A (poetry) festive(al) event

Philip Schultz will be the featured poet at this year's Delaware Valley Poetry Festival


New Jersey’s got a great poetry tradition, both in terms of individuals and institutions.
If you’re talking great poets, let’s talk New Jersey poets Walt Whitman and Williams Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, for starters, and let’s add such current luminaries as Robert Pinsky (born, raised and educated in N.J.), Paul Muldoon and C.K. Williams and Yusef Komunyakaa (all three teach at Princeton), National Book Award winner Gerald Stern of Lambertville, and other outstanding Jersey-based poets including B.J. Ward, Maria Gillan and the great Joe Weil (sprung fully formed from the loins of Elizabeth, N.J.)

If you’re talking about poetry, how about the spectacular Geraldine R. Dodge Festival – and a much smaller event called the Delaware Valley Festival, held yearly in two small towns, Frenchtown and Stockton, along the Delaware River.

I started the festival back in 1998 when then-U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky agreed to be the featured poet, joined by New Jersey poets (including Weil and my friend, the poet Charles H. Johnson) associated with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The festival’s debut was a huge success — and we were off and running, as subsequent festival featured the likes of Louise Gluck (who became our nation’s poet laureate herself a few years later), Pulitzer winner Muldoon, Stern, Diane Wakoski, Gillan, Thomas Lux, Stephen Dobyns, Pinsky again (for the 10th anniversary) and, last year, former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer winner the great Rita Dove.

As my life has taken a new direction I’ve decided to end my involvement with the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, handing over the reins to the capable hands of Frenchtown-based poet Skye van Saun, who will continue to work on with my talented friends and colleagues Keith Strunk and Laura Swanson of River Union Stage.

One of my last acts as coordinator of the event was to recruit this year’s featured poet, Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Schultz.

On the bill with Schultz are New Jersey poets Cat Doty and Linda Radice. Admission is free but donations are welcome. Seating is limited and first-come, first-served. For more information, call 908-996-3685 or visit riverunionstage.org.

Why am I writing about this now? Because the 13th annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival will take place Friday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m., at Prallsville Mills in Stockon, N.J. If you’re anywhere near New Jersey, it’s practically a can’t-miss event if you’re a lover of poetry and literature.

And, yes, I know I misspelled “festival” as “festive(al)” in the title of this post. That’s what’s known as poetic license!

American smooth

The title of this posting, “American Smooth,” is a clue and a description.

Back in 1998, I got involved with a poetry program at my local high school and had the nerve to ask one of our nation’s greatest poets — Robert Pinsky, who had just been named U.S. Poet Laureate — to take part by conducting student workshops in the afternoon and giving a public reading in the evening.  Robert kindly accepted my invitation, hundreds of people showed up for his reading on that April night, and the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival was born.

Since then, thanks in large part to Robert Pinsky’s helping hand in that inaugural year, the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival has turned into one of New Jersey’s most remarkable and most unusual cultural events, bringing world-class poets — including Louise Gluck, Paul Muldoon, Gerald Stern, Diane Wakoski and many other talented poets of both national and regional accomplishment — to a relatively isolated, still somewhat rural region of western New Jersey.

That tradition of excellence will continue this fall. Here’s a press release I just sent out to poets, poetry fans and media outlets:

One of America’s most highly-acclaimed poets, former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove, will read from her works at the 12th annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, which will be held Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009, at 8 p.m. in the newly renovated former sawmill at the historic Prallsville Mills along the Delaware River in Stockton, N.J.

Admission is free but donations are welcome. Seating is limited and admission will be first-come, first-served.

Dove will add her name to an impressive list of distinguished poets who have read at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, including former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize winners Paul Muldoon and Louise Gluck (also a former U.S. poet laureate), National Book Award winner Gerald Stern, and award-winning poets Thomas Lux, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Stephen Dobyns and Diane Wakoski. The series has also hosted a number of outstanding poets from New Jersey and the region, including Charles H. Johnson, BJ Ward, Joe Weil and dozens of others.

Rita_Dove2006

Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1952. She served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995. Among her many honors are the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, the 1996 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities and the 2006 Common Wealth Award. President Bill Clinton bestowed upon her the 1996 National Humanities Medal.

Her books of poetry include American Smooth (W. W. Norton, 2004); On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Mother Love (1995); Selected Poems (1993); Grace Notes (1989); Thomas and Beulah (1986), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Museum (1983); and The Yellow House on the Corner (1980).

In addition to poetry, Dove has published a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985), the novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992), essays in The Poet’s World and the verse drama The Darker Face of the Earth (1994). She also edited The Best American Poetry 2000.

Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, where she has been teaching since 1989. She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006.

Her latest poetry collection, Sonata Mulattica, was published by W.W. Norton in the spring of 2009

The Delaware Valley Poetry Festival is presented in partnership by River Union Stage of Frenchtown and the event’s founder and coordinator, Nicholas DiGiovanni of Alexandria Township, a journalist and novelist. Funding is provided by the Hunterdon County Cultural and Heritage Commission and the New Jersey State Council for the Arts. The event has been held annually since 1998, debuting with a reading by then-U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, who returned to help celebrate the 10th year of the reading series.


“American Smooth” — the title of one of Rita Dove’s poetry collections and a good description of her poems, both when they’re on the printed page and when they’re read aloud.

Here’s a video clip of Rita Dove reading from her latest book, Sonata Mulattica:

Enjoy the video. Buy a copy of  Rita’s new book. And try to make it to Stockton, N.J., a beautiful town along the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, for a chance to see, hear and get a book signed by one of America’s finest poets, whose work combines great intelligence and depth with even greater heart and spirit.

Laurels and laureates

What’s a laureate? The word comes from the Middle English, by way of Latin, and it all derives from the practice of honoring or recognizing someone’s great achievement by crowning the person with a wreath of laurel.

Dove? Well, of course, it’s a symbol of peace, and recently I found myself remembering a line from good old Sir Thomas Malory: “And anon there came in a dove at a window, and in her mouth there seemed a little censer of gold, and therewithal there was such a savoir as all the spicery of the world had been there.”

That’s  from “Le Morte d’Arthur,” which really has nothing to do with the poet I’m about to write about, but it’s my way of finally getting to the point and announcing that this year’s 12th annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival will feature former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove.

RITA DOVE

She’s one of our greatest poets, and she’ll give a public reading on Saturday, Oct. 17, at 8 p.m. at the beautifully restored Prallsville Mills in Stockton, N.J., a small town nestled along the Delaware River in Hunterdon County, N.J., about an hour from Philadelphia and about 90 minutes from New York City.

I started this event, and coordinate it with my friends Keith Strunk and Laura Swanson of the River Union Stage theater group in Frenchtown, N.J. Details about tickets and other information — including plans for two book signings — will be announced in late spring/early summer. Meanwhile, though, mark your calendars. You can read and hear samples of Rita Dove’s poetry at the Academy of American Poets Web site (www. poets.org) or her own home page at University of Virginia ( http://people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/).

Rita will join an impressive list of poets featured at previous Delaware Valley Poetry Festivals, including former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Gluck, Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon, National Book Award winner Gerald Stern, acclaimed poets Thomas Lux, Stephen Dobyns, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Diane Wakoski, and many of New Jersey’s finest homegrown poets including Charles H. Johnson, B.J. Ward and Joe Weil.

This past October, we shifted gears  a bit, and featured nine outstanding younger poets recommended by some of the poets listed above.  It was an memorable weekend of amazingly skillful, intelligent and passionate writing and readings by artists with an wide array of backgrounds and styles but a shared gift of being able to move people with their words. Google the names of any of these rising poetry stars — Peter Covino, Janet Foxman, Khalil Murrell, Metta Sama, Matthew Siegel, Lonnie Manns, Jose Rodriguez, Michelle Lerner and Brian Trimboli — and you’re in for a treat.

And while you’re at it, visit the Web site of River Union Stage, where there’s a link to the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, with more information and more links to poems by Robert Pinsky, Louise Gluck, Paul Muldoon and the other great poets who have preceded Rita Dove on the truly remarkable list of artists who’ve joined us here to bring great poetry to the wilds of western New Jersey.