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.

The cultivation of grapes

You ask when I’m going to get around to writing about my visit to Concord.

You would think, when I finally did get around to it, that I’d write about visiting the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Louisa May and all the other Alcotts, all of whom sleep their endless sleep within the green lawns and wooded paths of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a few blocks from the village green.

The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord
The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord

Or maybe I’d write about staying at the venerable Colonial Inn, part of which was occupied for several years by his transcendental eminence Henry David and members of the Thoreau clan.

Concord's Colonial Inn
Concord's Colonial Inn

Perhaps I’d dwell a little on the pivotal events at Concord and Lexington which spawned a revolution.

You’d think I’d write about the delicate white flowers you photographed along the shore and the celestial light I saw shimmering on the holy waters of Walden.

Blossoms at Walden Pond
Blossoms at Walden Pond
Or, speaking of transcendence, maybe I’d write about thoughts that arose as I sat on a bench in downtown Concord and watched as transcendental tourists floated past like wispy wistful ghosts who whispered  of glowing and translucent love.
Downtown Concord
Downtown Concord

But I choose to speak of Concord and its grapes, which were first cultivated by Ephraim Wales Bull,  and whose grave at Sleepy Hollow gripes to the very end and beyond that he realized no gain from his carefully cultivated breed of grape – the real fortune was made by a man from New Jersey, name of Welch,  who took those grapes and turned them into jam and jelly.

And so on Bull’s headstone are etched these words:  “He sowed, others reaped.”

Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes
Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes

I did not know when I came home from kindergarten to the Mulford Garden projects in Yonkers, and waiting for me were a glass of milk and a peanut butter-and-jelly on Wonder Bread made for me every day by my mother, that my mother and I were connecting to and becoming as one with the transcendentalists as I sat and ate my sandwich.

As I sat on that park bench I was thinking about many things, including old Bull and his grapes, and how his hard work yielded fruit that did not bear fruit for himself, about the careful nurturing and pruning and guidance and patience – call it the labor of love – required to allow something to take root and spread its vines and provide sweetness and beauty.

As I sat on that park bench, I thought of an arbor I have in my own back yard. The grapes are, in fact, Concord grapes. Sometimes I’ve cut back the vines or cleared away weeds but mostly now I leave the vines to their own devices.

Some years, when the weather is not conducive to the growth of grapes, they shrivel into raisins on the vine. Other years, when the warmth and light are dealt in proper doses , the vines cascade down the arbor, and thousands of grapes threaten to pull down the old wooden posts with their weight, and birds built nests amid the vines on the top of the arbor, and the birds eat the sweet grapes, and deer come at night, and they reach to the higher realms of that arbor, and there’s plenty of grapes on the arbor for everyone.

As grapes grow so, too, can love grow, when storm clouds pass and the sun warms the vines right down to their roots, and sitting on that park bench,  I thought of Concord and Mr. Bull’s grapes, and I decided I just didn’t agree with that bitter viticulturist – I believe that those who take time to sow seeds, and let them take root, then nurture the vines, then wait patiently for the weather to freshen, these sowers will reap the sweetest fruits from the labors of their love.

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