B y G a r y S t o n e
IT'S NOT UNUSUAL for hundreds of Tucsonans to show up when nationally known poets like Gerald Stern, Jane Miller or Gary Snyder perform in town. Amazingly, that kind of turnout rivals attendance anywhere in the country, and it is a big reason Tucson is gaining a national reputation as a poet's Mecca.
Almost every week there are readings by poets both recognized and unknown.
"We have an amazing poetry scene because of the twin anchors of the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Creative Writing Program," says Boyer Rickel, assistant director for the UA's writing program and a poet himself.
In 1960, the UA Poetry Center, now at 1216 N. Cherry Ave., began with funding and real estate from poet and novelist Ruth Walgreen Stephan. Since then, nearly every major American poet, and many international poets, have read for the center--from Lucille Clifton to Robert Frost to Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
In addition to its well-attended reading series, the center has one of the most extensive poetry libraries in the nation. Open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer, the library has grown from 500 to more than 26,000 items, including poets on audio and video. The center also publishes a newsletter, provides a guest house for visiting writers and programs for students, prison inmates and older writers.
Alison Deming, the center's director for the past five years, is a nationally recognized author. Her first book, Science and Other Poems, won the 1993 Walt Whitman Award of the American Academy of Poets. She also received 1995 poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. These honors will allow her a year's leave of absence to devote to her next book of poems.
Beginning July 1, the center's acting director will be Mark Wunderlich. During the past year, he was membership coordinator for the Poetry Society of America in New York and assistant to the director of that group. Before that, he held a variety of positions at The Academy of American Poets. With expertise in fundraising, he hopes to increase the center's budget.
The UA creative writing program also enhances the appreciation for poetry in town. Founded or cajoled into existence in the late '60s by Richard Shelton and Robert Ramsey, the writing program continues as one of the best in the nation.The poetry faculty consists of Shelton, Jane Miller, Rickel, Stephen Orlen, Jon Anderson, Peter Wild and Deming.
"Whatever frustration people have with writing programs," says Deming, "they have a wonderfully subversive energy...Part of the reason poetry is flourishing is because thousands of young people are willing to invest several years of their lives, and much money, to find out what it takes to be a poet."
The Tucson Poetry Festival, co-founded by UAgrad and poet Karen Falkenstrom, is another draw. Performances at this year's March event included Nobel Prize-winners in poetry Czeslaw Milocz and Derek Walcott.
Even local radio and TV carry of poetry. KXCI-FM, 91.3, features Wordworks from 10 p.m. to midnight on Thursdays. Producer and host David Penn, a UA grad student in poetry, combines local and national guest-poets with spoken-word performances and alternative music.
Sun Sounds Reading Thru Radio also has a poetry show at noon Sundays on Tucson CableVision channels 54 and 62.
Demetria Martinez, a Tucson poet and novelist, says, "We are creatures of language. And language is grounding, language is sensual, language is gift. Poetry is the epitome of that. It's about compression, it's about words carefully chosen, it's about inspiration."
And Tucson, it seems, is an inspiration for poets.
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