The culture of sculpture

The photo above? I call it “Large Head of Woman Appears to Float in the Mist in Replica of Japanese Garden Near Lovely But Expensive Restaurant.” The location? I took it yesterday at the Grounds for Sculpture located in Hamilton Township, N.J.

Don’t get me wrong. The Grounds for Sculpture is a stunning place, with hundreds of striking and creative outdoor sculptures, beautiful landscaping and pathways that beckon with a mantra hum …like the one in this photo, also taken yesterday:

It’s a place filled with wit and wisdom and wonder, with the beauty of spirit and the spirit of beauty. I intend to go back some glorious morning in spring and I want to walk there in silent winter snow and I want to hear the soft crackle of leaves beneath my feet as I get lost in autmn on the perfectly unpredictable paths.

Yesterday was a hot day, with thunderstorms rumbling and dark clouds looking so biblical that the experience was nearly humbling…but not enough to resist the temptation to say “Visit the Grounds for Sculpture. But don’t bother sitting through the introductory film  in which someone rambles very seriously about experiencing the wonder of art and making it one’s own and other very pretentious prattle that the narrator with her very British accent manages to read without even one little proper giggle.

Here’s the link to the Grounds for Sculpture.

Get past the fact that these folks take themselves just a little too seriously and definitely need a new scriptwriter — and you’ll find it to be a place you’ll want to visit again and again.

P.S. At the entrance to one of the indoor exhibits I found a plaque bearing the best poem I’ve ever read or heard about the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. It was written by my friend BJ Ward just days after the tragedy. BJ read this powerful poem just a few weeks later at one of the readings in the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival series I’d started just a few years before. I remember saying to people at the time that the poets and I had discussed whether it was right to hold the reading series that awful autumn. BJ’s stunning poem made it clear that proceeding with the event wasn’t just right – it was necessary:

For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims

Nothing could have prepared you—

Note: Every poem I have ever written

is not as important as this one.

Note: This poem says nothing important.

Clarification of last note:

This poem cannot save 3,000 lives.

Note: This poem is attempting to pull your father

out of the rubble, still living and glowing

and enjoying football on Sunday.

Note: This poem is trying to reach your mother

in her business skirt, and get her home

to Ridgewood where she can change

to her robe and sip Chamomile tea

as she looks through the bay window at the old,

untouched New York City skyline.

Note: This poem is aiming its guns at the sky

to shoot down the terrorists and might

hit God if He let this happen.

Note: This poem is trying to turn

that blooming of orange and black

of the impact into nothing

more than a sudden tiger-lily

whose petals your mother and father

could use as parachutes, float down

to the streets below, a million

dandelion seeds drifting off

to the untrafficked sky above them.

Note: This poem is still doing nothing.

Note: Somewhere in this poem there may be people alive,

and I’m trying like mad to reach them.

Note: I need to get back to writing the poem to reach them

instead of dwelling on these matters, but how

can any of us get back to writing poems?

Note: The sound of this poem: the sound

of a scream in 200 different languages

that outshouts the sounds of sirens and

airliners and glass shattering and

concrete crumbling as steel is bending and

the orchestral tympani of our American hearts

when the second plane hit.

Note: The sound of a scream in 200 languages

is the same sound.

It is the sound of a scream.

Note: In New Jersey over the next four days,

over thirty people asked me

if I knew anyone in the catastrophe.

Yes, I said.

I knew every single one of them.

BJ Ward

from Gravedigger’s Birthday(North Atlantic Books)

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!

There’s something about Maria

I’ve written before about Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who’s one of my favorite poets — and favorite people. Maria, who has read several times at the annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, writes provocative, emotional, touching poems which address simple, basic issues — love, friendship, aging, illness, ethnicity — in spare, simple, powerful language that elevates, invigorates and inspires listeners and readers.

Maria runs the master’s program in creative writing at SUNY-Binghamton. She’s founding editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She’s mentored and encouraged dozens and dozens of New Jersey poets. I could go on and on, and just might, except it might be best to let you hear it for yourself.

Here’s a link to a recent video of a recent reading by Maria:

Here’s a YouTube video of Maria reading three of her poems:

And here’s a list of dates, times and locations for a series of readings Maria is giving during October in Connecticut.

10/19/09: Southern Connecticut State University, 501 Crescent Street, New Haven, Ct.,  7 pm.

10/20: Middlesex Community College, 100 Training Hill Rd. Middletown, Ct.  12:30 pm.

10/21: Central Connecticut State University, 1615 Stanley St. New Britain, Ct. 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

10/21: Manchester Community College, 161 Hillstown Rd. Manchester, Ct.  8 pm.

10/22: University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, Ct. 12:15 pm.

10/28: St, Joseph’s College, 1678 Asylum Ave, West Hartford, Ct.  7:30 pm.

10/29  Wesleyan University, 229 High St, Middletown, Ct. 8 pm.

——————————————————–

If you live anywhere near the Nutmeg State, try, try, try really hard to attend on her appearances. You will leave feeling better about life than you felt before you heard Maria’s beautiful, powerful and stirring poems.

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.

On the road

The soundtrack wasn’t the late-night bop sounds of Symphony Sid and I wasn’t driving with one hand while my other hand typed my spontaneous beatific scroll. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s newest album on my stereo and I had one hand on the wheel and my Mapquest directions in the other — but I was indeed on the road, first stop Lowell, Mass., hometown of Jack Kerouac and my destination for a meeting with the folks who have organized that town’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which was held last October for the very first time and is already an impressive event.

Allen Ginsberg's famous photo of young Jack Kerouac

Allen Ginsberg's famous photo of young Jack Kerouac

I arrived early, and so had a chance to explore downtown Lowell, which reminded me very much of my own old home town of Yonkers, N.Y., where even now I can walk around those familiar streets and conjure up visions of the city’s once-bustling business district in the old carpet mill buildings and the old sugar refinery and even the old Herald Statesman newspaper office now converted into a library branch because the newspaper was homogenized and sanitized and standardized and blended until it disappeared. Lowell  felt like that, right down to the impressive old Lowell Sun newspaper office, with its big rooftop signs — two of them — spelling out the name of the paper, S-U-N.

Here's a view of downtown Lowell, including the Lowell Sun building

Here's a view of downtown Lowell, including the Lowell Sun building

I then met with the poetry festival organizers, with whom I’d been put in touch by Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. poet laureate who teaches in the graduate program at Boston University and was the featured poet at the inaugural festival held last October in Lowell.

Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky

(Pinsky was the featured poet at the first annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in 1998 — which I founded and still run in conjunction with River Union Stage of Frenchtown, N.J. — and was good enough to come back to read again in 2007 for the 10th anniversary of our readings in New Jersey, which have also featured such literary lights as Louise Gluck, Pulitzer Prize winner and another former U.S. poet laureate; Pulitzer winner Paul Muldoon; National Book Award winner Gerald Stern; and other great poets includling Thomas Lux, Diane Wakoski, Maria Mazzioti Gillan, Joe Weil, BJ Ward, Charles H. Johnson, Stephen Dobyns and many others. The 2009 Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, scheduled for October, will feature yet another great poet — Rita Dove.)

So I met with the Lowell event’s organizers: Michael Ansara, who arranged the lunch, joined by LZ Dunn, who works for the city of Lowell as well as its cultural agency, and Paul Marion of UMass/Lowell.  We had a great exchange of ideas and thoughts on ways the Lowell event might be turned into an even greater event than it already is, including the idea of finding ways to connection with the thriving poetry scene in another old industrial city with deep literary roots — Paterson, N.J., associated with a couple of pretty good poets named William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.

I also had a fascinating but all-too-brief talk with Paul Marion, who it turns out has been the mover and shaker behind many of the efforts to properly honor Kerouac in his home town — and was involved in the cataloguing of Kerouac’s correspondence — including letters Kerouac exchanged with the late, great poet Robert Lax, who was my friend and mentor. I knew about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac, who was fascinated by his Zen/Christian minimalist approach to life and art; in fact, I know that Lax was reading some of Kerouac’s novels in the months just before he died; but I was startled to learn during the conversation that Marion was familiar with Robert Lax and was excited to meet someone — me — who had known Lax.

Here’s a photo taken of Lax by Paul Spaeth, curator of the Thomas Merton/Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University, when Lax visited the school in 1990 during a brief sojourn back to the U.S. from his home on the island of Patmos, Greece:

Robert Lax

Robert Lax

The one downside to the meeting in Lowell: Turns out the 2009 event in Lowell will be held on the same weekend as Rita Dove’s scheduled appearance Oct. 17 at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in New Jersey, so I won’t be able to make it back up to Lowell for this year’s event — here’s hoping I can make it in 2010.

And, because even Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll manuscript had a begininng and had to finally end, so too this post must end. What better way than with a sampling from Jack Kerouac’s Belief and Technique for Modern Prose. He listed thirty “essentials.” Here are my favorites:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
20. Believe in the holy contour of life

It’s Todd’s Show! (And two of my friends are in it!)

They’re my comrades, colleagues, collaborators, co-conspirators: Laura Swanson and Keith Strunk, founders and principals of the great River Union Stage theater troupe in Frenchtown, work with me on the annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival. Both are extremely talented practitioners of the thespian arts — acting, directing, producing, stage design, lighting, sound, you name it they do it, including an extremely funny episode from the increasingly popular and absolutely hilarious Web series titled “It’s Todd’s Show.”

The show features two talking dogs and their interesting opinions of the humans they are forced to deal with in their lives.

Here’s the link to the episode starring Keith and Laura:

After you watch the hilarious performance by Keith and Laura (actually Keith isn’t acting — that’s the way he is in real life), go to the show’s Web site, click on the video tab, and find the short clip of the laughing dog, which will either creep you out or leave you in hysterics, just like the dog — and just like me.

A party for Pete

392-pete-seeger1
Yes, I’m talkin’ Pete Seeger. No, I’m not talkin’ about the Communist Party or the Wobblies or any of those sorts of parties and movements. I’m talking about how there will be a movement of about 19,000 people into Madison Square Garden on Sunday, May 3, when dozens of great musicians will gather to celebrate the amazing Mr. Seeger’s 90th birthday!

Some of the performers who will be on hand to honor Pete:
Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder, John Mellencamp, Ani DiFranco, Bela Fleck, Ben Harper, Billy Bragg, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack, Richie Havens, Steve Earle, Taj Mahal, Dar Williams, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Tom Paxton, Toshi Reagon, Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger…and, of course, Arlo Guthrie.

Limited ticket sales began today (March 23) and general ticket sales begin next Monday, March 30. Tickets are pricey — the good seats are hundreds of dollars and even the cheap seats are $90 each (for Pete’s 90th birthday). But proceeds from the show will benefit a great cause — the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which set sail more than three decades ago — stewarded by Pete Seeger — to protect and restore Pete’s beloved Hudson River and other waterways.

Here’s a video of Arlo singing Pete’s great song “Golden River:”

The Clearwater movement’s close to my heart since I grew up on the New York side of the Hudson River. As for Pete, one of the highlights of my life was meeting Pete years ago and having the honor of hosting him as he performed two benefit shows — about 10 years ago, when he was a young buck of about 80 years old — to raise money for a charity I’d started called the Delaware Valley Holiday Fund. Pete, grandson Tao and Pete’s beautiful wife Toshi drove all the down from Beacon, N.Y., to western New Jersey, put on a show in a packed high-school auditorium, then drove right back home to Beacon, and the only compensation they received was a basket full of sandwiches and fruit and cakes to sustain them for that long drive back to their home up on the Hudson. A year later, Pete and Toshi were back, doing another benefit show for our charity, this time outdoors, once again free-of-charge, at a park in Pennsylvania along the Delaware River.

This is what Pete Seeger’s been doing for 90 years. Helping people, fighting for justice, singing songs of peace, dispelling hate and spreading love. Happy birthday, Pete!