Poems Come Home

The 25th annual Tucson Poetry Festival examines the event's past

Although the Tucson Poetry Festival has never left the Old Pueblo during its 2 1/2 decades of existence, it is coming home this week.

The 25th annual festival will explore the theme of "Poetry and Home," with most of its events scheduled for the Historic Y at the corner of University Boulevard and Fifth Avenue.

"The theory was to have some people who have appeared at the festival before, or to have Tucson poets, and all of them have been involved in the festival in the past," says Jeff Yanc, one of the festival's board members and organizers.

"Most of those who have not appeared at the festival have contributed in some way or another as volunteers, and they have made themselves felt contributing to the local literary community."

The list of guests for this year's festival includes returning poets Demetria Martinez, Simon Ortiz and Christopher Lane, as well as Tucson-based poets Richard Shelton, the FunKtional Adix, Meg Files, Jefferson Carter and Barrie Ryan.

The four-day event will include readings and signings by all of those above, as well as writing workshops, panel discussions, a special "homecoming" poetry slam, a youth-oriented poetry slam and a celebratory reading by the winners of the festival's annual Bilingual High School Poetry Contest.

All the poets are expected to at least touch on the subject of home and how it relates to poetry in their readings. In addition, "all the poets will participate in panel discussions ... and they'll explore the meanings of home and their connections to the festival," Yanc says.

"They'll be asked to talk about their memories of the festival, and what the festival has meant to them as artists and (how it) helped their careers and helped their development as artists."

Yanc experienced firsthand the impact this year's poets have made on Tucson. He has worked with the festival for many years, going back to the days when he owned Reader's Oasis bookstore. He booked all of this year's poets at some time or another for readings at the store.

The poetry slam on Thursday night, April 12, will be organized around a high school-style homecoming theme, complete with decorations and a special prize for best "bad date" poem.

Yanc says the open-mic poetry slams are always unpredictable. "You really never know what's going to happen at them. It's a much more direct and immediate feeling than you get at a traditional reading at the festival. It gives people many different opportunities to express themes in spoken word as well as poetry."

He also added that poetry slams, which began in the 1980s and '90s as fringe events, are becoming more widely accepted by the establishment.

"I think (slams are) starting to be seen as legitimate in poetry circles. They offer the chance for more action-oriented and comedic poetry. I think there is certainly plenty of room for those slams and traditional poetry to coexist."

Both the youth and adult slams will be hosted by Lane, who has been performing his poetry since 1997. He is among the pioneers of poetry-slam organization.

As part of the evening slam, Andre Gavino will perform as his alter-ego, the FunKtional Adix. His musical spoken-word performances blend technology with the art of poetry in a unique multimedia experience that has been called riveting.

Perhaps the biggest names on this year's program are Martinez and Ortiz, both award-winning veterans of the festival. Martinez teaches at the University of Massachusetts, and Ortiz at the University of Toronto. Both have written numerous collections of poetry.

Of special interest to local students and writers will be the Friday-night readings, featuring poets Files, Carter and Ryan, all of whom have associations with Pima Community College. Files is the chair of the English and journalism department at the college; Carter teaches composition and poetry for Pima, and Ryan has taught there in the past.

"I'm always amazed at how many writers around Tucson have been taught by Meg Files. She's really plugged into the community and has made significant contributions to writing and poetry in Tucson," says Yanc.

Another important Tucson writing teacher is Pulitzer-nominated poet Richard Shelton, who is a regents professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona, where he has taught since 1960. He is the author of many books of poetry and prose, and for more than three decades has directed creative-writing workshops at Arizona prisons.

Yanc says he and the other organizers are hoping for a strong turnout, but that they know poetry is a hard sell to audiences with so many art and entertainment choices available.

Nevertheless, a healthy audience of about 200 usually shows up for any given event at the festival.

"I think the Historic Y holds about 250 people, and when we have had the festival there in the past, it was almost full. So we'd be more than happy with that."

In a last-minute change, the festival's Sunday events, which previously had been announced to take place at Bookman's on Grant Road, have been moved to El Ojito Springs Center for Creativity on Stone Avenue.

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