The University of Arizona Poetry Center

– Wallace Stevens
calls poems or poetry a preserve for the imagination, and sometimes I think of
the about The Poetry Center as a sort of physical
manifestation of that. Sort of a national park
for the imagination. (soft guitar music) – [Tom] The University of
Arizona Poetry Center has been located in this building on
campus in Tucson since 2007. It was built to be a permanent home for poetry
in this community. It’s doors and massive library
are open to anyone free of charge, you don’t even
need an ID to go in and read. – People I think do see
the facility and think, oh that’s new, this
is a new place. It’s a longer and prouder
history than just the facility. Richard Shelton was
at the U of A in 1960 when the center
was just an idea. He and his late
wife Louis played a critical role
in it’s formation. – President Harvill called
me in to his office one day, and he said the Walgreen
heiress, Ruth Stephan, is giving the University a
lot with a small house on it, and she wants to
establish a Poetry Center. She’s going to supply
books to duplicate her poetry library in
Greenwich, Connecticut. – [Tom] One of the
most influential poets in American history,
Robert Frost, traveled to Tucson to
dedicate the center in 1962. – From the very
beginning, the thrust of The Poetry Center was
about the collection, and about poets,
and making a space for them here in Tucson
here in the desert. – [Tom] The collection
started in this cottage, and with the help
of an endowment, acquired new books
at a pace, that, at times, was
difficult to contain. – There was awhile when we
really didn’t have enough staff to receive the books
and catalog them in, and all that, it’s
a lot of work. One time I took over
as director, and the
previous director had boxes of books
stacked in the hall. – We’re buying about
1200 books a year. We subscribe to about
250 literary journals. I think it’s remarkable that
that sort of visionary gift with sort of creative
librarianship consistency routine effort done over
time has grown into one of the largest poetry
collections in the country. – [Tom] The collection
focuses on poetry, from 1960 to the present
day, and is indeed one of the largest collections
of poetry in the country. This rare book is a special
acquisition for the center. – It’s called Trees,
and it’s built on a poem by W.S. Merwin, former U.S.
poet laureate, he has visited The Poetry Center many
times over the decades. This is a special book to us
because it’s very beautiful, it’s a milestone for us to
have reached 50,000 books. The book is designed to fold out so that it can be experienced
in a multitude of ways. The lines of the short poem
are woven into the pages, and that’s really appropriate, because the poem itself
is about relationships. When I think about
the significance of the 50 thousandth book
to the Poetry Center, I also think in terms
of relationships. Merwin is very well beloved,
and his longtime affection for Tucson has meant
that there are a lot of ties between the poetry
center and Merwin’s work. – [Tom] W.S. Merwin is one of many influential poets
to visit the Poetry Center, as part of the reading,
and lecture series that started in 1962, and
continues to this day. – We had readings, basically
that was what we did, and we brought in
poets from far away, and from all over
the world actually. – [Tom] The center has
hosted over 1000 poets, including 27 U.S.
poet laureates, 40
Pulitzer Prize winners, 35 National Book Award winners,
and four Nobel laureates. – [Tyler] So it’s
not facetious to say that there is a way in
which the 20th century of American poetry
tracks through Tucson. It’s almost easier to
say who hasn’t been here to get a sense of
who has been here. – [Tom] If you can’t make it to the Poetry Center in person, you can still explore
it’s rich history online. – This is Voca. Voca is our online audio,
video database of recordings that we have been making
of our reading series, and the reading series
goes back to 1962. We started making
recordings in 1963. We have, at this point,
over 800 recordings on it. In most cases on Voca, we have broken down each
track by poem title. If the poem has been published, we try to note where
it was published, and which book it’s
in, so that ties the Voca archive very firmly
to the collection. In most cases, you
can hear a poem, and then go read it right
here in the library. – [Tom] On this night, the
center is hosting a reading by Layli Long Soldier
and Timothy Yu. They’re both internationally
recognized emerging poets who address social
issues in their own way, they draw a large crowd. – Thank you all for being here, thank you to everybody
at the Poetry Center. I imagine perhaps you all are accustomed to this space
existing, but coming here, and seeing this space,
and seeing all the folks here is just
astonishing for a poet. – [Tom] Yu’s book, 100 Chinese
Silences, rewrites work from influential poets who
have unfairly fematized China. His humor can be disarming, but
his work has a serious edge. – I am a cicada
floating in a coffee cup on the desk of
the poet laureate. Grant proposals
are being written, many bottles of Napa
wine are emptied, but even when his
nodding head strikes the desk like a bobbing Buddhas, I lurk silently inside my mug. Chipped by the
teeth of Ezra Pound. (applause) – I’m very happy to be here, and thank you for
the invitation. – [Tom] Long Soldier is
reading from her 2017 book, Where As, which was a finalist
for the National Book Award. – I am a citizen of
the United States, and an enrolled member of
the Oglala Sioux Tribe. – [Tom] Her poetry
directly addresses the U.S. government’s official
apology to Native Americans. – I did not desire in
childhood to be a part of this, but desired most of all
to be a part, a piece, combined with others
to make up a whole. Some, but not all of something. In Lakota, it’s Hunka, a
piece or part of anything. – Poetry will always, I think, stay slightly ahead
of the masses, so it’s evolving, it’s
constantly evolving. – It’s a difficult world, and
I am righted by poetry often, and I think having spaces
where words are valued, and language is held up as an
especially important thing, gives me some sense that
there’s a way forward. – [Tom] That belief Tyler
Meier has in poetry, and The Poetry Center
was recently rewarded. The Art For Justice
Fund gave the center a 500,000 dollar grant to
explore mass incarceration. The largest grant in
the center’s history. Richard Shelton is no
stranger to this subject. He’s been teaching poetry
in prisons for years. – I find it hard
to believe actually that anybody would
give that money, and I’m delighted and I
hope that the emphasis can be on working with
incarcerated people. – [Tom] With a rich
history, and recent success, people across the country
see the Poetry Center as a model for how
poetry can stay a part of our lives, and
collective consciousness. – It’s hard to get great
big support for poetry, and just one look at the center, just the opportunity to
walk around the center, and to see how it
promotes the art is enough to give
people like me faith that we can build
centers like these throughout the
nation, and we should. – The Poetry Center is part
of a larger poetry coalition, and it’s nice to see
poetry organizations like The Poetry Center here
taking a leadership role, and working together around
the country to foster poetry, and build audiences for poetry. So I can only see it growing. – Ultimately, we’re
beings based in language, and I think how we talk about
the things that matter greatly to us largely defines
our relationship to them. Poetry has a lot to offer,
and how we might imagine new language for how we
think about these things, and if we can
imagine new language, I think then we can imagine
new kinds of relationships with these challenges, and
that’s part of the future that we’re excited
to be a part of, and we’re excited for the role that poetry might play
in helping shape that.

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