Poems for a Song

The Tucson Poetry Festival returns for its 22nd year

Dana Gioia, poet and critic: "I believe that a poet is, in some sense, involuntary. To a certain degree, a poet is at the mercy of his or her inspiration. A poet needs to cultivate a certain humility before the art. One collaborates with one's own unconscious and with the language itself. You have to be willing to give as well as get."

Gioia will be among the poets at the 22nd annual Tucson Poetry Festival, Sept. 9-11. Musicians will be there too, including Grammy nominee Luciana Souza, celebrating the festival's theme of poetry and music. Souza will perform songs from her latest album, Neruda, with pianist Kevin Hays. The festival will also feature works inspired by poetry from composers Daniel Asia and Dan Coleman.

Many artists keep a day job in order to support their artistic endeavors. Dana Gioia has a huge gig: He's currently chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, overseeing a $120 million budget. He's got game in every direction: He's a Stanford M.B.A who also has a master's in comparative literature from Harvard. A former vice president of marketing for General Foods, Gioia is co-author of the best-selling college literary textbook in the country. He also translates poetry from Latin, Italian, German and Romanian. A trained musician, he was the classical music critic for San Francisco magazine for six years.

On Friday, Sept. 10, in addition to reading from his books, Daily Horoscope and The Gods of Winters, Gioia will also read works by poet Elizabeth Bishop, who he studied under at Harvard. Tucson Symphony composer in residence Dan Coleman will then present his instrumental Quintet (After Elizabeth Bishop). Gioia noted in his book of essays, Can Poetry Matter, that he first encountered Bishop's poetry in a musical setting by composer Ned Rorem.

"Some of my earliest experiences in contemporary poetry came from hearing songs done on the works of contemporary poets," Gioia explains from his Washington, D.C., office. "I began reading those poets as a result. I was especially struck by Rorem's setting of (Bishop's) 'The House of Bedlam.' So a few years later, I found myself at Harvard, studying with Bishop, who at that point was not yet the enormous literary figure that she is today. There were only five people in her class."

The relationship between poetry and music is close to Gioia's heart.

"I particularly regret the separation between poetry and music in our culture," Gioia says. "They're deeply interrelated arts. The one thing we know about all Greek lyric poetry is that it was sung. Epic poetry seems to have been chanted rhythmically to instrumental accompaniment. They invigorate each other by being combined."

Gioia is looking forward to hearing the Quintet (After Elizabeth Bishop) performed by members of the Tucson Symphony.

"I happen to admire the works of Dan Coleman," Gioia says. "I think he's an extremely fine composer. I've heard his music in recordings, and he's a very expressive and rich composer."

On Thursday, Sept. 9, a celebration of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda by Souza and University of Arizona professor and poet Eliana Rivero will open the festival. Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui will read from his first book, Shapeshift.

"Music plays many roles in my life," says Bitsui, addressing the festival theme. "Some of my poems are a result of listening to certain songs over and over, until I am no longer aware that a song is being played in my head."

On Saturday, Sept. 11, UA composer Daniel Asia will present Breath in a Ram's Horn and the world premiere of the Pines Songs II song cycle, all based on texts by his friend, poet Paul Pines. Asia and Pines first met 28 years ago while in residence at the MacDowell Art Colony.

"I love the directness of his poetry, how it seems to move from the simple and almost mundane to the universal and cosmic within one poem," Asia explains. "I love its New York and Jewish references. I love its musical references. It seems inherently American."

Via e-mail, Pines adds, "What Dan's music brings out of my poems is something latent, there under the surface. I'm always surprised by the way the music can take the words I wrote and bring out a dimension of feeling I had only suspected, but was there all the time."

New York vocalist Robert Swensen will sing, accompanied by UA faculty member Tannis Gibson.

NEA chairman Gioia has been critical of modern poetry's deliberate erosion of its popularity. "Poetry has not done as good a job as it could," he notes. "Poetry used to be published in newspapers and magazines. It was a standard feature during the 19th and early 20th century, when poetry had a big audience."

He's hopeful that the Tucson Festival will expand the audience for both poetry and music.

"The arts are healthiest when they intermingle," Gioia says. "I hope that we'll get people in the auditorium who like music but don't normally listen to poetry, and people who like poetry, but don't normally attend concerts of contemporary music."

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