The Garden State is Fertile Ground for Poetry

New Jersey is a hotbed of contemporary poets. Ever wonder why?

Photo by Christopher Lane

Ten people gathered around a conference table in a Jersey City co-working space on a recent Saturday morning, reading “The Neglected Trail,” a four-stanza poem by David Greenawalt. Sarah T. Jewell, a poet who convenes the weekly meeting through a community group called Jersey City Writers, reminded the attendees of the rules: focus on the positive first, and then consider what might be improved. After about 15 minutes of discussion, Greenawalt wondered aloud if he should put the word summer in the title. David Agraz, another poet, suggested playing around with 20 different titles.

Greenawalt, a geropsychologist from Staten Island, was pleased. His poem had received the equivalent of a spa treatment for about half an hour. The group, he said, was worth crossing state lines for; he called it “growing, vital, diverse.”

New Jersey’s poetry scene could be described the same way. Since 2000, seven of the 18 Pulitzer Prize-winning poets have had ties to New Jersey. There are altars to all kinds of poetry all over the state, including two Turnpike rest stops named for Jersey-bred poets (Walt Whitman and Joyce Kilmer); the new Nick Virgilio Haiku House in Camden; the Cry Out Cave, home of spoken-word poetry in Newark; and the William Carlos Williams Center in Rutherford. We may be familiar with the words of Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith and the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen and Queen Latifah, but who knew that Dorothy Parker, satirist-poet of the Algonquin Round Table, went to finishing school in Morristown?

At least a dozen literary magazines are based in the state, as are a handful of small presses. Workshopping groups like the Delaware Valley Poets (meeting regularly since 1952), South Mountain Poets, Cool Women, Tower Poets and others offer feedback and encouragement at meetings around the state. Jersey City has its own poetry festival, and book fairs in Collingswood, Paramus and Maplewood-South Orange open their stages to poets. Each day, the PoetryNJ Listserv, the NJ Poetry Calendar and the monthly New Jersey Poetry Calendar can direct a listener to one or more readings and poetry slams. With such offerings, plus numerous educational programs, in fact: You very well may never see/A state as packed with poetry.

New Jersey’s biggest poetry event, the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival—in fact, the largest in North America—will bring poets including Elizabeth Alexander, Kwame Dawes, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Pulitzer Prize-winner Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker and Ntozake Shange to Newark, October 18-21. More than 12,000 people attended the 2016 festival, many of them students and teachers who return to their classrooms with teaching materials (provided free) and, it is hoped, a long-lasting affection for the art form.

Poet Martin Farawell, the director of the Dodge Poetry Program, says visiting poets are amazed at the depth and breadth of knowledge of New Jersey teachers. “They don’t see it anywhere else,” Farawell says. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, primary sponsor of the festival, sends poets into the classroom and helps groups of teachers meet regularly to discuss contemporary poetry.

“If you’re intimidated about having to teach poetry, you teach it very differently than if you care about it and are connected to it in your own life,” Farawell says. “We have 30 years of high school students all over New Jersey being exposed to poems of contemporary poets, and tens of thousands of teachers who have shared their experience of poetry with their students. So their students encounter contemporary poetry, written by people whose lives and backgrounds are like theirs.”

What’s more, poetry is an art form with low barriers to entry: pencil, paper, brain.

Photo by Christopher Lane

“It’s hard to sit down at a piano without years of training and say something meaningful,” says poet Peter E. Murphy, founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University. “But if someone’s new to poetry, they can end up discovering something they didn’t know they knew. And if they’re committed, they can make it more artful.” Murphy, who runs writing getaways that have inspired at least 3,000 poets and prose writers, says that, thanks to the Dodge Festival and generous grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, “everyone can benefit.”

Poet BJ Ward, who will perform at this year’s Dodge Festival, says New Jersey offers great resources for young people who are intrigued by poetry and want to master the craft. “They can become the poet who can express that ineffable thing that’s not words and not silence, that thing between words and silence—that’s poetry,” he says, citing the efforts of the Writers Theatre of New Jersey, which sends visiting poets to schools, as well as Poetry Out Loud, a national student recitation competition, where New Jersey ranks second only to California in student participation.

Institutions such as Princeton University and the College of New Jersey sponsor regular readings from visiting writers, as do libraries in Highland Park, Montclair, Princeton, Sea Isle City, Woodbridge and elsewhere. Students pursuing a career in poetry can opt for a master’s of fine arts program at Rutgers-Newark, Rutgers-Camden, Drew University or Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Dimitri Reyes, a recent graduate of Rutgers-Newark’s MFA program, sees Newark becoming a literary hub, with active groups of poets of African-American, Latino and Portuguese descent. The two-year program is free, he says, and boasts a diverse roster of writers as faculty, including Rigoberto Gonzalez, Rachel Hadas, Brenda Shaughnessy and Cathy Park Hong.

The state’s community colleges also contribute to the art form’s popularity. Passaic County Community College’s Poetry Center runs workshops for students and adults, and sponsors several writing prizes and a literary magazine. County College of Morris publishes The Journal of New Jersey Poets. Sussex County Community College’s Betty June Silconas Poetry Center hosts an annual poetry festival and publishes a journal, The Stillwater Review. At Warren County Community College, Ward has run a reading series for the past 15 years featuring bold-faced poetry names that rural audiences seldom get to hear. Current U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith will read there on December 6 at 7:30 pm.

The proximity of New York and Philadelphia helps fuel the Jersey poetry scene, Ward says. “You have these major writers who go there, and if you have an off day between big events, you don’t mind filling it up with a little side stop at Warren County Community College.”

What else makes the Garden State such fertile ground for poetry?

Rob Hylton, known as the Godfather of Jersey Poetry, says the state’s troubled history shapes its verse. “New Jersey has always been a hot seat of rebellion. Think about the Newark riots and what’s going on in America,” he says. “I think poets speak about what they disagree with, what they want people to be aware of. New Jersey is unique, a hotbed of people who will not stand for injustice, and we’re prone to speak out against it, by any means necessary, through poetry.”

The state’s beleaguered mindset also contributes.

“When you love a thing that might be maligned by others, well, being a New Jerseyan is inherent training for being an artist in a form that many others might dismiss,” Ward says. “The way we learn to navigate on the crowded highways of our state might be the way we learn to navigate around the sounds and empathies of poetry. All that jangling, euphonic music rattles around our brains a little, and the right artist will be able to translate that into poetry for others.”

Farawell cites tension as a requirement for good poetry. “New Jersey has incredible cultural diversity and terrible segregation,” he says. “I think we have a lot of richness and beauty and a lot of complicated subtexts and tensions. Those two things rubbing together make for a rich and complicated and challenging and beautiful culture.”

He adds that the craft can bring about better understanding for writers and audiences alike.

“You really can’t empathize with someone unless you understand that what’s going on inside their heads, minds and hearts is as complex and rich and deep and vulnerable and valuable and important as what’s going on inside your head,” Farawell says. “I don’t know any art that teaches that better than poetry.”

Poet Adele Kenny, who runs the 20-year-old Carriage House Poetry Series in Fanwood, says poetry’s greatest power is to teach us we’re not alone.

“When we bring people together within this community and from other communities to our readings, it’s a special kind of sharing,” she says. “The details of our experiences may be different, but we’re all in this thing called life together. With the state of the world, it’s just so so important for people to recognize we’re really all one people.”

Correspondent Tina Kelley’s third collection of poetry, Abloom & Awry, was published in 2017 by CavanKerry Press.

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