Today’s prompt from the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Program’s online version of “Spring and Fountain” (think Robert Frost’s quiet and lovely “You Come Too” ), asks me to select a poem from the packet of 20 curated for participants for my focus today. Oh, these poems are varied and beautiful and moving. The opening day’s email says on the final day, we will be given a list of the poets after the fact, so we will not be predisposed to make judgments or have expectations based on name alone. Perhaps this is what I love most about Dodge, the democratic encouragement of poets.
I have written about the Festival before, about experiences I have had there when I have been able to sit in a small, intimate audience with such generous poets as Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, Kate Ryan, Yusef Komunyakaa…the list goes on.
In 2010, the October that the biannual festival first moved to Newark’s urban setting, I awoke early to travel there. I knew I would miss the bucolic setting of past events, but I was excited more than ever to meet a poet my son Sam had recently introduced to me, Aimee Nezuhkumatathil. He had given me a copy of Miracle Fruit, her debut collection, from his modern American poetry class. Isn’t this why we send our kids to college, I had often thought, to have them teach us?
When I set out early that morning, I’d had to return home at the Parkway entrance, having forgotten the book. Briefly I debated doing so, losing the 20 minutes, but I wanted to return Sam’s book with the poet’s signature. I have a few precious signed copies of books that I know, were my house on fire, I’d grab: Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, without a doubt, but Fred Chappell and Donald Hall, too. I’d given him a signed copy of Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by the wonderful Vera Williams when he was six. He knew early on what I value: writing.
When I arrived I scanned the program to find Aimee’s venue. The urban festival featured poets in various buildings centered around the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) where the large auditorium filled with poetry-lovers for these three full days celebrating poetry. Aimee was located in a small building, in a small room. It was her first festival appearance; she was not yet one of those “big names” who garner a large space. I loved that. There were maybe a couple dozen of us there in uncomfortable chairs. I now wonder what had brought them to hear her. I clutched Miracle Fruit tightly in my hand.
She began by telling us that most people she met wondered about how to pronounce her last name, and then said, “You all know The Lion King, right?” She then sang “Ne-zu-ku-ma-ta-til” to a the popular “Hakuna Matata,” then added “no worries.” With that consummate icebreaker, she won our hearts and new fans. Afterward she graciously signed the proffered book, pleased to be asked, warmed by the way I’d come to it. (I only wish I had bought that copy I now own beforehand!)
I don’t know who has written the poems in my packet this year, but I do love that after I have connected with them all throughout this week, I will have other poems to share with students. While I will miss the Dodge Festival 2020, I remain an emissary for poetry! (Check out #TeachLivingPoets.) I’ll sing out new names along with those of old friends whenever and wherever I can.