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The Top Of My Head Was Taken Off: At The Dodge Poetry Festival

By Sarah McCann, English Faculty

Poet Ezra Pound called poetry “news that stays news.” I subscribe to that. William Carlos Williams admonished:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

but men and women die every day

for lack

of what is found there.

And Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites, wrote, “If I feel as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

As a poet and ardent reader of poetry, I wilt a little each time I see so many student faces cringe at the word poetry. I try to remind them that they converse all day in poetry, that they hourly attend to poetry on their cell phones and laptops, that they grew up loving poetry via Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, with nursery rhymes and lullabies. I repeat, “This is ‘news that stays news’ we’re talking about!” Scowl, scowl, scowl, and throw in some furrowed brows.

However, I know something about people most care not to admit: everyone has a favorite poem. Whether it’s a cherished song, a faded page you carry with you, a phrase saved only for a select circle of friends, you have a favorite poem. Think, as a poet recently told me, of that perfect refrain in a song you love, those words in which you could live. You love poetry, even though you might fear it, cowering in class from it (as the student or teacher!).

So maybe you love poetry, or at least a poem. But why is poetry so difficult to understand and talk about? There actually is an answer. Poetry requires you. Poetry is a conversation that begins with the poet and continues with the active reader/listener. You are complicit in what evolves from that conversation and in your response. You, in the end, make the poem, and so you must participate.

Summoning the energy to enrich your understanding of the world is hard stuff. However, there is a newfound wealth and vitality that arises from contemplating life in all its joy and complexities. I make time to take on this ethical and essentially human hope of understanding, along with railing and celebrating, through the reading and writing of poetry.

I began the practice of poetry in high school, after witnessing my brother win awards and attention for his writing. And the first Dodge Festival I attended, in 1990, was one that featured my brother as a New Jersey High School Poetry Contest Winner. I floated around from reading to reading, swimming through phrases and feeling something I never had before. The best way I can describe it does not do it justice: I felt that my what-had-seemed-vast atmosphere had been burst through, and I was able to access all the stars beyond. Magic. And I followed poets around as if they were rock stars. I knew I would do anything to add to the generosity I felt in the words being shared with me, and so, I had to write poetry.

And I wish to share this sensibility, this possibility, with the SM community. To that end, I have been bringing a five-to-eight students to the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey for the past nine years. The Dodge remains North America’s largest poetry event, with four days of readings, talks, performances, and discussions, and it began in 1986 out of an initiative to foster a relationship between high school students and poetry. Poets of the page share the stage with slam poet champions; student poets converse with Pulitzer Prize Winners and US Poet Laureates; and storytellers and musicians collaborate with their audiences.

SM students who have participated in this trip are testament to what the Festival can do for aspiring readers, thinkers, and writers. Dodge attendees have joined summer creative writing programs such as the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Juniper Institute for Young Writers. Two sixth-form attendees designed an ISP for which they interviewed former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, one student became the editor of his college literary journal, and another Dodge alum went on to work in a publishing house. It is with great pleasure that I still read the poetry of many of the SM students who went to the Dodge Festival, shared with me via email or published in journals. It is truly a life-guiding experience, one in which you might lose your head.

Sarah McCann is a faculty member in the English Department and is the Tyler Chair Chair in Creative Writing.  She holds a B.A. from Princeton University and a M.F.A. from the University of Iowa.  Her interests include entertaining Murray, her incorrigible, darling terrier; cooking vegetarian food with her husband, Dan; and being a careful observer of the world around her. She also requires Lord Byron and indie rock to function properly.  

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