WAMFEST : A Brief History of The Words and Music Festival
As a poet and life-long teacher of poetry, I’ve watched thousands of young people–and old people too–seem to deflate in front of me at the first mention of it. Say, “poetry” or “poet” and you won’t have to have a conversation for long, either in a classroom or at a party. But if you mention music and songwriting to those same people, they expand again, filled with life and endless strong opinions. All of the sudden things start rolling, and students are learning, and most everybody’s happy. It’s not poetry’s fault, really; it’s just that somehow it got trapped in colleges and in high school textbooks and forgot that its roots have always been deep in the soil of life itself. But poetry itself and serious literature generally have never been far from the hearts of the people; they know and cherish the work of dozens, if not hundreds, of significant artists whose work lives at the very center of their lives and provides sustenance to their hearts– a kind of spirit-enriching soundtrack of their lives.
The Words and Music Festival was born with this in mind. I hoped it could help in several ways. It would give my students—nearly half of whom are of the first generation of their families to attend college—a door into the living world of the arts, a world that would verify and then expand what they knew already but what is rarely made clear in college: that the art and poetry and music they’ve grown up with all around them, at its best, is very important and real art. And that art—whether in the form of a song by one of our great songwriters or a film of one of our great film makers or a poem or novel by one of our great writers—gives greater dignity, richness, and significance to our lives as they’re actually led. Second, it would give the artists themselves an opportunity to be celebrated as more than celebrities; they could be recognized for the contributions they’ve made not to the pop charts but to our intellectual and spiritual culture. Third, by bringing together writers—poets/novelists/journalists—and songwriters and starting a conversation, I hoped that the festival would create a forum that would help bridge the gap between “the people’s art” and the “art of the academy”, and that WAMFEST could provide a model for teaching and celebrating the arts across the country.
The People Involved So Far: Our guests this year have or soon will include Rick Moody, John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace, Dave Marsh, Rosanne Cash, Lynn Lurie, Thomas E. Kennedy, Jeffrey Reynard Allen, David Grand, and David Gates. For 2009 and beyond, Wesley Stace has become the official WAMFEST Artist in Residence and Curator. Celebrated, influential, ground-breaking-while-tradition-carrying, and beloved novelist and songwriter/performer, Wes embodies everything the festival is about, and he does so with uncanny grace and kindness.
How It Works So Far: The festival is a series of readings, interviews, talks, and performances that take place in The Mansion, a not-so-humbly-named former summer home of the Vanderbilts on our campus in Madison, NJ—less than an hour from NYC. The core of our audience is the seventy mostly-wonderful undergraduate creative writing majors at the college, but everything is free and open to the rest of the student body and the public (though some events are ticketed). And the atmosphere is always casual, open, and fun. It is a celebration, after all.
For more information, please write.
Poet, Director of Creative Writing BA
Fairleigh Dickinson University