By Rich Villar
I am only beginning to unpack the assorted questions about poetry, poetics, and the public role of poets, that the Dodge Poetry Festival opened up for me. I suspect I must write more eventually, if only just a little bit in the small space I have left. Here, what I’ll tell you mostly is what’s been happening in my own head since then. That is, I need to tell you about the life I live as a poet in the world, and how it meshes (mashes?) with the world of Poetry, capital P.
On a Sunday, I danced in the same aisle of the NJPAC with Rita Dove and Fred Viebahn, and I sat in front of Nancy Morejón. On a Monday, I was checking into my office gossip and frowning at my task list. These things seem to want to feel separate, as if I’m cheating on the life that sustains me with the life that keeps my bills at bay. Should it be this way? Am I doomed to be Wallace Stevens, the corporate day jobber who lived his everyday as an insurance VP, tapping out scansions with his feet as he walked to work, a phantom poet in a suit? Is this Poetry?
Whenever I think about it, I’m always fascinated by how the poet Renato Rosaldo described his book presentation at a university in Northern Mexico. How professors from each department (Renato is a social anthropologist as well) would come prepared with questions about his poetry collection, how much reverence they would pay him simply because he was a poet. How this was not foreign or strange, but rather an everyday occurrence in the life of a poet in Mexico. How for the professors, poetry was part of their discipline, not anethema to it.
I think of this approach to poetry as multidisciplinary practice, and I think of poetry as a university subject, and I think of the literary salon I attended recently in which an audience of writers was solely interested in talking fiction, sales numbers, and niche marketing, and I think of this unwieldy and large poetry festival in the middle of downtown Newark, and Poetry (capital P) could easily become this shifty character in my life, sometimes spectacle and sometimes hobby, one I would hardly know what to do with when I’m struck with a line at my desk. Ah, yes, and there’s my desk…that is, my work desk, which is always buried in deadline-sensitive material, 40 hours out of every week.
I’m often accused of being aloof, confrontational to the point of my own detriment, when the conversation turns to this monster that poets refer to as the po-biz, the poetry business. I don’t mean to be. But I can’t always wrap my mind around how the wider world wants me to engage with my art. I don’t always know the protocols of behavior at poetry readings. I don’t know how to act in a way that makes editors and foundational bigwigs want to check for me. If there’s a way to do this, frankly, I don’t want to know. I know how to write poems. (However badly I may do that.) These poems come to me already, in my sleep, at my desk, in my car, sitting with my wife or my friends. Why would I want to sap my time wondering how to negotiate the web of agents and moneyholders and friends of That Editor Over There?
Which brings me back to the Dodge Festival. I didn’t recap every single day for two big reasons: 1) My computer was on the fritz, and my wife was using hers when we were in our hotel. 2) I was too busy enjoying poetry—and in another sense, witnessing it—to record it all. That second reason sounds counterintuitive. Shouldn’t a witness want to record things? Yes, and no. I come from a school of poetry that experiences the art form in the air as much as on the page, one that believes that it is a communal music meant to be enjoyed in the moment with others.
And that is precisely what I did for four days in Newark. I didn’t care about being a poet in the poetry world. I didn’t need to impress or posture or slip a manuscript into someone’s hands. I was a poet with an ear who was there to listen and discuss and absorb. Granted, that’s much easier when the poetry in question is fed to you via state-of-the-arts audio systems and concert halls, and when an entire tent is set up just for poetry books. But this is what I’d prefer for my capital P Poetry to be: a way of living, not a living. An art form, not a debate club. Something that is always with me, in my strides, no matter what I do. Not something I have to set aside and fight over after work. To the extent that the Dodge Festival is able to contribute to a life of contemplation and poetry…even if it’s only every two years…I’d like to see it continue.
Now, having said all that. I also believe that my enjoyment of the poetry at the bone level at this festival has a LOT to do with the fact that my face was welcomed into the tent. This Festival, more than any event I’ve been to in years, truly engaged and addressed the things I hate discussing about “Poetry.” P. There was a need this time, I felt it, to bring my brown face, and faces like mine, into the tent, literally.
Consider that at this festival, the organizers made a Boricua poet (Martín Espada) and a Latin jazz ensemble (Bobby Sanabria and Grupo Ache) the centerpiece of Saturday night’s programming. That the next morning, the same group welcomed an Afro-Cubana (Nancy Morejón) together with them to give voice to Neruda, Lorca, and Guillen…partially in Yoruba. And that on Friday night, Amiri Baraka was able, in his hometown, to reprise the same poem that lost him the New Jersey Poet Laureate’s job eight years prior, at the very same festival where he read it in 2002. The fact that a state-of-the-art production went into poets who are touchstones for poets like me is a big deal, one that makes me hopeful that the conversations we hate, the capital P’s, can vanish in our lifetime.
If the Dodge Foundation can do it right, think of how many other institutions can do it right, too.
I’m hopeful these days, more so than I’ve ever been, that when the lines come to me, I’ll be able to write them down and be true to the poet, not to the business of poetry.
If you’re interested in contacting me, please do so! You can reach me at my regular blog, literatiboricua.blogspot.com, and I can be found on Facebook as well.