand poetry,” it would be to attend—with all your pocketed rock concert ticket stubs and your manic lyric-loving heart—the Dodge Poetry Festival.
Even though it was the clunky VHS tapes of the 1986 Dodge that first sent me down the rabbit hole of word obsession, I don’t think I really understood the true significance of the Dodge until I recently experienced it for myself. There, poems are no longer just on the page, but climb out into the world like riled up lions roaring in the mouths of those that un-caged them. This is the big stuff, the “this poem might save your life” of it all, the pure boiled-down essence of the human song.
At the Dodge, no one expects you to understand a poem; there are no panel discussions about a poem’s worth or a poem’s meaning, a poem’s academic relevance. There, poetry is profoundly spoken, shouted, sung, whispered, or sent under the cage-door like a necessary permission slip for survival. The job of the audience is to simply sit back and let the music of words remind them of their own internal humming.
With so many heavy-hitter poetry super stars on the roster (from Patricia Smith to Philip Levine) it was easy for me not to want to take a seat on the stage, but rather in the front row of the audience, just so I could listen. But I was invited with my leather satchel of poems all the way there from the Kentucky bluegrass, and I could not cower. It was far too late to cower. I read poems from my books, Sharks in the Rivers, Lucky Wreck, and This Big Fake World. I also read new poems—love poems, Kentucky poems, and grief poems—and watched as my fourth collection started coming together as I spoke.
I met a young fan that said her friend actually dressed up as a shark for Halloween last year in honor of Sharks in the Rivers. And there was one moment where a woman, whose emotions were brimming, said that she was going to live “fiercefully,” from now on (a made up word I used in the poem “This Practice”). She told me, “Your poems have saved me. I didn’t know how much I needed your poems.” But what surprised me most was that I didn’t know how much, or how deeply, I needed to hear that my work had affected someone.
Writing poetry is such a solitary art form. It’s full of long lonely hours staring out the office window, walking, reading, and contemplating our internal workings and the world. The amazing thing about the Dodge is that the exchange with the audience is palpable. On a panel about truth in poetry, someone said the phrase, “It rings true.” And I thought for the first time how it’s the reader, the audience that’s left ringing when something “rings true.” The listener becomes the bell, the instrument that’s struck and goes on making music long after the poem is over. The magical reality of the Dodge Festival is that there is bravery on all fronts—there is the artist with the courage to ring the bell and the audience with the courage to be the bell, all colliding in the same safe space.
Perhaps when Mr. Oldham says that a poem on the paper makes him feel ignorant and insane, we just need to remind him to take it off the paper. Read a poem out loud to some beautiful woman eating caramels on the couch. If she doesn’t like it, read another one until she does. Start saying a few lines you like to yourself in the shower. Or better yet go hear a poem from its creator at a poetry reading. Go to the Dodge Poetry Festival and I dare you not to be moved, I dare you not become the bell that the poems strike. I dare you not to ring and to love the way the ringing feels.
Images courtesy of Ada Limón.