Poetry Pursuits

Final preparations are under way for the 31st Tucson Poetry Festival in early April, a three-day celebration of the spoken word that is among the oldest events of its kind in the United States.

Until then, members of groups organizing that festival have put together a bit of a poetic interlude, one that could set the stage for regular offshoot events throughout the year.

VERSES/VERSUS is an improvisational poetry/comedy hybrid hosted by Sky Bar on Sunday night. From 7 to 10 p.m., poets, writers and pretty much any kind of literary type will "compete" in random games and contests testing their wit, their prose and, possibly, their Twinkie-eating skills.

"We want to let people know that we work year-round," said Matthew Conley, the Tucson Poetry Festival's executive director. "We're not just kind of a fly in, do a show, fly out sort of organization. We're wanting to branch out and do things other than a full festival. And since the theme of our festival this year is 'poetry at play', this is an event that fits right into it."

Conley, who has helped run the festival for nonprofit organization Ocotillo Literary Endeavors the past three years, said he got the idea for an improv event in 2008 at the UA's Poetry Center.

"We did one back then, and it was great," Conley said. "The crowd went nuts. You've never heard a crowd scream like this at a poetry reading, even at a slam."

The concept is simple: Three teams are put together at the beginning of the event, with each captained by an out-of-town literary guest. Teammates are selected from a pool of writers and poets who signed up to participate. Audience members interested in showing off their ad-lib and impromptu work can also be involved, Conley said.

"We pull challenges out of a hat, so you never know what you're going to get," he said. "We publicized 15 possibilities, but there will probably only be nine rounds. There's the 'tell a dirty joke' round, a Twinkie-eating contest. There's an air guitar freakout round. It could be anything. And the crowd loves that. You get to see this really wide spectrum."

Each team sends a member forward to perform during the round, and the audience declares the winner via applause.

"One of the competitors emailed me beforehand, saying 'I'm a little worried, because this sounds really hard,'" Conley said. "I was happy, because we love to make artists sweat."

The visiting captains are Eirean Bradley, organizer of the Portland (Ore.) Poetry Slam; Danny Strack, slammaster at the Austin (Texas) Poetry Slam; and Austin Poetry Slam host Thomas Greene.

Additional poets will be part of the Tucson Poetry Festival, which is scheduled for April 3 through 5 at Hotel Congress.

This will be the first festival since 2012, with the group taking last year off after some factions (including the Tucson Poetry Slam) broke off to become their own entities, Conley said. The hope is that events such as VERSES/VERSUS will help keep the festival in the community's mindset throughout the year, and spawn similar side gatherings during the downtime.

Other possible themes include a poetry spelling bee and a sock puppet poetry slam, where performers must speak through their puppets.

"We pitched this idea to Sky Bar and they loved it, but they don't know what's going to happen," Conley said. "We're poets and we're literary types, so we're a drinking crowd. They'll be looking to do more of these, I'm sure."

Ocotillo Literary Endeavors has also put together an online fundraising campaign through Hatchfund (hatchfund.org/project/tucson_poetry_festival_documentary) to help chronicle future Tucson Poetry Festivals and put together a documentary about the event.

"In most years we've had a skeleton crew working this, so we didn't really have anyone to document it," Conley said. "This is an amazing festival; we should have evidence of this."

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