Idyllwild Poetry Week


July 14, 2013

In the summer of 1999, Cecilia Woloch organized a week-long poetry conference at the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Over the course of the next nine summers, Woloch managed a rotating line-up of poets that could serve as an idiosyncratic model for that endangered species of literary projects, the anthology of contemporary poets. The following is not a complete list of those Woloch selected to give featured readings at Idyllwild, but it’s sufficiently comprehensive to provide an accurate survey of her curatorial sensibility:

Chris Abani

Ellen Bass

John Brandi

Christopher Buckley

Marilyn Chin

Lucille Clifton

Wanda Coleman

Billy Collins

Brendan Constantine

Richard Garcia

James Baker Hall

Eloise Klein Healy

Peter J. Harris

Terrance Hayes

Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Galway Kinnell

Carolyn Kizer

Ted Kooser

Yusef Komunyakaa

Maxine Kumin

Suzanne Lummis

Tom Lux

Bill Mohr

Harryette Mullen

Carol Muske-Dukes

Marilyn Nelson

Naomi Shihab Nye

Sharon Olds

Holly Prado

Doren Robbins

Aleida Rodriguez

Maurya Simon

Gerald Stern

David St. John

Natasha Tretheway

Quincy Troupe

Ellen Bryant Voight

Charles Harper Webb

Cecilia Woloch

Robert Wrigley

Of these 40 poets, half are women; one-fourth of the total represent a range of poetics within African-American poetry that is difficult, if not impossible, to find embedded in current anthologies. On a number count alone, Woloch deserves considerable recognition for going far beyond an all too prevalent tokenism that still seems to operate within American poetry, especially within the academy.

Unfortunately, the Idyllwild poetry festival had to scale back its programming after the international economic debacle in 2008. A week of workshops and readings still takes place in July under the direction of Ed Skoog, who brought in Diane Wakoski and Richard Kenney as featured poets this year. David St. John was originally scheduled to lead a workshop, but had to drop out at the last moment and Kenney took his place.

As in past years, I am only able to attend the poetry programming in the evening because I teach a day-long class in fiction writing at Idyllwild’s summer arts camp. This past Friday, however, I managed to catch the final quarter-hour of a lecture by Diane Wakoski. The culminating trope of her talk involved the layers of secrets intermingling in a poem’s undulations. She emphasized that the crucial tension in a poet’s work involves the knowledge of a secret that must be addressed in the poem but cannot be revealed. As Wakoski cited examples of how this oscillation works out in poets such as Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, I thought of the way I explained poetry to young students in the San Gabriel Valley in the early 1980s: “A poem does not solve a mystery; it creates one.” I remember that at one school my comment was reported by the classroom’s teacher to the principal as a “dangerous” idea. I kid you not. On one hand, I was dismayed that what I was teaching grade school students about poetry could be categorized as insidious knowledge; on the other hand, I felt gratified that my work in various poet-in-the-schools programs was doing more than simply reinforcing the predictable habits of literacy.

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