Invigorated by Poetry

Top Native American writers get together for a three-day UA symposium

For the first time in Tucson, a stellar roster of Native American poets will gather to share their poetry, creative ideas and thoughts on the literary arts and language with each other and with audiences at the Native Voices Symposium, scheduled for next weekend at the University of Arizona.

The symposium, featuring revered author Leslie Marmon Silko as keynote speaker, also will include such noted writers as Luci Tapahonso, Sherwin Bitsui, Simon Ortiz, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Rex Lee Jim, Danny Lopez, Joy Harjo and Laura Tohe, among others, teaching classes and workshops, reading from their work and sitting in on panel discussions June 14-16.

According to a press release, the symposium is designed to celebrate "linguistic and cultural diversity, and it explores how languages--endangered indigenous languages in particular--are not just preserved but invigorated by poetry, storytelling, bookmaking and literary pursuits."

The symposium is the result of a collaboration of the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the 28th annual American Indian Language Development Institute, a four week residential summer program for teachers of Native American students.

The institute is being held on the UA campus now through June 29. The institute's theme this year is "Weaving Indigenous Voices: Telling Our Stories," and for institute participants, attendance at the symposium next week is both free and mandatory.

The concept for the symposium was born about two years ago, said Frances Sjoberg, literary director for the University of Arizona Poetry Center.

"I began to have a series of conversations with Ofelia Zepeda, who directs the American Indian Language Development Institute. At that time, we thought the Poetry Center would be in its new building, but it looks as though we'll be moving in there by the fall semester," Sjoberg said.

Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, the author of two books of poetry, a UA linguistics professor, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and Tucson's poet laureate. She also will appear at the symposium, leading the workshop "O'odham Doesn't Rhyme, But It Has Meter: Writing Poetry in an American Indian Language."

The Poetry Center is scheduled to move into its new digs, the nearly completed

Helen S. Schaefer Building, 1508 E. Helen St. (just north of the university, at the corner of Vine Avenue) by Aug. 20. Symposium events will be held in the Modern Languages Auditorium and in the UA Education Building.

Even though the symposium won't mark the inaugural event for the Poetry Center's new home, the original intent hasn't changed, Sjoberg said.

"We wanted to show how the Poetry Center and the institute are significant programs at the UA, in spite of the fact that they don't receive quite as much attention as other programs, such as the Mars Project or the basketball teams."

Events officially will kick off at 7 p.m., Thursday, June 14, with the keynote address by Silko, also a MacArthur Fellow and a Laguna Pueblo writer who has given the world such acclaimed novels as Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead. The subject of her speech will be "500 Years From Now, Everyone in Tucson Speaks Nahuatl, Not Chinese."

In addition to Silko's speech, evening readings and panel discussions, the symposium will feature classes and workshops during the days. Subjects will include everything from "Storytelling for Children" and "Using Indigenous Models for Languages Arts in Schools" to "Transcribing, Translating and Publishing Tlingit Oral Tradition."

The idea was to provide a variety of topics that could interest all those interested in Native American poetry and literature--from the casual readers to academics.

"I tend to think (the symposium) will appeal to those who have a strong interest in Native American poetry and language, and also to those who are linguists, writers and educators who really want to immerse themselves in the subjects, " Sjoberg said, adding that the symposium marks the first time so many Native American poets will have gathered in one place.

"Most of these writers are very established and distinguished nationally and internationally. To have them all in the same place, sharing ideas and thoughts--it will be very exciting to see what kind of sparks fly."

She also noted that the symposium will feature Navajo poet Bitsui, whom she called "a representative of the 'new generation' of Native American writers. He will provide a new perspective and a new aesthetic place. His first book just recently came out from the UA Press. He's being hailed as a strong figure nationally for young Native Americans."

Sjoberg said she expects Bitsui to draw younger readers to the symposium, a task that also will be accomplished by including among the events a series of writing workshops for middle school and high school students. Those workshops will be coordinated by ArtsReach, a local nonprofit organization for promoting literacy, academic success and cultural vitality in Native American students and families.

Those attending have the option of registering for the full symposium, or simply buying tickets to individual evening events, Sjoberg said. Hurry if you want to buy tickets, though.

"We've already exceeded our expectations for the audiences. We've probably had about 130 or 150 people register," Sjoberg said. "We have people coming into Tucson from all over the world for this, and from the East Coast and the Northwest. There are lots of people coming from New Mexico and Arizona, of course."

And if you can't make it to the events, many of the readings and panel discussions will be shown via streaming video and podcast on the UA Poetry Center's Web site .