2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Fest

Posted: October 11, 2006 in Events
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Admittedly, it is an outright shame I only went for one day, but the poetry and conversations encountered in that one day were enough to make me, a gluttinuous gobbler of poetry, overwhelmed. Highlight included the humour of Coleman Barks, the discovery of poets Matthea Harvey and Taha Muhammad Ali, and the intensity of Taslima Nasreen.

It was cold. COLD. Ink does not like the cold! BUT … there was (almost) free coffee. One of the most accommodating features of the festival this year was the Greene Brothers’ coffee station. For $7.95 consumers were given a closable travel mug with infinite refills. …INFINITE REFILLS!!! Now most people stop at 3-4 cups a day, but INK HATES COLD!!! I must have gone through 20-some cups @ 20 oz. each. So a formal thank you for the Greene Brothers for keeping my innards warm throughout the coldest day yet this year.

On to the poetry!

Coleman Barks and his earnest, though commercially successful, Rumi readings are always a treat. Take the jolliest English professor/teacher you’ve ever had, make him Santa Clause, then give him a humour, humility, and universal comprehension worthy of god, and there will be re-created Coleman Barks. Much do I hold him in high esteem, not only for his dedication to the works of Rumi, which were entirely oral … only reproduced though those that heard them, but for his humanity in reading Rumi.

To open one’s eyes against an 8 am backdrop of poetry can be hard…but with some coffee and Colman Bark’s humour, the day … the poetry started with a light and tender hand as equally humourous as it was enlightening. Yes, I realize I’m gushing. That’s ok. Much like the pair of lover’s eyes you awaken to, so were the early morning Rumi poems to the breath-exposing audience. Barks was backed by the Paul Winter Consort, which, although not as integrated with the poetry as I would have liked (I loved the musicians’ music at the festival prior to this one), were great when they got on with their proverbial groove. The musicians stood out, however, when backing Coleman Barks’ original works, which were read as comic relief between heavier-hitting Rumi poems.

So, by 9:15, my early ears were tickled and eager. “Let’s to the ‘Poetry as Disruptive/Centering Force’ discussion'” my internal self directed. “Ok,” my feet replied.

Here I was looking forward to the topic with a group of poets I’ve never read/heard/heard about before. But it was here that I discovered 2 absolutely indispensable poets: Taha Muhammad Ali and Taslima Nasreen.

Taha M. Ali (apologies to the supposed prophet for the shortening of his name into an initial and then this blatantly long parenthetical statement explaining such an action) is an Iranian poet who is a disruptive force in a very distinctive manner: he wants the world to stop quarreling and take the time to realize how wonderful the life is that we ignore as a consequence of our bickering over religion, hate, and superficiality. He celebrates the human condition…how appropriate for a poet in New Jersey. Though his English was decent, he did have, on-hand, a translator: one Peter Cole. And, in a statement on why he though poetry was important in turbulent times, he offered something to the accord of “poetry is beauty.” The man was enthralled with words, their sounds, their possibilities, but, most importantly, the way we interact with them. This gave his poems a humanitarian scope that Red Cross would be hard to match. In his own land, although is is not religious and against governmental policies, he is lifted above crowds by the very same people who dislike him as the people before him cheer for any utterance he offers. Much was the same way in our tent at Waterloo.

On the same panel was one Taslima Nasreen, an advocate and activist for women’s rights in India who is an exile in her own home town. Her poetry took me back to my English literature courses during America’s own Women’s right movement. And, back then (in college), I never was quiet affected by the works we read. There was no urgency…no sense of impending doom or necessary action. After all…I was living in America, and things were, at the very least, not as bad as they were then and on the slope of improvement.

But with Taslima, there is definitely an urgency, a desperation that grabs the heart like the writings of American women writers must’ve grabbed the hearts of their fellow women and any other sympathizers that should happen to fall upon the rarity of their words in print. As an example, I offer a snippit of the poem that made my own heart realize it was concrete when I felt it’s impact upon my stomach:

“Shabita is not a poet,
but today she has written a poem,
contentment showing as she writes.

For ever since childhood,
she had wanted to write a poem,
a beautiful poem;
throwing her newborn daughter
from the sixth floor
was like writing a poem,
a perfect poem.

For had the daughter lived for 50 years,
she would had suffered for 50 years
simply for being a woman.

She has written a beautiful poem,
reducing her daughter’s pain
from 50 years to 50 minutes.”

This is the real deal. This is the true power of poet and message, urgency and delivery, reader and realization. Her poems power rely, at least the translations I heard, on insistent repetition and non-conjunctive imagery…classic elements of poetry that she exploits as if it were her native tongue. Even now, having listened to that bit of poem so that I might transcribe it for anyone who’d happen upon this blog, I’m weighted. And thus say, if you, reader, are here with me now, go to amazon.com or whatever book buying outlet you prefer and support this woman’s effort by gaining her knowledge, experience, and caring … and then, dear reader, give some back. Just because you may not have a reach to India to stop the abuse, doesn’t mean you acting kinder to your fellow man wasn’t the intention either.

On a lighter note, and one of the poets who made me laugh much, was Matthea Harvey. With books entitled “Sad Little Breathing Machine” and “Pity the Bathtub its Formed Embrace,” how was I not destined to be endeared. Unfortunately, I’m writing this more than a week after my visit to Dodge, so I don’t remember solids about her work. The only piece that springs to mind was a microcosm composed of a series of poems involving the character, “robot-boy.” One of the poems she read from this series dealt with robot boy finding the original box he came in and deciding to go back inside. Yes, the metaphors are clear as day, but with language so simultaneously careful and playful, it’s impossible not to be won over for fear of calling yourself an automaton.

Saying anything more would be reaching into faded memories. So for now, go to your local bookstore and place a few orders for the poetry above. You will thank you.

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