October 23, 2019

Two-Day Poetry Festival Features An International Array of Poets

“TO KEEP ONESELF HONEST”: Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton University Professor Paul Muldoon will be hosting the biennial Princeton Poetry Festival at the Berlind Theatre, with an international roster of 12 poets participating on Friday and Saturday, October 25 and 26. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski for Lewis Center for the Arts)

By Donald Gilpin

International poets from Sri Lanka, North Macedonia, Jamaica, Ukraine, and the Kumeyaay nation, along with a distinguished collection of U.S. poets, will be featured at the 2019-20 Princeton Poetry Festival on October 25 and 26 in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center.

Sponsored by Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and one of many events this year marking the 80th anniversary of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing, this biennial Poetry Festival is free and open to the public, with no tickets required.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton University Professor Paul Muldoon, organizer of the festival, emphasized the significance of the international aspect of the event, which will include readings, panel discussions, lectures, and performances by 12 award-winning poets.

“In this country we often think we can do it alone,” Muldoon said. “But the fact of the matter is we’re in this together and we have to not only acknowledge that, but put to the forefront the idea that we have a limited time on this planet and we have to work together. And one of the best ways to do this is in the arts.”

Recalling how, as a child growing up in Northern Ireland, he read poetry from a wide range of traditions from many different countries, Muldoon noted, “Poets from around the world read each other. Nobody exists in a vacuum. There are very few poets who remain solely in their own traditions.”

He added, “Around the world people are going about trying to make sense of things, which is what poetry does.” His travels, Muldoon said, were a significant factor in helping him to bring together the participants in this year’s festival. “I travel a lot,” he stated, “I’m often in far-flung spots throughout the world. I meet other people.”

He continued, “One of the most significant aspects of poetry is that it is a worldwide phenomenon. It allows all of us to learn more about an unfamiliar culture (or even a familiar one) than any number of history books, sociological studies, documentary films, or reality television shows.”

United States poets featured in the festival include Ellen Bass, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets; Gabrielle Bates, poet, novelist, and cohost of The Poet Salon podcast; Cornelius Eady, poet, playwright, songwriter, and cofounder of the Cave Canem Foundation; Kimiko Hahn, Guggenheim fellow, winner of numerous awards, and president of The Poetry Society of America; Sora Malech, assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and former director of the Iowa Youth Writing Project; Harryette Mullen, Academy of American Poets Fellowship winner and professor of African American literature and creative writing at UCLA; and Ben Purkert, editor at Guernica and a curator for Back Draft, an interview series about poetry.

The international poets highlighting the festival will include Indran Amirthanayagam from Sri Lanka, who writes poetry in five different languages; Lidija Dimkovska, who has published six poetry books, three novels, an American diary, and a short story collection; Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry; Ukrainian-born poet Vasyl Makhno, who won the BBC Book of the Year Award 2015 and whose writings have been translated into 25 languages; and Tommy “Teebs” Pico from the Viejas Indian Reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, winner of a 2018 American Book Award, and finalist for the 2018 Lambda Literary Award.

With a range of different traditions and languages represented, variety is a very important aspect of this year’s festival, Muldoon noted.

In a phone conversation earlier this week, Muldoon emphasized that “everyone is welcome” at the Poetry Festival, and he emphasized the importance of this event and of poetry in general in the contemporary world.

“I believe that poetry is a way of trying to keep oneself honest,” he said. “That’s been true for a long time. I like the idea of purifying the dialect of the tribe” — an idea from the French poet Stephane Mallarme, which is echoed in the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

Muldoon went on to stress the goal of trying “to be accurate in one’s use of language, not to strain a relationship between words and what they mean. That’s one of the poet’s jobs. It’s the citizen’s job, too. We always need it. In many ways we need it now more than ever.”

For more information about the Princeton Poetry Festival and a detailed schedule of readings, discussions, and other events, visit arts.princeton.edu/2019-poetry-fest.