When I found out that the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation withdrew funding for the next Dodge Poetry Festival, it felt like the wind was knocked out of me. To cope, I headed for my laptop.
In an effort to show people what the festival offered I started a series of columns that featured interviews with poets showcased in past festivals.
Even though the bi-annual poetry bash that was organized by Jim Haba went off without a hitch for more than 20 years, in the off-years I waited with bated breath for the next one. The Dodge Poetry Festival always seemed too good to be true.
Thousands and thousands of poetry lovers convened in one place–a place that wasn’t too far from my home. Top poets from around the world gathered to read their poems to fans, and to each other.
I was in heaven every time. To paraphrase Robert Frost, why is it that nothing gold can stay? I’m not the only one who was left gasping for air after hearing that the next festival was cancelled.
Poet Jane Hirshfield was featured at the Dodge Poetry Festival three times over the years and was scheduled to appear in 2010.
“I was devastated when I heard it had been canceled,” she wrote in a recent e-mail to me. “It just seemed terrible that the body of knowledge and excitement that go into this festival could be lost–for American poetry, a huge blow. I myself attribute what I think has been a large resurgence in interest in poetry in more recent years to the Bill Moyers public television specials about the Dodge [Festival].”
Hirshfield was born in New York City in 1953. She was in the first graduating class at Princeton University to include women. She went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. Her many books include “After,” “Given Sugar, Given Salt” and “The Lives of the Heart.”
The following is from an interview that I conducted with her in 2006. The first topic we discussed was the three-year period Hirshfield spent in a Zen monastery where she was instructed to do nothing but practice Zen. This meant poetry would have to leave her life for a while. But the hiatus only created a deeper connection to poetry within her.
Gene: How did that [break from writing poems] affect you?
Jane: My feeling at the time was that I would never be much of a poet if I didn’t learn a great deal more about how to be a human being… It’s very difficult to say how anything affects you… But I think that it affected everything because so much of Zen practice is about learning to pay attention to not only the inner world, but also the outer world… Learning to give your full attention is at the very heart of Zen practice and also, it is at the very heart of poetry.
Gene: In your book of essays, “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry,” you wrote that “any good artist’s work is to find the right balance between independence born of willing solitude and the ability to speak for others.” Who is it that you mean to speak for?
Jane: I don’t make any presumptions about that. Basically, whenever I am writing, I am always working out something, which I need to understand more fully or experience in a more multidimensional way… You don’t write poems because you have an answer. You write poems because life has presented you with a question and the poem is the only way to address that question. So I suppose the others that I speak for are anybody who is made the same way that I am.
Gene: In your poem “Mathematics” you ask, “Does the poem enlarge the world, or only your idea of the world?” Would you expand on that?
Jane: That was an actual question, which was asked of me in a question and answer session… It struck me as one of the most interesting things that anybody has ever said to me. So it became the seed of this poem in which I answer how can you tell them apart… Is there a knowable world besides the world we know? How could you separate that within our consciousness? I could say yes or no to either. I could say yes of course a poem enlarges the world. But then somebody could say which world? It’s truly metaphysical.
Gene: Where does your desire to write come from?
Jane: I was born as one of those people always hungering to live more deeply. This is also why I read other people’s poems. This is not just about my own writing. It’s about what poetry can do for any of us.
Gene: Which is?
Jane: Magnify and clarify our existence and allow us to travel through an expanded world.
For those of us who hungered to “live more deeply,” who searched for clarity, it does seem like the Dodge Poetry Festival was too good to be true. We may have to wait with bated breath for much longer for the poetry to return this time.
Contact Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation:
163 Madison Avenue
Post Office Box 1239
Morristown, NJ 07962-1239
Phone (973) 540-8442
Fax (973) 540-1211