Oct 12, 2010

Dodge Poetry Festival, Jericho Brown, "Tracks, Summertime," Janis Joplin, Kay Ryan

The Dodge Poetry Festival is the largest poetry convention in North America. This year 20,000 visitors were expected. Jaded—or just weary—as I am concerning conferences of any kind, I was shocked at how good I felt at this event.

That’s especially odd for Banjo-Brain because the conference moved this year from a pastoral tent setting in outstate New Jersey to downtown Newark. Some festival veterans (it was my first time) thought the new setting, plus the selection of poets, added a more urban, multicultural dimension. Whether or not that was new, it was present and it was good.

Fifty poets read and offered workshops over four days—last Thursday through Sunday. This included five former U.S. Poet Laureates—Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, Kay Ryan, and Mark Strand.

On Friday the diverse population included hundreds of high school kids, who were remarkably well-behaved and seemed genuinely interested. I cannot imagine being 16, a New York-ish kid or an outstate rube (more like Banjo) and finding myself bused to some glitzy cultural center, then herded into a room of 500 people, and listening—really listening—to somebody named Kay Ryan, who had a lady “partner” –

(“Gus, does that mean what I think it does?” “Well, I ‘spect.”)—

and this athletic-looking old lady (as old as that Banjo guy, for godssakes), this Kay Ryan was a poet-Laawrrrl-something, as she talked about poetry, and how she became a poet, deciding during a bicycle ride across the country, on a Colorado mountain, and talking about what it meant to be a poet, how it was both an embarrassment and a calling.

(“Gus, you mean like a preacher?” “Well, I ‘spect.”)

All this at 16? Yet listen they did, at least most of them—and asked questions, none of them dumb. It was stirring.

It’s hard to know where to begin reporting on such an important experience, but one way is to mention some poets who were new to me and who sounded good. So today I offer Jericho Brown. He read “Track 4, Summertime,” attached here, and he explained that it’s a persona poem: he’s speaking as if he were Janis Joplin (of Port Arthur, Texas). Maybe these lines from Jericho Brown will tease you into reading the whole poem (it’s only a page):

The band plays. I just belt out, Please. This tune
Ain’t half the blues. I should be thankful.
I get high and moan like a lawn mower
So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl.
I’m such an ugly girl. I try to sing like a man
Boys call, boy. I turn my face to God. I pray. I wish
I could pour oil on everything green in Port Arthur.

For the whole poem (plus two more), click here: Tracks

And if you'd like a reminder of the remarkable voice and style of Joplin, click here:

YouTube - janis joplin must see or die



Barbaro said...

The overall spirit of the Dodge has always been irresistible, even if the details vary tremendously. I remain partial to the old setting, but I'm glad to hear Newark offered its own charms.

The question becomes, in the end, why is there only one weekend every two years, in one locale, where poetry totally seizes the day? Is it soppy to suggest the world might be a little less troubled if there were a Dodge festival every weekend, in every city? Are commerce, sport, and whatever else we busy ourselves with really so all-fired important that they should crowd out beauty?

Jean Spitzer said...

Janis Joplin wasn't ugly.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Thanks to the business of blogging I know who three of the five poets mentioned are.

I think everything Janice Joplin speaks to in her poem (through the use of her voice) is why I didn't last through her performance but a minute; though the poem/lyrics are exceptional. She is raw... much like the artist Robert Rauchenburg who came from the same town.

True Story: A friend of mine having just arrived in SF back in the 60's with a few friends from his small town in Wyoming, had a jag pull up next to his beater. The driver must have seen the license plates and yelled out "howdy boys! welcome to San Francisco" one guess as to who she was

btw: the reference to Lake Los Angeles is because Kate Ryan attended Antelope Valley Junior college. An area I've been giving much attention to lately on my blog

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro, you know I agree, but can we keep football and baseball? More seriously, I didn't see as much of the crappo hero-worship and fawning and church-smiling at this festival. Did I just miss it, or was there something more legitimate going on, a different crowd?

Jean, could be. I think Brown's more interested in her self-esteem than her physical person, though even Wiki confirms a terrible acne problem while she was a teen. And what more terrible line from a young female is there than, "I am such an ugly girl"? Twice. Chilling, I thought, whether accurate or not.

PA, please nag me to look into Antelope Valley even more than your blog. Fun story about JJ.

Kay Ryan said she was glad she confined her teaching to community colleges--kept her feet on the ground, she said, and kept her from getting too literary in the worst senses of the word. I didn't know she also attended a JuCo. The reverse snob in me is applauding.

One thing I love in the poem is comparing JJ, at least the voice, to a lawn mower. I see her talent but never connected much to the music (except for Bobbi McGee). But I've heard enough to think the comparison to a lawn mower is sheer genius--the metal, the noise, the mowing things down, and who knows what else fits.

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro, not split hairs, but for full disclosure, I must also add that I'm one of those who thinks there's also GREAT beauty in most sports. But is poetry under-valued? You betcha.

Jean Spitzer said...

Okay, I think we're talking about different things when we say "beauty." But, I listened to a commemoration/bio of Joplin on KUT, and it sounded like people who were there did not perceive her as ugly or lacking in self-esteem or popularity; the mythology, which Joplin fostered, arose later.

Meanwhile, listen to this:


Piece of My Heart sung by Erma Franklin.


Jean Spitzer said...

Another song: Dusty Springfield, Preacher Man


Just read the rest of the poem. Maybe it's a good poem, but it's also fantasy, which is fine. Joplin did return to Port Arthur.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good time. Wish I would have gone.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, that's good stuff. Thanks. I never responded much to Aretha, and nobody told me about this half-sister.

M, I think you'd have liked it. It pulled me out of my city-phobia,so I bet those who are OK ("down"?) with cities were really groovin. Word. Money.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I gotta agree with Barbaro. One weekend every two years?
What a lovely collection of poets. What excitement to attend!

Banjo52 said...

It was special, I gotta say (again). But I also tried to imagine organizing and paying for it; then I realized why, maybe, it's not more frequent.

A.H. said...

Interesting write up indeed. Gave a flavour of the event...pleased you mentioned Jericho Brown. You are right-- a poet worth reading.

Banjo52 said...

Eshuneutics, welcome and thanks for stopping by. I hope to have a longer look at your place one of these days.

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