'Fooling With Words'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Geraldine R. Dodge Festival is one of poetry's crown jewels. When the festival began in Waterloo, N.J., in 1986, it attracted crowds of 3,000 to 4,000. In 1998, there were 12,000 people at the four-day, biennial event.

Bill Moyers filmed his series the "The Language of Life" at the '94 festival. This September, his two-hour "Fooling With Words," taped last year, will air on PBS.

The Dodge Festival is unique for two reasons: It takes place outside of academia, and it brings together high school students, teachers, the public, and some of the country's best poets. James Haba, director of the festival, says one of his goals is to help students and educators see poetry as something that matters not just in the classroom but in the world as well. At the '98 festival, there were 4,000 students from all over New Jersey and from seven other states.

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"One of the most important things about the festival," Mr. Haba says, "is that it creates an environment of poetry that one can become immersed in. Poetry becomes less of an isolated event and more a part of the texture of experience; you don't have to get yourself ready for it."

The result? Many attendees have told Haba that "their lives have been altered and nudged; they are now seeing with different eyes."

Haba hopes that listeners will carry that altered awareness with them back into their lives, but he admits that his efforts must be seen as long-range. "Our work," he says, "is multigenerational."

In addition to the festival, Haba and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation offer an annual series of seminars for New Jersey teachers. "Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain" is designed to help educators explore poetry on many levels.

"Too often," Haba says, "students are steered away from the experience of the poem and toward manipulating techniques and looking for a 'message.' "

The next festival will be in September 2000.

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