The history of the Dodge Poetry Festival

The bi-annual Dodge Poetry Festival started in 1986 thanks to funding from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The first festival drew less than 5,000 people. As word spread that number grew to about 20,000.

Poet and Dodge Foundation director Jim Haba was at the helm of every festival throughout that growth.  He crafted each festival to be both “a work of art” and “a good party.”

The biggest names in poetry took part: Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Robert Bly, Lucille Clifton, Jorie Graham, Coleman Barks and Gwendolyn Brooks, just to name a few.

Just like any good party, there was food, music and great conversation. Poetry fans got the inside scoop on what it’s like to create poems, how to read poetry and the lives of poets from the poets themselves.

There were numerous venues where poetry lovers could share their own poems, take workshops or listen to music throughout the day.

But the highlight of each day happened in the main tent—a tent that could accommodate 2,000 people. Under its big top, the most amazing, logic-defying feats were pulled off.

Only in this tent would it make sense for the ultimate hip hop group The Roots to be the warm-up act for a 96-year-old man who had no props, but the podium and his cane.

In the winter of 2009, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation cut funding for the festival. It was also reported that Haba resigned.


About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
This entry was posted in Coleman Barks, Dodge Poetry Festival, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Jim Haba, mysticism, poetry, Rumi, Stanley Kunitz, The Joy of Life and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The history of the Dodge Poetry Festival

  1. Anonymous says:

    How sad that the Dodge Foundation, which has previously been so supportive of the arts in the state of New Jersey, should pull back on funds for such an amazing and worthwhile festival.

    It is good to hear that Montclair might respond to this and offer some version of the festival in the future. However, we can only hope that Dodge would reconsider and continue to recognize the worth of this event.

    Poetry is like crystal: clear, reflective of the light of the human soul.

    At a time when we need to open expression in our children and celebrate the rich plurality of voices in our society, the poetry festival is as important as ever – maybe moreso in these difficult economic times.

    Dr. Robert McParland

  2. Jane Hirshfield says:

    Dear Gene,

    Thank you so much for taking up the banner on this. As someone who’s done Dodge three times, I was devastated when I heard it had been canceled. 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.

    I’ve also participated in the Skagit River Poetry Festival, which was started in Washington State by Jim Haba’s sister, Kathy Shoop, and happens in the town of La Conner, much as I imagine a Montclair event might work. In my mind, I’ve always called it “Dodge West.” It’s got a smaller number of attendees, but is very viable as a festival, and includes many elements of the Dodge–high school student participation in a big way, musicians.

    Jim used to come out and act as MC while his sister was in charge, and the mix of major poets (drawn from the same pool as main stage Dodge poets) and local, less known but very fine poets, also echoed the Dodge.

    That festival amply demonstrates that it’s possible to change and retrench perhaps without losing everything, and certainly without losing the huge spirit that makes the Dodge what it has been. And it’s continued into a second generation of leadership, as Kathy no longer runs it, but I was up there last May, and it was as fine and strong as ever (though I did miss having Jim there, to be sure, doing everything from adjusting microphone heights to his usual inimitable introductions).

    So– thank you for trying to help find a way to prevent this all from being one more splinter in the general shattering all around us.


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