The Woodstock Of Poetry

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Benjamin Klepper

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On Friday the 19th of 2018 students, teachers, and poetry lovers from around the country gathered at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark to attend what some call “The Woodstock of Poetry”. To tell you the truth if the Geraldine R Dodge Poetry Festival was like Woodstock then all my dreams of being there might be a little wrong. I really did enjoy the experience, but calling it “The Woodstock of Poetry” might be a little too far; regardless though you’ve been click baited so you might as well stay to hear the rest of the story.

 

The bus ride was uneventful for the most part, but it was quite striking to step off the bus in front of the NJPAC and see the huge line of other busses from other schools gathered to hear the same things we traveled to hear. They really don’t lie when they say it’s the biggest poetry festival in North America: the place was packed. With how frigid the air in NJ gets around this time of the year I was mostly psyched to just go into the center and get out of the cold after waiting for our wristbands to come from the festival organizers. Of course, when we did get inside my focus shifted from how much I was shivering to the golden soft pretzel I saw over by the concessions stand, but that would have to wait, unfortunately.

 

Now shifting into the theatre itself was like going to a concert or a play, and let me reiterate what I said before: the place was packed. Students and teachers were dodging and weaving in between other students and teachers and generally I was mostly taken aback by how many people traveled to hear the talks that day. It’s a big festival, and even if you’re tired of hearing me say that, I’m just gonna keep reiterating the point. The first thing that happened when we sat down was a talk from a very excited man whose name I can’t remember, followed by a reading from a certain Ms. Sandra Cisneros on her short story “11”. First of all, I’d have to see that she was a joy to watch on stage. Ms. Cisneros knew how to use and captivate an audience and the younger voice from her story came through in elegant harmony with the content of the piece and its live telling. Sitting back and listening to an established author speak and almost guide us through her story was not only captivating but also extremely educating in the process of professional writing. Woodstock much? Sure, she may have been the Jimi Hendrix of short stories at that point, that was until the real bane of the festival came in: the questions. Allowing people to talk and interact with their real-life inspirations and role models is a phenomenal idea, and the festival organizers seemed to think the same thing by placing two microphones in the isles of the theatre to allow the audience to stand and ask whatever was on their mind. I thought it was neat as well until I realized a trend of “How has writing helped you in your journey” or other variations of the same question asked by every single person, save for the pretentious “as a poet myself” here and there. The realization that I’d have to sit through these same questions as the day continued was a bit of a damper itself, but the show must go on, and so it did.

 

After the end of Sandra’s talk, everyone left the theatre to spread out among the festival, and before I could leave I caught a quick glance of every one of the upper mezzanines filled to the brim. It’s a big festival. Regardless, I specifically remember walking out those doors and making deep eye contact with that pretzel, but it wasn’t to be as our school group kept walking to the food stands outside the theatre. My rumbling stomach and already slightly ticked off mind put a bit of a cloud over me as we walked into the cold air again, but the smell of good food erased that for the most part, and my excitement and optimism continued into the food lines. Well, I guess as brief a time I did spend in the lines, given how quickly they fill up. As it turns out, with the thousands of people coming to this place, lines for three or four food stands get to be very long, very fast. I’m a bit of a pessimist if that hasn’t become clear, but no worries I enjoyed my time there before you accuse me of writing this article just to complain. Let’s skip a few minutes because we are here for the poetry after all. With the crew getting some vegan food and a bit of waiting around and chatting we made the wise decision to go back inside and take on the world of poetry.

 

Or the world of pretzels maybe. That’s right sir you guessed it: after stepping back into the nicely heated Performing Arts Center (oh thank the almighty poetry gods for the heat) yours truly remembered his pretzel yearning and decided to look at the line for the concessions. I won’t keep you in suspense though, there was not a single person in line, and one, golden brown, shining, salty soft pretzel with my name on it. My name was yet to be written on the pretzel to be fair but 5 dollars later everyone in the hall was admiring the Ben Klepper brand soft pretzel as I gallantly walked my way into the Victoria Theatre.

 

Oh Queen Victoria you poor thing, this theatre was nowhere near sophisticated enough to bear your name, and holding a talk on democracy within its depths? She can roll in her grave all she wants though, I enjoyed the talk. Admittedly we did get into the theatre a bit late but given the choice between being on time and having another pretzel, I would choose the pretzel every single time. I do have to talk about poetry though, so let’s do that. “Poetry and Democracy” was its name, Elizabeth Alexander, Brenda Hillman, Khaled Mattawa, and Alberto Rios ran its game. Sweet language use, might’ve picked that up from the festival. Overall it was a simple talk, everyone choosing to read one or two poems and speak on what poetry means to democracy and the future of the US. The speakers themselves were intriguing and I found it, once again to be a very enjoyable listening experience. As the talk, itself was coming to a close, and I was comfortably eased into my chair, I was greeted with the stark reality of what I was about to witness. Good speakers, good poems, decent analysis, and good stage presence? Oh god, here they come. “I’d just like to ask all of you how has poetry shaped your journey”. Now when I say a blood vessel must have burst in my forehead I would be lying straight to your face, why on earth would that happen? On the other hand, if I said I wanted to walk out of the room then and there and would’ve, had my path not been blocked by a number of pretentious students preparing to ask about each person’s life story through poetry, I’d be less than lying but still lying a bit. I did say I was comfortable in my chair, and to tell you the truth nothing but a fire was moving me out of that seat even if I wanted to scream every time I heard that question. Regardless, the day went on more of the same questions were asked, and it was very soon before we were back on the bus and off towards the high school to end the day. So what’s the take away from the festival? First off, poetry is enjoyable when written well, secondly, poetry is a very personal experience, leading into the thirdly that the personal serenity created by poetry can really be annihilated by listening to the same pretentious kid ask the same question every single time. Overall 7/10, I’d go again.

 

Blurb Time! If you’ve made it this far congratulation, you have more patience than me. First of all, I know what you’re saying “hold the phone, this is written very differently than most things on MDO, what the deal?” I hate to admit it, but you’re right, you caught me maroon handed. My goal coming into this piece was to create a bit of a Gonzo style article about my experiences at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival 2018. Luckily I was given the go-ahead to go full gear on this piece and came out with the absolute mess of what you just read above. Regardless of the controversy around him, I view Hunter S. Thompson as one of the greatest writers to ever live, and my hope was to create a decent homage to him while maintaining my own style through this article piece, even if it didn’t come out close to as good as Hunter’s actual writing. Regardless of everything previously mentioned, thank you for being apart of this experiment, I’m sorry about the clickbait, and see ya later Mr. reader.

 

-Ben

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