A Weekend With Poets: Remembering a Trip to the Dodge Poetry Festival
It was dark by the time I got home, and Johnny was there already, doing push-ups in the alley in front of my house. I was on my way back from a graduate class at the University, and I was late for meeting him, so when I saw his silhouette on the ground a block away from me, I started running, yelling, “John-Dog, John-Dog!” His shadowy body got up off the cement, and I heard his voice ask, “Scotty-Boy?” And then we packed my bags into his rented car, and got in, and headed for points east.
We were heading to the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. Johnny had driven down from Michigan to pick me up in Pittsburgh. This was all part of a long chain of events that involved Johnny (my former teacher), Tony (my teacher at the time), and Marie (Tony’s good friend who had recently become friends with Johnny). Marie had invited Johnny over email to come to Dodge and help her with a booth there—“I can’t offer you a place to sleep, and I can’t promise food, but please come if you can,” Marie had told Johnny. And so we were on our way.
Driving through Pennsylvania through the night, Johnny and I caught up with each other, talked about the good old days in Kalamazoo—where I had studied under him—and took turns playing albums on the stereo. It had been a good six months since we had last seen each other, a fact that felt disturbing when we realized it. “I can’t believe we’re breathing the same oxygen again,” I remember Johnny saying.
When I lived in Kalamazoo, I had gone from taking one of Johnny’s workshops to being his assistant, to being a colleague, to being a close friend. By the time I left the city, we were calling each other “Brother” and meeting up once a week to drink beers and swap poems.
We arrived at Dodge the next morning and talked our way out of the entrance fee, insisting that we were working a booth. Johnny grabbed a schedule of the events so we could track down Marie and we eventually found her giving a reading to a couple hundred people under a large white tent. I remember a group of teenage boys near the front snickering as Marie read a particularly sexy poem.
Once the reading was over, Johnny and I introduced ourselves to Marie and she took us to a booth with a banner that read “Finding a Path to the Future.” Marie introduced us to Mark, who was running the booth with her, and they explained their idea for it. What they wanted was to get the poets walking around the festival to do some impromptu-writing on long sheets of butcher paper that were hanging on all sides of the booth. They wanted verse that worked against war and violence, verse that unified people, verse that had a vision of how we could live peacefully in the future. Johnny’s job—a job he excels at—was to come up with “starters” for the large sheets of paper. Johnny would write “In the next world…” or “Instead of bullets…” at the top of the piece of paper, and this would help direct the average poet walking up to the booth.
After working the booth for a couple of hours, Johnny and I decided we needed to see a panel. We found one that featured Robert Hass, Robert Bly, Marie and Mark. Listening to Robert Hass was mind-blowing. I’d read his poetry and his criticism for years, and loved a lot of it, but listening to him talk about poetry for five or so minutes straight—so articulately, so intelligently—was like nothing I had ever heard before.
After Hass dazzled the audience with his short lecture, it was time for Robert Bly to show-off. A minute after Bly began to speak, Johnny leaned over to me and whispered, “He sounds so much like Woods.” Woods was John Woods, Johnny’s mentor back at Western Michigan University, where I later met Johnny. Robert Bly and John Woods were close friends, so it made sense for Johnny to hear John Woods’ voice in Bly’s. Bly wowed the audience by reciting from memory a full poem (“The Scattered Congregation”) by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer:
We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.
“Do you feel that?” Bly interrupted himself, “Do you feel that shock there?” Bly continued:
Inside the church, pillars and vaulting
white as plaster, like the cast
around the broken arm of faith
Inside the church there’s a begging bowl
that slowly lifts from the floor
and floats along the pews.
“That’s a leap—that’s where the poem leaps,” Bly said, interrupting the poem again.
But the church bells have gone underground.
They’re hanging in the drainage pipes.
Whenever we take a step, they ring.
Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way
to the Address. Who’s got the Address?
Don’t know. But that’s where we’re going.
“There’s that shock again. Do you feel that?” Bly asked us. Then he said, “Let me read that again,” and he proceeded to recite the poem again, in its entirety. He talked about what he meant by the “shock” in a good poem, speaking of it as a kind of electrical charge running through the language. “I live for that shock,” Bly said. And Johnny leaning over to me again, said, “He sounds like a junkie.”
Later that same day, I saw Robert Bly walking around, trying to get people to sign an anti-war petition. Seeing him speak earlier, I realized how essential Bly was to my own poetic aesthetic—via Johnny and then John Woods, Bly was something of a literary ancestor to me. It made sense why I was so fond of the Surrealist poets Bly had translated—they were further ancestors. With all of this coming together in my head, I decided to take action. I went up to Bly and before he could hand me his petition, I said, “Mr. Bly, I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for American poetry.” Bly was a little baffled, chuckling, and saying back to me, “Well…okay.”
While working the booth, I got to take in a few readings, since the booth was directly across from the large amphitheater. One of the readers was the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who I’d heard read once before in Pittsburgh. He read his poems in English translation with a slight lilt—which sounded good in his accent—and occasionally, he read a poem in Polish.
Zagajewski didn’t say very much between poems, though I remember, at one point, he said, very slowly, “It is very strange…when you sign a book here…because you write your name…and then the date…and then Waterloo…and you feel like Napoleon.” He was referencing that the festival was being held at a place called Waterloo Village. Later that day, I decided to buy a copy of one of his books and—though I’m not usually fond of autographs—get him to sign it so I could remember the anecdote.
The next morning, it was already Saturday, the last day that Johnny and I would be at Dodge. We spent most of the day working in the booth. Johnny, whose high energy requires that he exercise at least three times a day, ran back to our hotel at one point to use the exercise machines. I stayed on at the festival, and made friends with some of Marie’s students who were also running the booth.
Taking a break at one point, I wandered around the festival and found a small white chapel that was full to capacity. The windows were open, and people outside the chapel were sticking their heads in to listen. I squeezed my way in through the back door and saw Li-Young Lee standing at the front talking in a near whisper to the crowd. Before I ducked out, I heard him recite from memory a lengthy Robert Frost poem.
Later in the day, Marie dropped by the booth and gave Johnny and I tickets to a free dinner. It turned out, it wasn’t just any free dinner, but the free dinner—the dinner that all the big name poets go to before the evening’s big events. Walking into the dining room, I felt as if I were walking into the Academy Awards. There was Amiri Baraka. And over here, Gerald Stern and Li-Young Lee. Oh, and this table, this is the former-poets-laureate table—Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Rita Dove, and Stanley Kunitz.
I decided I needed to approach at least one of the poets I admired. Li-Young Lee was sitting quietly by himself, so I went over to him. I introduced myself and explained that I was studying at his alma mater. He seemed genuinely interested in talking to me and that put me at ease—so much so that I let my guard down and said to him, “I can’t really believe I’m in the same room with all of these famous poets.” “I know,” he whispered back to me, sounding just as enthused, “I mean, look there’s Billy Collins.” Just then Collins turned our way, nodded, and casually said, “Hi Li.”
We ate dinner, and soon the dinner party waned until there were only us stragglers. Everybody was going to the big tent for the final events of the evening. I found Johnny, who had chatted up Stanley Kunitz at the dinner. Johnny had given Kunitz his latest chapbook. “He was so generous to me,” Johnny said, “He treated me as if I were the first person he’d ever met.”
I went over to the large tent and found a good seat while Johnny went for a jog around the festival grounds. The program under the large tent featured all of the big name poets reading two poems a piece—one by a poet they admired and one of their own. The star of this event was Stanley Kunitz, who was the last to read. The 97-year-old poet slowly made his way up to the podium, took a moment to look out to the audience (some 3,000 or so of us), and he said,
When I was a young man, studying at Harvard in 1926, I was walking one day
through the stacks of the library. While I was walking through the section on English Poetry of the 19th Century, I came upon a book lying on the floor in the middle of a row. The book was open to a poem called “God’s Grandeur.” I stood there, in the library, and I read that poem…and it rocked my world.
I got chills. And I don’t think I was the only one. The audience clapped and cheered for Kunitz. Kunitz read the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then his own poem “The Flight of Apollo,” reading the poems very slowly, as if savoring each word.
Johnny came and found me just before Marie and Mark took the stage for what would be the final event of the evening. While musicians played in the background, Marie and Mark took turns back-and-forth, reading lines written at the booth we had helped to run. Once and a while, the audience laughed or cheered for a line or two. For the final lines, Marie read a poem called, “If You Are Lucky in This Life,” a poem written by Cameron Penny, one of Johnny’s inner-city fourth-graders back in Detroit. It was this poem that had connected Johnny and Marie through Tony and I:
A window will appear between two armies on a battlefield.
Instead of seeing their enemies in the window,
they see themselves as children.
They stop fighting and go home and sleep.
When they wake up, the land is well again.
There was a hush over the crowd when Marie finished reading that poem. When Johnny remembers that moment, he claims that that poem changed everyone’s breathing patterns. Finally, the crowd exhaled, and we all started cheering. It was as if we had all simultaneously won something, as if we had defeated all that was ill or ailing—defeated it with poetry. We were victorious, and the Cameron Penny poem proved it.
While the cheering continued, Johnny and I ran down to the front of the stage, where all of the big name poets were cheering too, and laughing, shaking hands or embracing each other, embracing total strangers even. The music swelled and people were still cheering. I turned around, and caught a glimpse of my teacher Tony, smiling and kind of dancing with Gerald Stern.
“We gotta go,” Johnny said, and I said, “Okay.” And we ran to the car, shaking our heads in disbelief at all that had just happened. We drove off, away from Dodge, and the car was silent for a long time. “I’m speechless,” Johnny said finally, driving through the darkness, “I can’t say a word.”