By Hannah Glasston
THERE IS MUSIC in the air mid-morning at Boyer Rickel's historic home in downtown Tucson. Asked at first to turn it off, he hesitates, wonders a minute and then looks satisfied, almost relieved, when an interviewer suggests he simply turn it down. At Rickel's home, as in his soul, music is more than a visitor.
Rickel says he loved growing up in the household of his musician parents, who met at the University of Arizona's music school in the 1930s. He was constantly exposed to concerts and the comings and goings of his parents' musical friends. "I grew up completely absorbed in the world of music. I still think of music as the central art in a way. I go to hear a chamber group and I sometimes think I've wasted my life."
Hardly. The tall, blond Rickel, who played the oboe, violin and keyboards, found his way to Oberlin College in Ohio, where there was a music conservatory. He did not go to become a musician--"I didn't start out to be anything," he says-- but because "it was lovely to be near music."
In his work as a poet, Rickel says he has come to see that musical background "is central to my understanding about a lot of things, some of them very specific and practical." He has been working on what he calls "poem sequences," placing individual poems together, creating what he feels is more of an experience for the reader.
"My sense of how that can work grows out of classical chamber music," he says, "in which each movement of a quartet, say, has a distinctive character and quality and spirit, but taken together creates a larger sense of what the composer was out to say."
Currently the assistant director of the University of Arizona's well-respected creative writing program and a teacher in the department, Rickel will be a participant in Tucson Poetry Festival XIII, where he'll read from his new manuscript, The Accretive Heart. That work contains prose, something his first book arreboles, did not have.
"Prose has sort of given me a job in between poems that I'm grateful for," he says, noting that over the past five years he's been able to go back into the prose at will. "As long as there was a mass of words there, I could go to it. Whereas with poems, I can't just anytime pull something out and start to work on it. I have to really be ready with a kind of focus and sense of confidence."
Rickel says he's particularly honored to be invited to this year's festival, which has "Love" as its theme. He says issues of love and desire have been cropping up in his work lately, perhaps he says, because at mid-life he felt a confidence to write about what can be "dangerous subjects." But he points out the love theme goes beyond spouses and partners and lovers. Writing about complication, he thinks, is perhaps itself "an act of love."
One thing that interests Rickel, who is gay, about the festival, is that it features primarily a gay/lesbian/bisexual set of readers, which was not necessarily by design, he says.
"What people produce in their art comes from many sources, but one source is tension--you know that something serious is at stake. When my very nature is a matter of public debate because of my sexual orientation, there is an ongoing inner tension that I can't help but experience. That it should rise up in poems addressing issues of love and desire--friendship love, partner love--in a society that debates the very moral quality of character because of those forms of love, it's perhaps not surprising a group such as this has been brought together."
What has produced Rickel's work comes in no small part from an obvious contentment. Sitting in his living room, surrounded by the art work and colorful furniture created by his partner, Gary Kautto, he speaks generously about himself and his work, reacting positively to a comment that prose may free up a poet's voice.
His new work is perhaps "freer" than in his last book, but overall he offers a fresh view that looks back and ahead, with certain acceptance and even joy. Asked about this, the poet, as if to hide his words from some hidden microphone, leans forward and whispers, "I love my life. I'm very grateful. I've had a lot of good fortune in friendship, in family and in community. Growing up in a household where art was central to experience and to knowing oneself and to knowing the world, I have somehow never known what boredom was. To be able to open a book, or to look at a painting and get lost in the beauty and complications that art can provide, has probably made me a fairly happy person."
TUCSON POETRY FESTIVAL XIII takes on "Love" this weekend, and organizer Karen Falkenstrom confirms she was surprised herself to realize the invited poets were all gay. "It is a difficult thing to figure out what love is, and when looking for 'love' poets, a lot of gay and lesbian poets just came to mind," she says. "Loving someone is something gays and lesbians cannot take for granted, and we were looking for people who were writing exciting love poetry." That's the bold and controversial type as opposed to the chocolate hearts and flowers type, she adds.
This year poets include Rafael Campo, a physician and AIDS activist who found his voice while working with AIDS patients; long-time Kenyon Review editor Marilyn Hacker, an award-winning poet; Francisco Alarcón, Diane di Prima, Rickel and Jane Miller, a nationally known writer and UA faculty member recently back in town after a sabbatical in Iowa.
Miller and Campo will read at 8 p.m. Friday night; Hacker, Rickel and Lollie Butler, the winner of the statewide poetry contest, will read at 8 p.m. Saturday, and di Prima and Alarcón read at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
A panel discussion at 3 p.m. Saturday, "The Poetics of Love at the End of the 20th Century," will include all festival poets. Falkenstrom says this is an example of how the festival gives the community a way to interact with the poets. The discussion and readings will be at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 408 S. Sixth Ave.
In addition to the readings and small group sessions this year, look for the opening of two art installations, A Fairy Tale by Gregory Sale and Ronald James Winterrowd, and Ellen McMahon's No New Work. McMahon's piece is an installed book that addresses the conflicts of career and motherhood and how we take care of ourselves and others. The pages are made up entirely of cloth diapers, adding to the repetitive, insistent nature of the large work.
Tickets at the door are $7 for one day or $13 for a weekend pass. Advance tickets are available for $5 and $10 at Bentley's or The Bookstop. For more information call 321-2163.
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