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Pick of the Week

Moving Poetry


In 1960, writer and philanthropist Ruth Stephan founded the University of Arizona Poetry Center with the goal of creating a welcoming place and a distinguished collection that would allow Tucson "to encounter poetry without intermediaries." Since then, the Poetry Center has become a literary hotspot, sponsoring readings, lectures, classes, residencies, contests, exhibitions and programs in schools and prisons. Plus, the center's poetry library has become one of the biggest in the country, with more than 60,000 works.

Stephan's vision has been realized in more ways than one.

Though the Poetry Center has done a great job maintaining and promoting the spirit of poetry, it hasn't always been easy: Their old, modest headquarters at First Street and Cherry Avenue could hardly accommodate all their activities--or all their books.

Thankfully, the folks at the Poetry Center are moving to a bigger, better and more beautiful building, built especially for them by Les Wallach of architecture firm Line and Space, LLC. This 17,000-square-foot edifice is more than large enough for the Poetry Center's books, and it's a quiet haven for those who come to read them. At the same time, it's a place where groups can gather; speakers can speak; and classes can take place.

"The building is almost like a poem itself," says Poetry Center literary director Frances Sjoberg. "It provides a sense of comfort and welcome and space and light. (Les Wallach) has found a way to embody the paradox of the Poetry Center's mission in that we're trying to be very active and very meditative at the same time ... to accommodate individual solitude and also moments of community and celebration."

And celebration is exactly what the Poetry Center will be engaged in this Sunday at its Housewarming Festival, an afternoon packed with music, dance, acrobatics, theater, kids' activities and, of course, poetry.

The main draw for many will be readings by former U.S. poets laureate Billy Collins and Robert Hass. Collins, the author of such books as The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems, works to repopularize quality poetry for nonacademic readers--often humorously--and discourages interpretations that would "tie the poem to a chair with a rope/and torture a confession out of it." Hass, a somewhat more sober poet (though not without his own humor), is a well-known champion of ecological awareness and East Asian literary techniques. Reading Hass has been compared to "stepping into the ocean when the temperature of water is not much different from that of the air."

Also reading will be Arizona State University regents' professor Alberto Ríos, the author of both poetry and fiction, and former Tucsonan Brenda Hillman, whose work has been critically acclaimed as "sensuous" and "eclectic." Readers of more local fame will include Charles Alexander of Chax Press and UA professors Jane Miller and Steve Orlen (all of whom have won multiple literary prizes).

Festival-goers interested in the process of poetry will have to check out "Post and Bind," a two-part production in which 30 writers will each write a 10-minute poem using a pre-determined set of rules. As they're writing, the poems will be projected onto a screen upstairs, where observers will be able to watch every line being written, edited and re-written. Anyone at the festival can try their hand at making their own 10-minute poem, and the results will be collected in a hand-bound anthology. ("Post and Bind" will also provide materials and help for people to create their own hand-bound book or chapbook.)

For the kids, there'll be Stories That Soar, a theatrical event that begins with a talking "magic box" that invites young writers to "feed" it their ideas--and ends with these ideas being melded together and brought to life by professional actors.

Other entertainment will include acrobatics by pyrotechnic theatre group Flam Chen, flamenco dance and guitar by Luna Llena, live chalk-portrait creation by Madonnari chalk artists, a balloon drop, face painting, and arts and crafts. Live music will be almost nonstop, provided by Brazilian jazz ensemble Makako, taiko drummers Odaiko Sonora, local folk-rock god Al Perry and famous Native American flute master R. Carlos Nakai.

Finally, don't miss Typing Explosion, a performance trio known for dressing up in vintage secretarial clothing, seating themselves behind three Olivetti Valentine typewriters and staging a little something called "guerilla poetry construction"--which you'll have to see to understand.

"The Housewarming Festival is a chance for the public to see what the Poetry Center offers the community, and to see how poetry can play an important part in everyone's life," says assistant marketing specialist Annie Guthrie. "It can be vital, cathartic and transformative--and not just for artists, musicians and writers, but for anyone. (This is) a chance to see how poetry can come off the page and affect a life and improve it."

The UA Poetry Center's Housewarming Festival will happen from noon to 5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 14, at 1508 E. Helen St. The event is free, and free parking will be available in Zone One lots and the Highland Street Garage. Call 626-4310 for more information.

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