Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn

After four hours of driving, I turn off the highway into the Skylands region of northern New Jersey. The two-lane road is wooded. Breaks in the trees offer glimpses of unfarmed fields and quiet ponds. At 6 p.m., the parking lot of Historic Waterloo Village is still crowded.

The last of several school groups are loading teen-agers onto buses. Though they've been here since early this morning, students from the Milwaukee High School of the Arts in Wisconsin are debating about who gets to stay for the evening concert. The kids are exhausted, but want to see and hear more. Their enthusiasm is not for pop artists or even classical musicians. At this event, the main attraction is poetry; the stars are poets.


This historic New Jersey village is home to the biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a four-day event billed as the largest poetry festival in North America.

Students, teachers and the general public -- a crowd 15,000 strong -- come here every other year not only to enjoy the spoken word, but also to meet and chat with poets famous and unknown. It's not unusual to bump into old friends. Such reunions give the event a homey atmosphere, despite the large crowds.


The first two days, while open to the general public, are designated for students and teachers. Over 6,500 of them are attending free of charge. The tab is picked up by the Geraldine R. (as in Rockefeller) Dodge Foundation. The foundation is known for its generosity to the arts, particularly in New Jersey, where festival director Jim Haba also spearheads a poetry outreach program in the schools.

It is a short walk from the parking lot to the village entrance, but passing through a tunnel of trees and emerging out of sight of the cars is like entering a world apart. Waterloo's restored historic buildings and centuries-old canal intermingle with tents, large and small, where the poets read.

The enormous concert tent houses the evening events. Poets Marie Howe, Marilyn Nelson, Gerald Stern and Lucille Clifton each read for half an hour. Each "set" is punctuated by live music.

Clifton, a Maryland resident and one-time state poet laureate, has been a "Featured Poet" at every festival but the first, in 1986. She says the festival draws so many people "because poetry speaks to something in us that so wants to be filled. It speaks to the great hunger of the soul. ... I think that this [event] feeds that."

More than 65 poets would participate this year. Top billing went to the five U.S. poets laureate from 1993 to present: Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz and Billy Collins, whose term ends next year. It's also a festival tradition to include international poets. Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali and Adam Zagajewski of Poland were among this year's featured poets.

Community in poetry

Despite the all-star lineup, Haba says, this is not a gathering of the poetry "in crowd." JC Todd, a poet and translator, said, "When you come to the Dodge, you see those barriers are completely permeable." The poets become real people. Poetry becomes something that everyone can participate in -- a community event.

In the first morning session, Ali is reading with his translator in a small tent near a willow-lined stream. Ali is charming and grandfatherly, with a deep, gravelly voice. It's a wonder to hear him read his poems in Arabic and then watch him as translator Peter Cole reads in English. He plays the role of conductor -- gesturing, smiling and nodding the poem along.


Between sessions, attendees are serenaded by Yarina, a group of musicians from Ecuador. A festival mainstay, these brothers play traditional Andean music on panpipe, guitar and drum, literally dancing around Waterloo Village.

The job of nurturing the event's celebratory atmosphere -- music, location, even the carefully chosen concessions -- belongs to Haba. "This is really a whole person experience," Haba said. "What the festival has the luxury of doing is imagining the whole person and trying to provide for it." Attention is even paid to how often the bathrooms are cleaned. He wants people to remember the poetry, not bland food or dirty toilets.

At lunch, poetry lovers choose from among a dozen food stands. At picnic tables near a waterfall, they discuss the poetry heard that morning.

Michael Murphy, who teaches at an urban New Jersey middle school, finds the setting idyllic.

"It's very hard to find silence anywhere [in daily life] and the setting, of course, is perfect for augmenting that. There is space for quiet conversations. You lean on a tree, you listen to the wind and you go back and you listen to a poet."

Veterans of the event often have great festival stories. Margaret Valentine, a New Jersey high school teacher, describes walking with poet W.S. Merwin at the 2000 festival. Just as he signed her book, she says, "Behind us there was this hole in the ground where these baby turtles about walnut size started coming out of the ground." The newly hatched turtles were rescued and brought to the pond.


Valentine points out that those who rush around trying to see everything miss the heart of the festival. It is better, she says, "letting the whole place happen to you. It's kind of a gluttony of words. It's just such a wonderful, freeing experience." And moments shared between poets and poetry lovers are part of what makes the Dodge festival unique.

Erma Terrezza, serving lunch at one of the food stands, Big Joe's Deep Fried Turkeys, has found herself caught up in the spirit of the event. "The atmosphere is beautiful," she said. "I was just amazed that everyone comes from all over and they're so excited." Terrezza says she plans to take time off from her turkey to hear Billy Collins read. And she will return to the next festival, she says, whether or not Big Joe's is back.

'You become all ears'

After lunch, it is standing room only at the concert tent for "A Poetry Sampler." At this poetry mini-marathon, 20 poets read in just two hours.

A few dozen people sit on the grass outside the tent. People read or write. One man rocks his baby to sleep. Others play Frisbee and sun themselves. But everyone is silent.

Says Todd: "This festival just encourages that -- that you become all ears. You can conduct your life amid the poems. ... Yes, you didn't hear [some], but there's always more."


So what is it like, when 15,000 poetry enthusiasts gather for four days?

Says organizer Haba: "It's actually quite peaceful ... it's all types of people who care about a kind of interior life. ... That doesn't [necessarily] have to do with poetry, but with being alive with feelings."