Breaking Borders

Tucson Poetry Festival and it’s new director work to change the status quo and celebrate poetry

The Tucson Poetry Festival has gone through many changes in its 32 years, and with a new executive director—the position's first African-American woman— Tére Fowler Chapman says she wants to continue to shake up the status quo.

The festival event spans three days, Thursday April 16 to Saturday April 18, and brings in poets from across the country to read their work, participate in panel discussions, and teach writing workshops, which attracts almost 300 participants.

This year's theme is Breaking the Border. Though the festival pays homage to traditional concepts of poetry, Chapman says poetry is also about experimenting.

"There are borders put into what poetry is, but now you have media poetry and poetry with musicians, so poetry's constantly being experimented with, and that's breaking the border," she says.

The festival's evolution coincides with the evolution of poetry from structured poems written about subjects like universal love and death to a fluid medium used as an outlet to address political and social injustices.

When 26-year-old Chapman first moved to Tucson from Phoenix she says she couldn't picture herself as director of the festival. The community's unconditional support helped her to "find [her] voice," a gift she is passionate about giving to others.

In 2012 she founded Words on the Avenue, a space where Tucsonans can share their poetry with a community that listens. In 2014 she founded Tucson Lit, an online calendar that marks the literary events taking place in Tucson.

As part of her goal to reach out to others, Chapman hopes the festival transcends the boundary of the literary scene and connects with people that might not otherwise be exposed to poetry.

For the second year, much of the festival will take place at Hotel Congress, which has no precedential affiliation with poetry. The venue is designed to draw those without a familiarity or resonation with the medium and place them alongside the vibrant literary community.

Breaking the border defies any one idea of what a border is; they are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social. The theme is intended to challenge people to think critically about the systems in place in the world.

"The poetry I'm bringing will really invite people to consider how they construct their own borders, how we can deconstruct those borders and how we can recognize borders that may not be in our reality but are certainly in other's realities, particularly those from the margins," says Edyka Chilomé, one of the festival's featured artists.

Chilomé, 24, is a woman of color poet and spiritual activist of diasporic indigenous descent. Her book She Speaks | Poetry deals with the intersection of the many borders in her life defined by gender, race, sexuality, class, ethnicity, culture and spirituality.

Each year the board committee chooses the theme then scours for poets who best fit it to invite to the festival. This year five poets from around the country were invited, including Chilomé, as well as a local poet, 17-year-old Lydia Havens.

Havens won the spot to read her poetry at the festival through the Words on the Avenue Feature competition where she was chosen for the second year over other hopefuls.

Havens fell in love with the spoken word at age 15 from watching slam performances on YouTube. Her desire to find a place in Tucson led her to the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam, and later, Words on the Avenue.

"Poetry is such an important tool for youth trying to have their voices be heard," Havens says. She believes that spaces like the Tucson Poetry Festival create an environment where people can talk about important topics that they don't hear about every day.

Operating on the same principle, Chapman wrote the festival's first harassment policy and is creating an area that provides a safe space for harassment victims and gives them the opportunity to have a voice immediately as the harassment is occurring. The goal is to hold people accountable and let victims know that others believe them.

The space is an outgrowth of Chapman's belief that safety cannot simply be assumed; it must be actively promoted and enforced. She thinks of this issue not as specifically poetry or festival related, but rather a global issue.

Chapman has allowed her social awareness to dictate the direction in planning the event. She commissioned all of the shirts that the festival usually orders through Fed by Threads, which feeds 12 Americans in need per shirt sales.

As a poet who has been on the other side of work gigs, Chapman knows that busy schedules make it difficult to have important conversations with other artists. This year Chapman rented a house for the poets so that they can all stay in one place, have the time to share ideas and have a festival experience.

The festival experience, stripped down, is about poetry. Chapman believes that even through its progressions, poetry maintains its relevance from its ability "to inspire other people." As a medium for self-expression, Chilomé feels that poetry is inextricably spiritual by nature. To her, writing poetry is in itself a liberating act.

Havens believes poetry's power comes from its ability to evoke a sense of self through "magical moments" that occur when someone intensely identifies with a part of a poem.

"I'm hoping that when people gain these senses of self they realize that these borders don't have to be there, and that things like poetry will break those borders."

After all, she adds, "poetry really does change lives."

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