If you're going to put on a poetry festival . . . first get on a ship.
Paul Muldoon, poet and professor at Princeton University, is setting up the third Princeton Biennial Poetry Festival for Friday and Saturday. And getting on a ship, in part, is how he chose the poets who'll be there.
We'll explain. First: The festival, which began in 2009, is a great chance to see a diverse group of wonderful poets, poets who write all sorts of ways about all sorts of things.
Friday kicks off with the New Jersey state finals of Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation competition for high school students. From there, it's a treasure-trove of readings and panels featuring a varied group of word artists, from Pulitzer winners - the much-honored Jorie Graham and Stephen Dunn - to Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao, Scottish poet Don Paterson, South African Gabeba Baderoon, and Ghanaian reggae star Sheriff Ghale, plus Princeton alums ("that's a feature we try to have," says Muldoon) such as Lizzie Hutton and Monica Youn.
If you don't know these people . . . show up.
This is a delightful group. As Hutton puts it: "Inclusion is the word. The lineup tells you that."
So, Paul Muldoon, how do you include your poets?
"It's simple," the Northern Ireland-born Muldoon says, non-relaxing in his office. He's a professor in the humanities and chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts. "If I meet them and I like them, I invite them."
And he meets them everywhere. Muldoon says, "You now have poetry festivals all over the world, pulling in really great people from all over. I met Bei Dao at the Rotterdam festival. Or perhaps it was Hong Kong?"
About that ship. Muldoon was on a Semester at Sea cruise ship, docking at Manaus, Brazil, where he met Ghale. So what did the two do as the ship plowed across the Atlantic toward Africa?
"We wrote a tune together," laughs Ghale by phone from his home in Tamale, Ghana. "Paul is a musician and is very interested in the popular song and how it interacts with the lyrics." Muldoon invited Ghale, and the latter will play at the festival.
The boat took Muldoon to Cape Town, South Africa, where he met Baderoon, who grew up "at a time when poetry was among the ways people lived their lives against a dehumanizing regime."
The poets are very dissimilar, which is part of the fun. Hutton's voice is humane and direct. In these lines from "Pollen, Cross Pollen," the speaker calls her father
heartstring traveler, silent driver
tapping on the wheel of his own figured
concentration as he steers
Baderoon, an assistant professor of women's studies and African and African American studies at Pennsylvania State University, offers a global political awareness, a reflection, perhaps, of her background. "I'm descended from enslaved people from East Africa," she says. "I was in the Cape Malay subcategory of 'Colouredness' " under apartheid. Thus the exquisite political awareness of "Fanon's Secret":
The woman who cleans your house
all day is in the places you can't be,
touches your sheets.
You have the charged, oblique symbolism of Bei Dao ("The wave of that year / flooded the sands on the mirror"); the ironic, formal, but contemporary verse of Paterson ("God is the place that always heals over, / how ever often we tear it").
And the intriguing Youn: A lawyer at the Brennan Center at New York University, she's also an often-experimental poet, as in "Stereoscopes," two columns of words read simultaneously. She looks forward to the festival, not only because "I was so at home when I was at Princeton," but also because "people seem to get my poems better when I read them aloud."
The Princeton gala is but the first of many in the Philadelphia area. Dunn thinks festivals are more common, "starting from the days when people like Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, and Robert Haas were poet laureate and started to reach out to a wider public."
"Who's not in favor of outreach?" Muldoon says. "In that way, we're like the [Geraldine R.] Dodge Poetry Festival" - the New Jersey-based poetry Woodstock - "they, like us, want anyone to come who has an interest, who likes to hear it as much as we like to do it."
So many different ideas of what poetry is. Gabeba: "Poetry is to me as capacious and wide as the world needs it to be."
"I'm interested," Hutton says by phone from Ann Arbor, Mich., where she's a graduate student, "in writing poems that my parents, and the people in my life who are not poets, would find accessible."
Ghale: "The closer I am to my God-consciousness, the better artist I am."
"I work by a definition of poetry as expansive as it can be," Muldoon says after praising poets such as T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, and, of course, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. "A lot of people still look at Princeton as stuffy, stiff, remote, rigid - but this festival is anything but, and is meant to be anything but."
What: The Princeton Poetry Festival runs 2-10 p.m. Friday and 2-7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall
on the campus of Princeton University.
Tickets: $15 for single days ($10 students); $25 for both days.
At 609-258-9220, princeton.edu/utickets, or at the door.
Friday: 10 a.m.
New Jersey state finals of the Poetry Out Loud high school recitation competition (free, but advance tickets required).
2-4 p.m. A reading by a dozen poets, including Jorie Graham (U.S.), Bei Dao (China), Sheriff Ghale (Ghana), Gabeba Baderoon (South Africa),
and Don Paterson (Scotland).
8-10 p.m. Readings by Baderoon,
Stephen Dunn (U.S.), Bejan Matur (Turkey), and Xi Chuan (China).
Saturday: 10 a.m.-
by Lizzie Hutton,
and Monica Youn.