THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA POETRY CENTER: Celebrating 50 Years
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A Memoir of the Poetry Center Looking Back from1984
by LaVerne Harrell Clark
Lois Shelton and the Round Tuit
by Richard Shelton
People, Habitat, Poetry
by Alison Hawthorne Deming
To Gather and Appeal:
A Community Orientation to Poetry
by Gail Browne and Frances Sjoberg
Edited by Gail Browne and Rodney Phillips
Designed by Ellen McMahon and Kelly Leslie
Copyright © 2010 Arizona Board of Regents, Estate of LaVerne Harrell Clark, Richard Shelton, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, Gail Browne, and Frances Sjoberg. The Poetry Center gratefully thanks the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute and the Poetry Foundation for permission to print Alison Hawthorne Deming’s essay, which was commissioned by the HMPI for inclusion in a forthcoming anthology of essays about bringing poetry into communities.
The University of Arizona Poetry Center thanks the Southwestern Foundation for a grant in support of this publication. This publication has also benefited from the support of the University of Arizona Executive Vice President and Provost Meredith Hay and College of Humanities Dean Mary E. Wildner-Bassett. Wendy Burk and Cybele Knowles provided excellent research and editorial assistance. All errors and omissions are the editors’ alone.
Over the past fifty years, the following individuals have served as directors and acting directors of the Poetry Center: A. Laurence Muir, LaVerne Harrell Clark, Richard Shelton, Mary Louise Robins, John Weston, Robert Longoni, Lois Shelton, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Mark Wunderlich, Jim Paul, Frances Sjoberg, and Gail Browne.
A MEMOIR OF THE POETRY CENTER LOOKING BACK FROM 1984: LaVerne Harrell Clark
THE FIRST NEWS I HAD OF THE POETRY CENTER reached me in Mexico in
November, 1960, while L. D. and I were traveling there on a William Bayard
Cutting Fellowship from Columbia University. He was gathering material for
his dissertation on D. H. Lawrence, to which I was adding photographs of
Lawrence places as we went. In a letter waiting for me in Monterrey, Laurence
Muir, incoming head of the English Department at Arizona, wrote that Ruth
Walgreen Stephan had endowed a Poetry Center at the University, that it
had already been dedicated by Robert Frost, accompanied on his visit by
William Meredith, with Ray Manley present and taking photographs. It all
sounded most exciting, and the best part of it was that Larry was now offering
me the position of directing this great new enterprise. I wrote back eager to
accept, providing only that when we came home I be given time to finish
my M.A. thesis on Navajo and Apache horse mythology, which had already
been delayed by our Mexico expedition. Let me add here that it was a heady
time all around for L. D. and me. The thesis so much on my mind just then
became when finished my first book (They Sang for Horses, University of
Arizona Press, 1966). L. D. at that moment in Mexico was waiting for copies
of his first novel to arrive from New York (The Dove Tree, Doubleday, 1961),
and his Mexican research became not only the dissertation for his Columbia
Ph.D. in 1963, but also his second book (Dark Night of the Body, University
of Texas Press, 1964).
During the 1950s, poet and novelist Ruth Stephan rented a cottage on Highland Avenue.
It was here she wrote many of her books, including two novels based on the life of Queen
Christina of Sweden. In 1960, she gave that cottage to the University of Arizona to found
the Poetry Center, along with a core library collection of several hundred books of poetry.
The Poetry Center’s first home
was located at 1074 N. Highland
Ave. Ruth Stephan also
donated the house next door,
1086 N. Highland. The first
house became the cottage for
visiting writers and the second
house became the library. Ruth Stephan’s inspiration in founding the Center was to create an institution
where poetry, as well as other creative writing, might be, in her words,
“maintained and cherished.” She donated for this purpose a small cottage on
Highland Avenue that became known as the Poets Cottage, with “The fieries
and the snuffies” from the old cowboy ballad inscribed over the doorway.
Under the endowment the University also acquired a larger house next door,
which was promptly remodeled to serve as our headquarters, as it still does.
In addition to I do not know how much in financial endowment, Ruth also
donated to establish the library some five hundred volumes of poetry and a
trunkful of priceless literary journals. Though her name was later dropped
from the Center, at her request, I am often touched by the memory of her
friendship and her kindness to L. D. and me in those early years, and by her
love then of Tucson and the original Poetry Center cottage, where in years
just previous she had written her novels My Crown, My Love and The Flight,
and some memorable poetry of her own.
In accepting Ruth’s gift, the University had agreed to establish a board
to choose and set the fees for poets who would visit the campus to hold
seminars and classes, and give public readings, so that not only the University
but the whole surrounding community might benefit. The early make-up
of that governing body included Larry Muir, Robert Nugent, Larry Powell,
Dorothy Fuller and Barney Childs, a poet and instructor in the English
The inaugural writer in the
Poetry Center’s Visiting Poets
and Writers Reading Series
was Stanley Kunitz, who read
on February 14, 1962. On
March 4 he wrote a gracious
thank-you letter to LaVerne.
The eminent poet Robert Frost joined
Ruth Stephan in dedicating the new
Poetry Center on November 17, 1960.
Both Frost and Stephan were given
University of Arizona 75th Anniversary
Photos: 1,7, LaVerne Harell Clark; 2 Tom Jenson; 3,4,5
Peter Balestro; 6, Unknown
Department, and student members besides. They all worked hard and with
notable perception to fulfill the purpose of their founding, as I know the
Board still does.
Larry Muir readily consented to my delay in taking over the Center, and all
went as planned. At length, on the second day of January, 1962, I opened
the doors of the empty house on the corner of Highland and Speedway
demanding to be filled. The only furniture about was a new telephone and
an old and splintery desk on which I snagged my hose time and again as
I reached over to make a phone call. I had cold feet about what to do to
initiate the Center and had gone to Larry Muir for advice. About all I got
from him was what became his standard answer: “Just play it by ear.” This
was counsel that cut both ways, I can say, the best being the freedom to make
my own decisions, but coupled with the responsibility, too, of instilling in a
rodeo-oriented town a fondness for poetry and the willingness to support an
institution dedicated to promoting it.
Play it by ear we did, and what a pleasure it is now to look back after so long a
time, when we anticipate celebrating next year the twenty-fifth anniversary of
the Center’s founding, and to unearth fond memories of how we-L. D. and I
and a host of others-laid the groundwork for so wonderful a cultural center.
Kenneth Rexroth read on
March 16, 1962, continuing
the Poetry Center’s new
tradition of inviting well-known
authors to read their
work and meet with students
from the English Department.
Photos: 1, Jack Sheaffer; 2, LaVerne Harell Clark; 3, Unknown 2
In December 1962, Robert Duncan developed a nice rapport with
LaVerne Harrell Clark, who took portraits of most of the visiting
poets in the 1960s. He wrote to thank LaVerne for sending copies
of the photos. One of my prime worries from the beginning was what sort of person Ruth
Stephan would turn out to be. I went on being nervous about meeting her,
while Larry Muir kept assuring me that we’d be compatible. At last, on the
fateful morning, I rushed over to my hairstylist and made my appeal, “Louis,
do me up special today. I’m about to meet the grand personage who endowed
the Poetry Center.” Louis was curious, naturally, and as he worked he plied
me with questions about my new job. I spouted answer after answer, too
many: about ideas running through my head on getting started, about how
they might fare with the Board, bringing in my fear, of all things, that our
benefactress might be precise and demanding, like types I had worked with at
New York publishers. Or else Louis may even have pictured from my diatribe
a portly dowager wearing a pince-nez and balancing a Browning tea-cup.
I did not know it at the moment but Larry Muir was waiting to take me
over to the Poetry Cottage immediately to meet Ruth. When we arrived, I
was highly impressed and pleased to find myself facing a slim and youthful
woman with natural grayish-blonde hair: graceful, pretty and warm. She put
me at my ease at once, and we found plenty to talk about, not so much the
Center, that day, as our mutual interest in Native American culture. I had
my preoccupation with Navajo and Apache horse lore and she her project of
rendering into English, with the aid of a native speaker, the songs and tales
of the Quechua Indians of Peru, a book already published, not long before,
LaVerne Harrell Clark and
Ruth Stephan at the Poetry
Center in May of 1963.
From 1963 to 1965, Ruth Stephan
edited and Richard Shelton directed a
two-volume set of audio recordings
titled The Spoken Anthology of Ameri-can
Literature. The collection included
works by important writers (including
prose writers) of the nineteenth and
as The Singing Mountaineers (University of Texas Press, 1957). We laughed
a lot that morning and generally enjoyed ourselves. It was abundantly
evident, when we parted, that she approved of me and that we would get on
But only imagine. As Ruth complimented my hair-do and inquired offhand
about my stylist, I said, “Oh yes, Louis Bertocci. He’s very good, and he’s close
by, just over on the Square.”
“I know,” she said. “And he has a good assistant, too. I was there for a shampoo
earlier this morning.”
I blushed, I know, and I fled as soon as possible, for it was plain from her tone
of voice, and her knowing yet understanding amusement, that she must have
been in a booth next to mine at Louis’ while I was there, and had heard every
word of my chatter to him.
That was enough to smooth over the awkwardness. We both understood and
we never brought up the incident again. We went on to become the best of
friends, and remained so until Ruth’s untimely death in 1974.
During my early days of shouldering the burdens of the Poetry Center, I had
little help, none of it paid except for Lucy Finley, an elderly black woman
retained as our housekeeper, mainly because she had worked for Ruth for
On December 4, 1963,
Robert Creeley read his
poetry to an overflow
crowd at the Physics-
Noted poet Richard Wilbur read for the Poetry Center in March 1964.
The wrought-iron legend “The Fieries and the Snuffies” has adorned
every incarnation of the Poet’s Cottage. The letter, written in 1971,
congratulates Ruth Stephan on the 10th Anniversary of the Poetry Center. years. A little later the budget was stretched to bring in a part-time assistant
for the library, and volunteers showed up and stayed, among them Heloise
Wilson, wife of Keith Wilson, and Richard Shelton, who was at that time still
a graduate student in literature.
To begin with, there was furniture to buy to help bring that empty space
alive, down to the file cabinets soon to be needed to house our expected-to-be-
growing records, and chairs for our anticipated-to-be-swelling audience,
bookcases to buy or build, which meant university requisitioning with its
paperwork and headaches. We had a few difficulties peculiar to ourselves,
too, by which we were sometimes taken aback. Our like had never existed on
the campus before, which sometimes led to confusion. For example, one day
as I was waiting for office supplies to arrive, I learned by phone that they had
been sent to Poultry Sciences. “Poultry Center” made sense to some puzzled
shipping clerk, whereas no one had ever heard of a center for poetry. We got
calls now and then from people mistakenly connected with us as a Portrait
Center, besides, and Lucy told me she had a hard time getting across to her
friends just where it was she worked: they could hardly understand how an
oddity like a “Poetry Center” was ever meant to fall into the nature of things.
It did take a while to solve these dilemmas that kept popping up from time to
time. We had one over some donated books, too. Ada McCormick, who loved
doing good wherever she found an opening, sponsored back then a Little
Photos: 1, 2, LaVerne Harrell Clark
Local poet Jeremy Ingalls read on
November 18, 1964. After a
distinguished teaching career at
Rockford College in Illinois,
Ingalls retired to Tucson, where
she spent the last 40 years of her
life. Her life’s work was the epic
poem Tahl. Kore Press published
her Selected Poems in 2007.
Chapel of All Nations in a house just south of the Poets Cottage. She sent
us some boxes of books one day, a gift to the Center, she said. On glancing
through them and discovering they were all books on religion, I put them
aside until I could consult Ruth, for Ada was a good friend of hers. It turned
out that the books weren’t meant for us at all, but for the Jewish Center.
So how then, given our strangeness in the eyes of the world, were we to
attract an audience? Our first visiting poet was Stanley Kunitz, and though
he was well known and highly acclaimed, the local newspapers seemed never
to have heard of him, and Lucy was puzzled about at least one seeming
discrepancy: “Why isn’t this man a doctor?” she wanted to know. “Everybody
else around here is.”
All in all, though, I was not wholly at a loss as to what to do about spreading
our name. I had been well-grounded in writing press releases and aggressively
promoting them since my days on the college newspaper. I did now have to
go through the U of A news bureau, since officially all University publicity
had to go forth into the world through them. I knew how to write up releases
well-tuned for their sort, which in the end they did me the honor of tampering
with very little. And since I saw to it that these releases were distributed far
and wide, they did stir up a good bit of favorable attention.
Photos: 1,2, LaVerne Harrell Clark
Poet, essayist, and environmental activist
Gary Snyder read for the Poetry Center in
1964 and 1969, and then decades later,
in 2010. But something more was necessary, and short of preaching on street corners,
the only immediate recourse that came to mind was posters. L. D. and I went
at this with verve and determination. With help from artists on campus and
off, we got up an attractive, I would say striking, poster for Stanley Kunitz,
and we set out unblushingly on what was to become standard practice: we
put up that poster all over town, driving around sometimes from opening to
closing business hours, sometimes into the evening. We hung our pride and
joy on the wall or in the window of any office or store or public building where
anyone would listen to us, not just in such obvious places as libraries and
bookstores, but supermarkets, hardware stores, clothing stores, restaurants,
even a real estate office or two. Most of the people who staffed these concerns
welcomed or at least tolerated us, just for the novelty of the thing sometimes,
and I suppose also taking the view that if we could do them little good, at
least we brought no harm. There were polite refusals now and then, and an
occasional bit of ridicule, but these were rare and on the whole a modicum
of curiosity was aroused in several quarters about this new animal in town.
Comments spread and some of them got back to us, and they were in the
main favorable. I do remember two embarrassments, both taking place, as I
recall, during the visits of poets later on. One faculty member, unidentified,
thought it inappropriate when he saw one of our posters hanging above the
vegetable counter in a supermarket. I was mightily pleased to have it there
myself. Why should lettuce-lovers not love verse as well? The other setback
May Swenson’s witty poems and
winning personality made her a crowd
favorite. She first read for the Poetry
Center on February 24, 1964.
I never dared mention to Ruth. Once we were turned down on hanging the
likeness of one of our poets in a Walgreen drugstore.
Stanley’s visit came off well, better than we had dared expect, partly because
of a simple curiosity among the general public over this novelty. The English
Department gave full support, and so did a fair portion of the rest of the
University faculty. One unexpected drawback hurt perhaps as much as it
helped. It made some people uncomfortable-it made me uncomfortable-
that we had in spite of all so many empty seats, that is, about half the house,
but that was because of the location. The reading came off in the Liberal Arts
Auditorium, which seats around 600. But half a house was good fortune
enough for a debut. Ruth was not in Tucson at the time, but important
members of the University administration came to the program and I heard
they went away impressed.
Now Lucy was highly protective of Ruth. I’m sure because in their years
together, she had dealt with gold-digging suitors more than once. Let me just
say here that Ruth hated to be reminded that she was a rich woman, though
the evidence was always before one’s eyes in her maiden name. She preferred
to be thought of above all as a poet and a novelist.
Our next visiting poet was Kenneth Rexroth, whom the papers played up as
controversial, helping to fill three-fourths of the auditorium this time. And
Photos: 1,2, 3, LaVerne Harrell Clark
Irish poet Cecil Day Lewis, who read for the Poetry Center on
April 8, 1965, was Great Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1968
until his death in 1972.
Archibald MacLeish was a poet, playwright,
and essayist who also served as Librarian
of Congress. His extremely well-attended
reading for the Poetry Center took place
November 2, 1965. some of the audience must have felt they had their money’s worth when
Rexroth recited “Making Love on Malibu Beach.” To be sure we had much
more explicit poems than that delivered from the stage as time went on,
and let me mention that although this was one of my original fears, we were
never hampered in those early days when it was still to be dreaded that we
might be subject to censorship. The closest we came to that, I suppose, was
something that happened after I left the Center. A reporter from The Arizona
Republic seemed to be out to impose his own brand of censorship when he
had words with Allen Ginsberg on the steps of the Poetry Center during
a press conference. National publicity came of that, but luckily it was the
reporter who got trounced for insulting Ginsberg, and whatever fell our lot
from the episode could only have been a little to the good.
Now Lucy mistrusted Rexroth from the first. Getting off on the wrong foot,
at the hotel where he stayed because Ruth was in town and occupying the
cottage, he checked in with a battered suitcase held together by an old belt.
This did not live up to Lucy’s expectations of a visiting poet. But then she and
I were both soon in for a greater worry. We knew that Rexroth and Ruth were
long-time friends; he had insisted on coming to visit when she was in Tucson.
She had been divorced from her second husband, John Stephan, for over a
year now, and it became clear to us, through Lucy’s diplomatic indirection,
that Rexroth meant to ask Ruth to marry him and she intended to turn him
Ruth Stone read for
the Poetry Center on
December 8, 1965.
Robert Bly read at the Poetry Center
early in his career as a poet, on
November 30, 1966.
down. Since we did not know how he would take her rejection, we urged
her not to deliver the definite “No” until after the reading. She complied, and
although we heard nothing of Rexroth’s reaction, all the same he checked
out of the hotel early the next morning and I had to mail his check to San
Francisco. As the years passed, however, I came to see how sincere Rexroth
was in his love and loyalty for Ruth. He contributed a fine appraisal of her
work in her Various Poems volume and wrote some moving poems in her
memory after her death.
While I am not aware of any other suitor of Ruth’s who appeared on our series,
and only heard about her social life sparsely now and then, I remember that
she dated Adlai Stevenson for a while during the days when he was still much
in the public eye, though he had already lost in the race for President. Many
of us still hoped that he would make a comeback and win, and with that we
entertained fond dreams of one day seeing Ruth in Washington as First Lady.
So we went on diligently with our poster campaigns to light the way for our
visiting poets. When Phyllis Gibbs later came to work as my assistant, I had
her and her father out distributing hither and yon. We even joked about
extending our range as far as Eloy, but we never actually did that.
But now obviously we needed a mailing list. We maneuvered and scrounged
for that. Most of the Liberal Arts faculty ended up on it, as well as any set
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City
Lights Bookstore, read at the Poetry
Center on October 11, 1967.
Photos: 1, LaVerne Harell Clark; 2, 3, Nancy Carrick Holbert
Louise Bogan came to the Poetry Center in February 1967, at the
height of her career as a poet. Bogan was the poetry reviewer for
The New Yorker for over 30 years.of people in Tucson of intellectual or artistic bent. I tried hard also, with fair
success, to gather the names and addresses of people in the audience at every
reading by asking them to sign a sheet. And once I had hold of a name I made
it a rule never to delete it or to give up on any likely candidate. Phyllis and
I made it a standing joke: “Never give up on a name unless you know that
person is permanently dead.” She came to me one day with “Sorry to bother
you, LaVerne, but we have a note here from a man who says his wife passed
away two years ago. Do you think that makes her permanently dead?”
We divided the list, also, according to information we happened to pick up
about anyone who had ever come to a reading and signed our attendance
sheet. We soon, in addition to a good many regulars, kept supplementary lists
for CF#1, CF#2 and CF#3: for Chair-Filler Occasional, Chair-Filler Rare, and
Chair-Filler Almost-Never. But then, as I said before about the deceased, we
were a long time in giving up on anybody.
One idea I felt strongly about and presented to the Board soon after the
Center opened was to use my talents as a photographer, an avocation which
I had gone on with since college days, to take informal portraits of all the
visiting poets and hang them on the walls of the Center, eventually to build
a collection of the most important poets of our day. The Board was happy
to support this scheme. And so it began, and others continued it after me:
you can see the ongoing results on display anytime you visit the Center. The
Denise Levertov was one of the Poetry
Center’s favorite poets, reading four
times (1967, 1973, 1984, and 1992).
rewards of this photographing project extended for me beyond the satisfaction
of the practice itself. The portraits I took over several years, both when I
was the director and afterwards, went to make up the bulk of my anthology
The Face of Poetry, in which I attempted to capture in their verse and in my
portraits the spirit of the best poets of the 1960s and 1970s.
I can truly say, looking back now over nearly a quarter-century, that managing
the Poetry Center for those years I was there made up one of the best periods
of my life, both professionally and personally, with happy recollections in
addition of the time after I left there to devote my efforts to my own work, for
I have always maintained a close connection with the Center.
I must not forget, either, the marvelous social life that went along with all else
back then. I remember glowingly the happy parties we arranged for the visiting
poets, sometimes at our house-L. D. and I always loved entertaining-
and sometimes at Larry and Elizabeth Muir’s or another faculty member’s
residence. I remember with pride and pleasure the buoyancy that lifted our
spirits when we learned that John Ciardi or Robert Creeley or Gary Snyder
or Louise Bogan or C. Day Lewis or Richard Eberhart or David Ignatow was
coming to town. But as for the specific programs, if I had to choose one as
prominent over all the rest, it would be Archibald MacLeish’s appearance. By
the time he came, in 1965, everything could be expected to run smoothly,
and it did. We booked the main auditorium, on a gamble, which seated over
Galway Kinnell first read for the Poetry
Center on March 20, 1968 (followed
by appearances in 1970, 1977, and
1992). He was highly involved in the
Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Current U.S. Poet Laureate W. S.
Merwin first read for the Poetry
Center on January 14, 1969.
Photos: 1,LaVerne Harrell Clark; 2, Nancy Carrick Holbert
two thousand people. We had a full house, and I believe even a few standees.
MacLeish was a superb reader, and the breathless attention of the audience
during the whole performance was witness to what I will say was the best
poetry reading I have ever attended, and I know that other people felt the
I know that when I gave up direction of the Center, I left it in capable and
dedicated hands. It remains in superlative condition today, as I often have
occasion to observe close at hand, and I fully trust that it will continue in that
state of near perfection for a long time to come.
A longer version of this 1984 essay was written by LaVerne Harrell Clark for the Poetry
Center’s 25th Anniversary. L. D. Clark, LaVerne’s husband, provided this edited version for
our book. LaVerne passed way in her home town of Smithville, Texas, in February 2008.
Photos: 1, Nancy Carrick Holbert; 2 LaVerne Harell Clark;
While Beat poet Allen Ginsberg read for the Poetry Center
on April 30, 1969, he was involved in an incident with a
journalist from The Arizona Republic, who punched the
poet in the mouth.
LOIS SHELTON AND THE ROUND TUIT
LOIS SHELTON BECAME DIRECTOR of the University of Arizona’s Poetry
Center in 1970. She had no administrative experience, no training as a
librarian, and her knowledge of poetry was limited to the fact that she once
sat in on a modern poetry course when she was teaching at Abilene Christian
College (now University) and that her husband wrote poetry, although he
didn’t show it to anybody, including her. Her field was music, her expertise
was performance, and she was destined to become the best-known mezzo
soprano in Arizona. Looking back, it seems an odd choice for the job as
director of a University Poetry Center. But at the time it seemed inevitable,
and Lois remained in that position for 20 years until her retirement in 1990.
When the directorship became vacant in 1970, I was placed on the search
committee to find a new director. Lois was teaching music in the public
schools. One night at dinner she announced to me that she was going to
apply for the job. I was skeptical. I knew she could do it, but her qualifications
wouldn’t look too good on paper. As it turned out, there was no paper until
after the fact. I met with the search committee the next morning, told them
Lois was applying for the job, and resigned from the committee. Then I went
to my office down the hall and began the chore of grading freshman themes,
something that occupied much of my time. In about 15 minutes Dr. Larry
Muir, head of the English Department and chair of the search committee,
was at my door. “Lois has just been chosen as the new director of the Poetry
Poet and essayist Richard Shelton
first read for the Poetry Center on
January 7, 1970. This undated photo
by his wife, Lois, is from the early
1970s. The flyer is for a 1978 reading.
Photos: 1,Lois Shelton; 2, 3, LaVerne Harrell Clark Center,” he told me. “The decision was unanimous. We are trying to reach
her by phone now.”
I was shocked at the speed with which this important decision had been
made. Academic appointments in those days did not have the cumbersome
formality they do today, but they were usually somewhat formal, involving
interviews and a scrutiny of an applicant’s vita, letters of recommendation
and past performance evaluations.
“But you haven’t even seen her application yet,” I said.
“That’s all right,” he replied. “We’ve seen her, and we’ve seen her in action.”
The action he was referring to was Lois’ ability to entertain and charm visiting
writers. Since the Poetry Center’s beginning in 1960 she had had plenty of
opportunity to do both. I had been on the Board of the Poetry Center since
its beginning and had filled in as acting director one year while LaVerne Clark
took a leave of absence to do research for a book.
That ability to charm visiting writers, many of them internationally famous,
is captured in Al Young’s book of essays on music and musicians, Kinds of
Blue. Lois had taken Al to the Desert Museum and then they returned to our
house. While Lois made coffee, Al sat down at the grand piano and began
somewhat absentmindedly to play the music he found there. It was Jerome
A masterful teacher, yet extremely
shy, Donald Justice was also very
photogenic when he visited the
Poetry Center in 1970 to read on
Ruth Stephan returned for the Poetry Center’s
10th Anniversary celebration in spring 1971.
Diane Wakoski read for the Poetry
Center three times during the
1970s (seen here on November
20, 1970). Her archives are held
by the University of Arizona Main
Library’s Special Collections
Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” Al is a well-established professional musician
as well as a writer.
I’ll let Al tell the rest of it:
When Lois meandered into the room with a gleam in her eyes and her
arms outstretched singing Oscar Hammerstein the 2nd’s actual lyrics in
bell-like operatic tones, I almost fell off the bench...When we reached
the end of it, I sighed, looked up at Lois and said, “Where did you ever
learn to sing like that? What a shock! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Once she got through quivering with laughter, she flashed me her earthy
“Hey, Sailor!” smile and said, “My training was in opera.”
I promptly apologized for my lumpish accompaniment but Lois, gracious
soul that she is, said, “You were fine, just fine. I couldn’t resist coming in
on you like that. I love that song.”
“I love it too,” I told her.
During the first decade of its existence, the Poetry Center struggled to survive
as an odd, non-academic entity in an academic environment. It had the loyal
support of Dr. Larry Muir, English department head, and the Poetry Center
Advisory Board, made up mostly of English department faculty and students
Richard Eberhart read for the Poetry Center
on March 21, 1972. A dear friend of the
Sheltons, he often visited them in Tucson
with his wife, Betty.
whose primary interest was poetry. There was no creative writing program
during the Center’s early years, although the English department offered one
undergraduate class in poetry writing.
I was a member of the Board from its beginning, and we faced many
problems. Of the two small buildings Ruth Stephan gave to the Center, both
were termite ridden and had serious plumbing problems.
As LaVerne and the other directors of the 1960s did before us, we had
to continue to the difficult task of building audiences for Poetry Center
readings. We did this through a three-pronged approach including postering
and newspaper announcements. The other thrust was entertainment. Our
feeling was that if we could get the faculty members sufficiently involved to
encourage their students to come to the readings, we would have an audience.
This was particularly true of the English department, not only because poetry
was an important part of its curriculum, but because, including freshman
English, it dealt with more students than any other department on campus.
We instituted a series of dinners before the readings and large parties after
the readings, and not surprisingly, the majority of those we entertained were
members of the English department faculty.
Members of the Board had no budget for entertaining, but we passed those
duties around, and since Lois and I had a good house for entertaining, a fair
Photos: 1,2, LaVerne Harrell Clark
Ai, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese from the University of
Arizona, read for the Poetry Center in 1972, shortly after receiving her
MFA from the University of California at Irvine.
share of those dinners and parties fell to us. One of the best parties at our
house found Lois singing Allen Ginsberg’s setting of Blake’s Songs of Innocence
while Allen accompanied her on a little portable harmonium. When the grand
opera voice met the music of a Beat poet and the poems of an 18th-century
mystic, the result was magnificent. It was in this capacity, as hostess, that the
members of the search committee had seen Lois “in action.” Fortunately, she
proved to be equally skillful in other areas as well.
When Lois became director of the Poetry Center, I think there was some
concern by members of the Board that she and I might be in collusion to ram
through a program and a series of visiting writers that they didn’t want. Far
from that, Lois expanded the program so that it represented many schools
and styles of poetry and even nonfiction. At one of our Board meetings, in
fact, after a long discussion of which writers to invite for the following year,
one of the other Board members turned to me and, referring to Lois and me,
said, “Don’t you two agree about anything?”
As the program expanded, bringing in more and more writers each year
and sending more writers into the public schools and university classrooms,
problems with the physical plant continued to plague Lois. At about 2 a.m.
one night in March of 1972, we were awakened by a phone call from
Richard Eberhart, who, with his wife Betty, was staying in the Poetry Center’s
poet James Wright
read to a crowd of
nearly 1,000 people in
the Modern Languages
February 21, 1973.
Donald Hall first read for the Poetry Center
in 1972. After his 1979 visit he wrote to
Richard and Lois Shelton that he liked his
visit to the Desert Museum most.
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” Richard said, “but the bathroom is washing away.”
That got us wide awake. The bathroom of the guest cottage was a tiny lean-to
affair that had obviously been added after the building was built. It didn’t
really have much of a foundation, and when the ancient pipes under it burst,
the whole thing was in danger of floating off into the parking lot.
It was Betty Eberhart, during the Eberhart’s extended visit, who established
what was to become a long-standing tradition at the Center’s original
quarters. Ruth Stephan had purchased the small ramshackle house on the
lot next door to the guest cottage and had it removed, leaving us with an
expansive yard shaded by huge cottonwoods, with ornamental orange trees,
some bamboo and many flowers. We sometimes held open-air classes or
readings there when weather permitted, and the weather usually did except
during the late summer monsoons. Betty took one look at this great expanse
of lawn and said, “What you need is a croquet set.” Then she went out and
bought one, and the official Poetry Center Croquet Tournament was created
that afternoon. It lasted for years until the Poetry Center was moved to its
second home, another set of houses on Cherry Avenue, when Speedway was
widened and the Highland underpass put in.
During Lois’ twenty years as director, I was privileged to carry the luggage
and act as tour guide for many of the most famous writers in America
Adrienne Rich (seen here in 1974) read for the
Poetry Center, but also stayed at the Poets Cottage
on other occasions when visiting the Southwest.
Photo: 1,Lois Shelton
and abroad, while Lois was their hostess, booking agent, travel agent and
publicity manager. She referred to her job as “the care and feeding of poets,”
but it was much more than that. That was merely the part she enjoyed most.
I introduced the writers to the Sonoran desert, and she introduced them to
our ever-growing public audience for poetry. We usually had between ten
and twelve readings each year, all open to the public and free. The readers
included Stephen Spender, Nicanor Parra, Grace Paley, Robert Penn Warren,
Lucille Clifton, Denise Levertov, Diane Ackerman, Frank Waters, Tillie Olson,
Carolyn Kizer, Mona Van Duyn, Joseph Brodsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko,
William Stafford, W. S. Merwin, Tomas Transtromer and on and on.
My duties as tour guide were totally voluntary and enjoyable. Sometimes
we took the writers to Nogales, Sonora, to give them a view of a Mexican
border town, but usually I took them into the Sonoran desert for a short
walkabout during which I identified a few plants, birds and desert creatures.
(The encounter between Mark Strand and the tiger rattlesnake was quite
remarkable.) For many of them the desert was totally exotic and fascinating.
I took Lucille Clifton, who had always lived in cities and never been west of
the Mississippi, on a midnight stroll through the desert under a bright moon.
She was game but terrified and had a grip on my hand so tight it was painful.
At every step she said, “I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid,” as if to
Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer was one of the first international writers to
visit the Poetry Center and was a frequent visitor in the 1970s and 1980s.
convince herself. After a later trip she wrote a memorable poem about the
Sonoran desert and some of its inhabitants.
One such walkabout that I remember best was when I took C. Day Lewis,
then the Poet Laureate of Great Britain, into the Tucson Mountains west of
Tucson. He was intrigued by the plants. At one point he reached out and
touched a cholla, called a Teddy Bear Cactus because it looks so cuddly. The
barbed spines which make the cactus look so attractive attached one of the
segments to his hand. He winced in pain.
Instinctively I reached out to get the monster off him only to become impaled
myself on the same cactus segment. So there we were, both the victims of
the same cactus. I finally got us loose from the spiny monster, but always
afterward I was able to say that the British Poet Laureate and I were very
much attached to one another.
During the twenty years Lois was director, many parties stand out in my
mind. One was a party honoring Richard Howard at the home of Harry
and Mary Louise Robins. (Mary Louise was a former director of the Poetry
Center.) Richard Howard had just done a remarkable reading for a large
crowd in the Modern Languages Auditorium, but he decided to do another
one, something more intimate, at the party afterward. He read his extensive
dramatic monologue, complete with a long, elegant cigarette holder as a prop,
Photos: 1,2, Lois Shelton
Leslie Marmon Silko read for the Poetry Center on November 19,
1974, three years before the publication of her critically acclaimed
in the voice of Edith Wharton. We were mesmerized. Richard is also a master
cook. He had studied cooking at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. He cooked an
elaborate dinner for the Sheltons one night. It was a great treat, but it seemed
that every dish began with a cube of butter. A few weeks later he called to tell
us his remaining parent had died.
“I believe,” he said, “that when both your parents are dead, you have the right
to choose a new set. I’m choosing you and Lois as my parents.”
“Wait a minute, Richard,” I told him. “We’re younger than you are.”
“Details,” he said. And I’d like to believe we are still his parents.
When Tomas Transtromer, then the most famous living Swedish poet, first
came from Sweden to Tucson, he came alone. Lois brought him to our house
for lunch, and after he had looked around, he asked in his shy way with
a heavy Swedish accent, “Can I ask you a question?” The answer was yes,
of course. The question was, “Can I play your piano?” The answer to that
question was yes as well. Only then did we discover that he was a concert
pianist. After that, he spent much of his time during his several visits to
Tucson playing our piano. Between visits he sent us the sheet music of many
art songs by Swedish composers for Lois to sing, and he translated one of my
books of poetry into Swedish. Later, Lois visited the Transtromers in their
Future Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky read
for the Poetry Center on February 20,
1976. He read his poems in Russian, and
Steve Orlen read the English translations.
Irish poet Seamus Heaney read for the Poetry Center twice, on March 30, 1976,
and on October 11, 1982. On his first visit, Lois and Richard Shelton took him to
the Desert Museum. He remembered the otters there and wrote a poem to them,
included in his 1982 reading flyer. Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn penned a
response to the Heaney poem, entitled “The Life of the Otter,” which he sent to
Lois with a handwritten note.
summer home on an island in the Baltic Sea. It was a great and relaxing time
Then there was the business of visiting poets writing on the enameled
kitchen wall of the guest house, a strange kind of “thank you for the
hospitality” note. Yevgeny Yevtushenko started it. At a little party in the
guest house after his public reading he wrote in ink on the kitchen wall:
I bless everybody unblessed by God
Those in shoes and those unshod.
Then Denise Levertov added some lines and then every visiting writer had
to get into it. Some merely signed their names or quoted one line of poetry.
Others wrote extensive comments or quotations.
Most people who saw the wall were awed by it. Lois and I, however, were not
too thrilled. It seemed somehow rude to go into someone’s kitchen and write
on the wall. However, we were outvoted and the amount of writing grew each
year. When it became clear that the building was going to be demolished
because of the widening of Speedway and the construction of the Highland
Avenue underpass, there was much concern for the kitchen wall, which
had become a kind of writer’s Mt. Rushmore to the literary community. Lois
and I were both touched by the amount of passion the destruction of that
Future Pulitzer Prize-winner and U.S.
Poet Laureate Louise Glück first read for
the Poetry Center on March 16, 1978.
Photos: 1,LaVerne Harrell Clark; 2, Lois Shelton
Her assistant, Ila Abernathy, photographed every inch of it so that the writing
would not be entirely lost.
Lois’ struggle with Buildings and Grounds, the entity which controlled all
repair work for University buildings on campus and off, was protracted and
monumental. The Poetry Center was housed, at different times, in two sets
of little houses on the periphery of the campus. Lois engineered the move
from one set of houses to the other, which was no small task since the book
collection had grown enormously thanks to endowments established by Ruth
Stephan and her mother, Mabel Walgreen. At the time of the move, a sizeable
portion of the collection had to be put into storage because of a lack of space.
Many other programs were housed in such buildings at the edge of the campus,
and the attitude of Buildings and Grounds towards them was obvious: These
old houses are hard to maintain and are going to be torn down eventually to
make way for large, modern brick structures. Why should we waste our time,
energy, and resources repairing them? The fact that one of those old wooden
houses contained a priceless collection of poetry, including first editions of
famous works, broadsides, unpublished manuscripts and correspondence by
poets didn’t seem to make much difference to them, as exemplified by the
first near-disaster and their response to our plea for help.
Photos: 1,2,3,4, Lois Shelton
Renowned Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko began the tradition of writing
on the walls of the Poet’s Cottage during his stay in 1979.
Robert Hass, former U.S. Poet Laureate,
has read for the Poetry Center four
times, in 1979, 1984, 2000, and most
recently at the Poetry Center’s 2007
Later, Lois would handle this ongoing situation in various ways depending
on the nature of the particular problem, and there were constant particular
problems. She seemed to be able to get along with anybody, and she charmed
the workmen who came to fix things. One of them, in fact, stopped by nearly
every morning for coffee and stayed as long as he dared. This did not alleviate
the source of the problems. That source lay in decisions made in the upper
echelons of Buildings and Grounds, decisions over which Lois had no control.
To deal with this, Lois sometimes turned on her helpless southern belle
voice, at which she was quite adept. (She was raised in Texas.) In telephone
conversations with the head of Buildings and Grounds she would use
it, appealing always to his sense of chivalry in regard to the helpless and
unprotected female in distress. “Ah declare the commode is overflowin’
Suh, and Ahm frightened out o’ my little ol’ wits. Ah don’t know the furst
thin’ about plumbin’, Suh. Could you sen’ one of them nice workmen ovah
here right away before we have ourselves a major flu-ud.” Her southern
background and her extensive stage training and experience made these
telephone conversations as Scarlett O’Hara priceless theater to anyone who
happened to be in the same room, but we were not allowed to laugh or
applaud until she hung up.
Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The original guest cottage had
a room in front that had been a tiny sitting room but was converted into a
Robert Pinsky first read for the Poetry Center in 1980. Later, as U.S.
Poet Laureate, he founded the “Favorite Poem” project, which
invited Americans to share and read their favorite poems.
University of Arizona Creative Writing professor Peter Wild read for the Poetry Center in 1970,
1976, 1982, 1985, and 1993. This photo was snapped in 1979 by Lois Shelton. Wild, who died in
2009, published more than 82 books and more than 2,000 individual poems in his lifetime.
tiny additional bedroom when the larger sitting room was added in the rear.
That added room in the rear was one of the most charming features of a
charming cottage, with a bank of windows on two walls and black and white
checkerboard vinyl flooring. Its furniture and decoration had been overseen
by Ruth Stephan, whose taste was exquisite. Because that room became the
social center of the house, the tiny sitting room in the front, now converted
to an extra bedroom, was seldom used. One morning Lois opened the door
to that room and was horrified to see the long tunnels termites make hanging
from the ceiling. She called Buildings and Grounds, and eventually they sent
a man over to inspect.
The man, who arrived in a golf cart, was a stranger to Lois. He said that the
ceiling had to come out and that the attic had to be treated for termites.
“When can you do that?” Lois asked. “We have a visiting writer coming in
The workman reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic disc slightly
larger than a poker chip. On one side it was embossed with the word “TUIT.”
“See this, Lady,” he said. “This here is a Tuit. And notice that it’s round. I’m
going to give this to you to remind you that I’ll come fix your ceiling when I
git around to it.” Then, laughing, he got in his golf cart and drove away.
New York-based poet John Ashbery read for the Poetry Center twice, 10
years apart, on November 4, 1980, and September 12, 1990.
Student readings are an ongoing
tradition for the Poetry Center.
Lois was not amused. In fact, she who seldom showed any sign of anger was
livid. She went next door to her tiny office in the library building and thought
about it. Then she got the push broom from the closet and went back to
the guest cottage. Placing the business end of the broom against the ceiling
in the little front bedroom, she pushed upward as hard as she could. The
entire ceiling came down in a great tide of lathes, plaster, dust and termites.
Then she went back to her office, replaced the broom in the closet, dialed a
number on the phone and turned into Scarlett O’Hara. “Suh, mah ceilin’ just
collapsed. It scared me almos’ to de-ath. Somebody could have been kil-led!”
She got a new ceiling and the house was treated for termites the next day.
I thought about this incident many years later, in the 1990s, when I was
filling in for Alison Deming as acting director. (Alison was doing research in
Hawaii.) At some point during the years since Lois had had her adventure
with the ceiling and the TUIT, I had made an accidental discovery. It came
about when Alison and I were planning to take a group of creative writing
graduate students to visit several ghost towns and historic sights on the San
Pedro River and spend the night in Bisbee.
We requested two fourteen-passenger vans from the motor pool and were
told that we would have to have a special driver’s license to transport
students. That license could be obtained only by attending a half-day training
session at something called Risk Management, which I had never heard of
Photos: 1,2, Lois Shelton
Michael Ryan read for the Poetry
Center on September 9, 1981.
It is customary to send visiting
writers a recording of their
reading. In Ryan’s case, the tape
he received was of a reading by
William Matthews, which had
before. In fact, Risk Management was so low-key that it was difficult to
find, tucked away in a small, nondescript building on the north edge of the
campus. What I discovered during the training session, however, was that
appearances could be deceptive. This little unit on the edge of campus was
actually one of the most powerful organizations of the university since its job
was to minimize risks to anybody on or visiting campus, and thus cut down
on costly lawsuits. It controlled everything from slippery floors to students
in university vehicles. Suddenly I saw what this could mean for the Poetry
Center. Risk Management trumped Buildings and Grounds.
After Alison left for Hawaii I took a little tour of the two old buildings on
Cherry Avenue that housed the Center. I discovered that one leg of the bed in
the guest cottage had fallen through the floor where there was considerable
termite damage. There was also a bad weak spot in the dining room floor where
traffic was heaviest. The roof in that building had been leaking badly, partly
due to a malfunctioning swamp cooler. Next door, in the library building,
there was a weak spot in the floor of the main room, and the wheelchair ramp
was in such bad shape as to be unusable. Alison had been trying to get these
things repaired for months to no avail.
The next morning I began stomping large holes in the wheelchair ramp in
several places. The two staff members who were working inside came out to
see what all the noise was about.
Mark Strand’s second
reading for the Poetry
Center was on November
17, 1981. In between he
wrote to Lois Shelton
about staying in the
Poets Cottage. The
Cottage was available,
but Strand’s plans
changed, and he didn’t
stay after all.
Photos: 1,2, Lois Shelton; 3, LaVerne Harrell Clark
“Alison isn’t going to like this,” one of them said.
“Alison will love it when it’s all fixed,” I replied. Then I went into the library
building and stomped a large hole in the middle of the floor while shouting,
“This is for Lois and the TUIT.” I was on a roll.
One of the staff members was distraught and expected the campus police to
arrive any minute and cart me off to the loony bin. The other staff member
seemed to be enjoying the show.
Next stop was the guest cottage. Shouting, “This is for Lois and the twenty
years,” I stomped a large hole in the floor between the living room and dining
room, then enlarged the hole in the bedroom. When I got out the ladder
and started to climb up to the roof of the guest cottage, I thought one of the
staff members would faint, but she didn’t. By leaping into the air and coming
down on both feet, I was able to knock several large holes in the roof. “This
is for Lois and the ceiling and the broom,” I shouted. Then I came down
from the roof, put the ladder away, and went into my office to make a phone
call. I had to wait a few minutes until my heavy breathing calmed down. It
was probably the best day’s work I had ever done during my two stints as
But I didn’t call Buildings and Grounds; I called Risk Management and told
them we had some very dangerous situations that they might want to check
The late Larry Levis read for the Poetry Center
only once, on January 27, 1982.
University of Arizona professor N. Scott Momaday read
for the Poetry Center on many occasions, beginning in
1974. This photo was taken “in between” readings in
1985. Momaday’s groundbreaking novel, House Made
of Dawn, was published in 1968.
out before somebody was seriously injured. They sent an inspector that
afternoon. He looked at everything, shook his head and rolled his eyes. He
probably knew exactly what I had done, but he said nothing about it. He
made notes on a clipboard and went away.
Next morning a crew from Buildings and Grounds arrived early. They worked
for several days. While two of them went to work replacing the wheelchair
ramp, another two began preparations for putting a new roof on the guest
cottage. The floor repair took longer because large sections of the floor had
to be removed. The man replacing the flooring in both buildings did an
excellent job. The kitchen and dining room floors in the guest cottage had
been covered with vinyl tile, and once he had the floors repaired, he asked
me what color tile I wanted to put on them. He had a book with samples. It
hadn’t occurred to me that I would have any choice, but I knew immediately
what I wanted. Black and white checkerboard like we had in the first
While he was laying the tile, I said, “This is for Ruth, whose dream we have
tried to keep alive.”
There was an ironic epilogue to this scene. Later, the head of Buildings and
Grounds called me to ask if I was pleased with the work his crew had done. I
Jorie Graham read for the Poetry Center three times, in
1982, 1990, and 1999. Winner of numerous literary
prizes, she has been called one of the most celebrated
writers of our time.
Al Young first read for the Poetry Center on September
14, 1983. He returned in 1997 as a reader and
weeklong guest in the Poet’s Cottage, which he used
as home base for a statewide residency sponsored
by the Academy of American Poets.
told him I was very pleased, and they did an excellent job all the way around.
He then asked me if I would write him a letter recommendation stating that
his crew had done good work.
“Yes, I’ll write you a letter,” I said, “but I’m terribly busy right now. It will have
to wait until I get a round tuit.”
He didn’t mind that. Evidently the workman with the tuit, years earlier, had
not let him in on the joke. He never sent me a round tuit, so I never wrote
Looking back over what I have written, I see that nearly every event and
situation is “behind the scenes,” so to speak, something the public would
not have been aware of. It does not take into account that during her twenty
years as director, Lois Shelton put the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center
squarely on the literary map of America, where it has been ever since.
It does not take into account the hundreds of public readings of poetry and
prose she managed with dexterity, nor the affection with which she was
viewed by hundreds of writers in this country and abroad.
It does not take into account the students in many classrooms, both at the
university and in the public schools, who developed a real interest in reading
and literature when a live writer was in their midst. Lois sent those writers to
Lucille Clifton was one of the most popular poets to read for the
Poetry Center over the course of four decades. Her indomitable
spirit and great sense of humor endeared her to audiences.
Clifton passed away on February 13, 2010, the same year she
was selected to receive the Poetry Society of America’s Robert
Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in
American poetry. This photo from her 1983 visit shows her
enjoying the Sonoran desert landscape.
Photos: 1,2,3, Lois Shelton
Carolyn Forché first read for the Poetry Center in 1983. Her poems of
that time period drew from her observations as a human rights
worker in El Salvador. Will Inman, one of the founders of the Tucson
Poetry Festival, wrote KUAT News a note following Forché’s reading.
Photo: 1, Lois Shelton
the classrooms, often chauffeuring them herself. She also founded the Friends
of the Poetry Center, a support group that has been instrumental in helping
to provide funds for the Poetry Center’s many programs.
Today, the Poetry Center, in its new building, the first building ever built
specifically to house it, and under the inspired leadership of its current
director, Gail Browne, is undoubtedly the most important and effective entity
of its kind in America.
PEOPLE, HABITAT, POETRY
Alison Hawthorne Deming
“We owe what we are to the communities that have formed us.”
Habits of the Heart
—Robert M. Bellah et al.
THIRTY YEARS AGO I MADE A CROSS-COUNTRY ROAD TRIP from northern
Vermont, where I had lived for a decade of self-exile in the clarifying North,
drove to New York City to pick up my then-lover who was studying art at the
Cooper Union, and rolled out into the American West. This was my first trip
west of the Mississippi. My daughter was in boarding school, a scholarship-induced
reprieve for me from the burdens of single parenting. My companion
and I were broke, in love, and happy for the road. We pitched our tent
in a cow pasture in Pennsylvania, waking to a circle of curious Holsteins
watching our sleep. We kept rolling on out into the open possibility of the
Great Plains. I’d been writing poems for years and reading hungrily to try
to figure what this art was that drew me, first as a modernist acolyte in love
with Eliot and Yeats; then falling for the emotional extremism of Lowell,
Path, and Sexton; then landing in the backyard of poets associated with the
San Francisco Renaissance and Black Mountain College. I had become
snobbish about my poetic affections, which strikes me now as an offensive
narrowness, an aesthetic parochialism that made me identify myself with one
group by opposing others. I was looking for something larger in myself, some
vista more expansive than the worn-out New England hills and a poetics true
to my own character and experience. I did not want to be a caricature of poets
who had come before me.
Carolyn Kizer developed a warm
relationship with both the Poetry
Center and the Sheltons, evident in
the candor expressed in this 1984
photo and 1985 note to Lois.
Photos: 1,2, Lois Shelton We camped on a dirt road in Texas after a freak ice storm, pitching the tent in
sleet that coated the ground, weeds, fence wires, tent struts and nylon with
sheening ice. We were exhausted to the bone from the ice-road terror. In
the gray morning, we woke to a melting world and found that we’d pitched
our tent beside the corpse of a dog, a traveler less fortunate on that perilous
road. By the time we got to Tucson, we were ready to be housed once again
and took up the invitation to stay with my lover’s brother, a graduate student
in arid lands. When he heard I was a poet, he told me that the University
of Arizona had a Poetry Center. He had that look on his face that said he
knew I’d be surprised to find such a thing out in the desert. He boasted that
the Center had an archive of poetry recordings. I was snobbishly skeptical,
certain the place would have none of the poets who mattered to me.
I was at the time excited by Kathleen Fraser, whose book New Shoes had just
come out. I loved the Magritte poems and how others ranged across the page,
allowing air and uncertainty into the poem. She wrote of “feeling pulled along
by forces not quite even in one’s control…” and I understood myself to be
an apprentice to that feeling, the desire to be self-possessed and recklessly
open all at once. I made my way to the weedy bungalow on the edge of
campus, browsed the rickety shelves lined with poetry books, and found the
small plastic file box holding twenty years worth of cassette tapes, including
a recording of Kathleen Fraser reading here on September 29, 1977. As I
Poet and University of Arizona Creative Writing professor Steve Orlen has
the distinction of reading for the Poetry Center 13 times, beginning in
1967 and most recently in 2008. Lois Shelton snapped this photo of Orlen
in February 1985. The poster is from 1973.
write this, I pull the book off my personal library shelves and find that New
Shoes sports Jon Anderson’s endorsement-“These are stunning poems…
form a kind of latticework or exterior nervous system… a great gulp of pure
oxygen”-and cover art by Tucson’s Gail Marcus Orlen. The Poetry Center,
from my very first visit, changed my sense of the national literary map and
made me realize that what I was seeking was not just a self-actualizing voice
but literary community.
If a place isn’t careful it can become a caricature of itself, falling for a canned
version of its history that leaves it bereft of whole categories of collective
experience. Tucson as Cowtown and Santa Fe as Pink Coyote Land. A place
can lose track of its story and so its future. This can happen to literary
organizations, which can sprout up like field mushrooms in the rain and
shrivel as quickly. In the twenty years I’ve lived in Tucson, I’ve seen dozens
of journals, reading series, community workshops, and writers groups form
and dissolve. A few have sustained. This is not a surprise: artistic affiliation
follows the patterns of growth, connection, and decay that cycle through
nature and culture. Life spans vary; dynamism is all. Looking over the past
fifty years of the Poetry Center’s history, I can’t help but marvel at the Center’s
constancy through periods of institutional distraction, fiscal insecurity,
aesthetic contentiousness, the tired jabs at “academic poets” (as if such a
category could be defined and have remained so from 1960 to 2010), the
Ellen Bryant Voigt first read
for the Poetry Center on
February 20, 1985.
privatization of public education, and the call for arts audience development
in the age of entertainment.
What has carried us through all this weather, so that we begin our second
fifty years standing in the breezeway of an artful new building that is the
fulfillment of a long collective dream in this community, spawning a wealth of
programs serving diverse audiences, and building a living archive of poetry,
photographs, and recordings of over 1,000 readings hosted by the Center
since 1962? And why here, we ask, even those of us closest to the life of
the Poetry Center, why here in the arid and malled landscape of desert and
sunbelt sprawl? What are the key values that have shaped the Center and that
might serve others who wish to create something in their own communities
that says poetry matters?
The Poetry Center was established on an aesthetic idea passionately held by
founder, poet, novelist, and editor Ruth Walgreen Stephan—“to maintain
and cherish the spirit of poetry.” When she spoke of the spirit of poetry,
she meant not the art’s ethereal aspect that “makes nothing happen” but
rather the animating force that lends strength and purpose to individuals
and movements. She had spent winters in the 1950s writing in a rented
cottage near the university campus. In 1960 she bought this cottage and an
adjoining lot, donating them on the same day to the university to launch the
Poetry Center. In her Connecticut home, she had a small poetry room and
Photos: 1,2, Lois Shelton
Sharon Olds read for the
Poetry Center on April 16,
1986. Her special requests
were to be dropped off in
the desert, to “see birds,”
and to visit Ironwood
publisher Michael Cuddihy.
she had noticed how it encouraged her young son to read poetry “without
intermediaries.” She had also seen that the university was devoting more and
more of its resources to science and technology, and she wanted to protect a
cultural space for poetry.
Stephan was not the kind of donor who writes a check and disappears. In
addition to her original donation of property, between 1960 and 1972 she
made gifts of poetry books, booklists for purchase, a secretary, a housekeeper,
curtains, furniture, Southwest art and artifacts, money and stocks. She
secured a bequest of Walgreen stocks from her mother Myrtle Walgreen;
this bequest seeded the library acquisitions endowment. She purchased five
additional lots and donated them to the Center, envisioning construction
of a permanent home for the Center. She wrote an illuminating essay on
collection development in which she emphasized the beauty and physicality
of the book, and the importance of poetry’s roots in indigenous song and its
flowering in world literatures. “The nucleus of the collection,” she wrote,
“should be the acknowledged great poets of all countries in the world together
with the foremost living poets in our country. This is essential in America
whose population is multi-ancestral.”
Stephan lived by the tenets of her vision and remained a fierce steward of its
values. She and her husband, painter John Stephan, had co-edited the avant-garde
journal of art and writing, The Tiger’s Eye, from 1947-49. The journal
New York School poet Kenneth Koch read for the Poetry
Center on October 9, 1986. While he was here, he met
with students, played tennis, and visited the Desert
Museum as well as Mission San Xavier del Bac.
was celebrated in a 2002 exhibit at the Yale University Gallery. Reviewer
David Anfam called it “a seismograph to the complex cultural moment of the
late 1940s in America.” Stephan traveled to Peru to collect Quechua songs
and tales, published as The Singing Mountaineers in 1957 by the University
of Texas Press. She published two historical novels. She traveled to Japan in
search of a quiet place to write and found herself a student of Zen Buddhism,
publishing the essay “The Zen Priests and Their Six Persimmons” in Harper’s
in 1962 and making the documentary film “Zen in Ryoko-in.” Decades before
the buzzwords of multiculturalism and diversity became ubiquitous, Stephan
articulated a vision and practice that embodied them.
The process of building community has opened up and changed over time,
as it will do. Stephan was not in favor of hosting readings, fearing that they’d
turn into faddish celebrations of favoritism. But it was the reading series,
launched in 1962 with visits by Stanley Kunitz and Kenneth Rexroth, which
brought community together—following on the auspicious dedication
ceremony at which Robert Frost and then-U.S. Representative Stewart Udall
presided. John Kennedy had just been elected President and at the Tucson
gathering, Frost and Udall cooked up the idea of having a poet read at the
upcoming presidential inauguration. From its first public ceremony, then,
the Poetry Center was linked to the national theater of politics. It did not
hurt the broader cause that the first director of the Center sent a letter to over
Photos: 1,2, Lois Shelton
Although poet James Merrill corresponded with the Poetry
Center many times in the 1980s, he was only able to read for
the Center once, on April 1, 1987. Merrill died in Tucson on
February 6, 1995.
100 poets worldwide inviting them to spend time in the Center’s guest cottage.
On the local scene, audience development through the 1960s and 1970s was
a homemade affair of making phone calls to professors and writers, running
posters around town, and hanging them in commercial venues. Audiences
for literature were strong from the start: a couple hundred for Kunitz and
Rexroth; 400 for Robert Duncan in 1963; a stunning 2600 for Archibald
McLeish in 1965. Tucsonans like to joke that there was nothing else to do in
town in those days. But that’s not the whole story.
The dominant story of the American West carries the flag of Manifest Destiny-
that sense of “divine” purpose that led the eastern Anglo culture to expand
its political and economic influence “from sea to shining sea.” It was an ethos
bearing blades and bullets, iron rails and steel wills. It usurped land inhabited
by Mexicans and American Indians, taking and using whatever it wanted,
mining and grazing to the nub, then moving on. A familiar story by now,
the ethos of which has long been demoted by the anguish and diminishment
that came with its sense of progress. But this was never the only story of
the West. Small stories have emerged within this large one, stories in which
distinctive cultures and landscapes drew artists, writers, anthropologists,
and scientists, including the Taos of Mabel Dodge, D. H. Lawrence, Marsden
Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe. People bringing learning and culture from their
Joy Harjo visited a local high school when she
came to read for the Poetry Center in 1987.
home places but also hungry to learn from the land and the people who knew
the place intimately through generations of living by its terms.
In Tucson, one such influence, as ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan reminds
me, was the Carnegie Foundation’s launch of the Desert Laboratory on
Tumamoc Hill in 1903, the first research site devoted to the study of arid
lands. At the time Tucson’s population was 7,500, and the influx of scientists
focusing on this place helped to enrich the town as it began to grow. I
think it is fair to say that Ruth Stephan’s contributions to Tucson are part of
this cultural flow, newcomers expecting a level of culture they had known
in larger cities of New York and Chicago, but who also made an effort to
celebrate the older cultures that were in place. She valued the communal
identity experienced in art that crosses generations and continents. She did
not foresee how significant the community’s role would be in the life of the
I’ve emphasized Stephan’s role because I believe her passion has been
translated and carried on by many people who have shared in the Center’s
stewardship over the past fifty years. Lois Shelton merits special mention, as
she served as the Poetry Center’s Director from 1970 until 1990. While being
a vigilant overseer of the Center’s endowment, she offered warm hospitality to
writers, she and her husband, poet Richard Shelton, taking poets on outings
into the desert, to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum or the San Xavier
Charles Bernstein, one of the founders of
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, read for the Poetry Center
in February 1988 and was a presenter in the Center’s
Conceptual Poetry Symposium in May 2008.
Photos: 1,2,3, Lois Shelton
Novelist and poet Sandra Cisneros read for
the Poetry Center on January 20, 1988.
Mission. They never lost sight of how remarkable the desert is to newcomers.
The collection of poems written by visiting writers (May Swenson, Lucille
Clifton, Carolyn Kizer, Al Young, etc.) in the Sheltons’ honor-and in that
of the Sonoran Desert-testify to the quality of experience their hospitality
offered. In 2002 Gail Browne became executive director, offering precisely the
set of leadership skills in organization and development, and the brilliantly
steady temperament, that made the elegant and inviting new facility a reality.
When I moved to Tucson in 1990 to become director of the Center, a tenth-generation
New Englander who had lived for forty-four of her forty-five
years in New England, I knew I had a lot to learn. I had been working as
coordinator of the writing fellowship program at the Fine Arts Work Center
in Provincetown where I had been a poetry fellow, the last stint of a decade-long
transition from a hard chapter of life that began when I was a pregnant
college drop-out and ended after two decades of work in family planning
and public health programs in northern New England. I had fallen into this
work during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, first as a paraprofessional
outreach worker for Planned Parenthood of Vermont and last as a researcher
and writer for the Governor’s Task Force on Teen Pregnancy in Maine. What
I had experienced as a teen mother-poverty, struggle, judgment, and deep
personal reward-was not represented in the professional face I wore in those
positions, which were all about helping others, all about being of service
Olga Broumas read for the Poetry Center on October 26, 1988.
Photos: 1,2, Lois Shelton; 3, Unknown to those who lacked health care information and services. I had struggled
through a doomed teen marriage, raising my daughter mostly on my own in a
life that now seems to have been bewilderingly difficult. At the time it seemed
right to make physical challenge the starting point of self-invention.
Get up before dawn, build wood fires to heat the permeable old farmhouse,
wake daughter in cold, hike to barn to milk goat, gather eggs, water and
grain the horse, scare away the fox scouting the hen house, breakfast the
daughter, pack up her lunch, take her to school, drive an hour in the snow
to get to work. Repeat chores in the evening. Read stories and more stories to
daughter who hated bedtime. Find still and quiet hours in the night to write.
Bank the fire. Stack wood for morning. Sleep in the cold. For a dozen years
I understood the desire to be a writer as the hunger for what Virginia Woolf
taught a woman she needed: a room of her own.
Through these years I wrote and read poetry: Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer”
poems, Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred, Plath and Sexton and
Lowell, Kinnell and Merwin and Levertov, Duncan and Creeley and Dorn,
Stein and Apollinaire and Neruda. I understood that language was the
tether that held poets to life and to the human family in all its anguish and
contradiction. I read anything my friends—fellow urban refugees—handed
me, and I wrote by hand on a desk made of old weathered barn boards,
woodstove bracing me against the night. I wrote list poems about the junk
Lois Shelton directed the Poetry Center from 1970 to 1990.
Along with her husband Richard Shelton, she was known
for her hospitality and generosity.
In his nearly 30 years as a
professor in the University
of Arizona Creative Writing
Program, Jon Anderson
read for the Poetry Center
seven times. This photo
dates from his reading in
October 1989. Anderson
was born on the Fourth of
July in 1940 and passed
away in late 2007.
I cleaned out of my woodshed in that ramshackle home-horse harnesses
and canning jars, the front page of a newspaper from the day the Hindenberg
crashed in flames, and jars full of square-cut homemade nails. I wrote poems
about the cold, farming, stars, muskrats, and loneliness. I imitated everything
I read. I fell in love with the silence at the end of my pen, the sense that could
spill from that silence, and the music that could drive language out of its dark
habitat in the neural forest of my mind and onto the open field of the page.
I wrote that way for years, showing work to no one but a few other closeted
poets who shared my enthusiasms for the beauty of words and their tendency
to fall into form. I did not understand that language was a communal
possession, that to write was to join in a collective enterprise that reached all
the way back to clay tablets and papyrus, to the deeply old human desire for
sharing story and song.
I know this is a long digression into terrain apparently alien to the matter at
hand, which is to explore the values that have shaped the life of the University
of Arizona Poetry Center. But it is a necessary digression, because while the
details vary, stories of artistic apprenticeship often leave out the importance
of finding community. One can sit in a room of one’s own until the wallpaper
peels from the walls, never knowing if one’s words have the capacity to bridge
the distance between oneself and others. Without the communal sense of art’s
force, one can weaken into faithlessness when facing the blank page. It took
The Poetry Center’s second home was three
bungalows on Cherry Avenue just north of
Speedway. The Center remained at this
location from 1989 to 2003.
me a long time to realize that nearly every advance I made as a writer came
in concert with someone passing along the work of a beloved author, of my
attending a poetry reading or lucking into a writing community—first and
foremost the wonderful vortex of anarchistic energy that was Poet’s Mimeo
Cooperative in Burlington, Vermont, during the 1970s and later on other
groups (Vermont College MFA, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown,
and Stanford’s Stegner Fellowship programs)—that led me to feel the power
of a collective experience of art.
I brought these values—experiences that had begun to solidify into values—
with me to Tucson. I had come from the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC)
in Provincetown, where I been a poetry fellow and then writing program
coordinator in the 1980s. FAWC is a notable arts institution founded by
writers and artists, among them Stanley Kunitz, whose spirit hovers over
several of the projects described in this collection. The idea to offer long-term
(seven-month) residencies to twenty writers and artists early in their careers
was spurred by the founders’ belief that what artistic vocation required most
of all was the freedom to work among like-minded others. But the FAWC
founders were also committed to investing in Provincetown as the nation’s
most enduring arts colony. As commercialism was diluting that legacy, they
felt that the influx of the fellows and visiting artists would help seed a future
in which that legacy would not be lost to shops and condos. So I gained from
Poet Richard Siken in the Poetry Center’s “living room.”
Photos: 1,2,4,Christine Krikliwy; 3, Unknown
And Denise Levertov in 1984 wrote;
The poet-ponies sniff the breeze;
They scent a friendly stable…
No bit or bridle there to tease
And oats upon the table
that experience a greater conviction that artists, in a manner that might well
be impossible to quantify, can help to shape what a community means to
itself and to others.
The Poetry Center had a distinguished thirty-year history by the time I
arrived in Tucson. Its collection had continued to grow thanks to the Stephan
endowment, the reading series had flourished, funding had been diversified
among public and private supporters, the guest house walls bore the beloved
graffiti of visiting writers who had slept there:
Yevtushenko in 1979 wrote:
I bless everybody unblessed by God
Those in shoes and those unshod.
Edward Albee in 1980 wrote:
The least dishonorable defeat
is the only honorable goal.
William Matthews in 1981 wrote:
Isn’t it great,
Not being dead yet!
Alison Hawthorne Deming became the Poetry
Center’s director in 1990, just in time for the Poetry
Center’s 30th Anniversary celebrations.
Photos: 1,Unknown; 2,3, Alison Deming
Yusef Komunyakaa read for the Poetry Center on
February 6, 1991. Richard Shelton was running his prison writing workshops, the MFA
program had been established in 1974, writers in the reading series routinely
made visits to local high schools to read and give workshops, the Walgreen
endowment had grown to over one million dollars dedicated to library
acquisitions, student awards and readings helped to build audience for new
writers, community and student writers hung out and loafed at their ease on
the Center’s couches, and visiting writers quite literally left marks of gratitude
on the guest house walls. The constellation of programs and resources the
Center offered was unlike any other poetry facility in the country. I felt
immediately both the dignity of its history and the potential for its future.
But the fates of urban development and university expansion set up a
And this led to one of the Center’s most challenging decades. In 1989 the
Poetry Center’s original two buildings were demolished for a city project
to widen Speedway Boulevard, long infamous for its 1970s Life magazine
charming and sincere
letter of thanks,
tradition set by
Lorna Dee Cervantes captivated the audience at her
reading on March 27, 1991.
designation as “the ugliest road in America.” Hic transit gloria mundi. The
collection and guest house were moved to temporary quarters-then moved
again when those temporary quarters were demolished to build a parking lot
for the university’s medical center expansion. It is an easy claim to make that
the needs of a small and quiet center can be glossed over and forgotten in the
growth spurts of a large and rapidly expanding institution.
The Center’s plans to build a permanent home were at this time linked
with other campus projects slated for construction with state money. Our
project met delay after delay as state resources became more pinched. For the
purposes of this essay, I won’t give even the barest outline of the arcane tiered
procedures involved in getting a building project approved, funded, and built
with the support of state government in a state boasting a legislature that
places little value on higher education. A few informal proposals were floated
our way suggesting models in which the Poetry Center would be subsumed
into other university identities-the Main Library or College of Humanities-
proposals that did not offer much promise that the unique characteristics and
values and history of the Center would be given a priority.
The Arizona Board of Regents gave conceptual approval to the construction
of a new Poetry Center in 1990. By 1996, with one-third of the collection
in storage due to space constraints, we still had no new building and faced
the prospect of being folded into a state-funded humanities office building
University of Arizona Creative Writing
Professor Jane Miller first read at the
Poetry Center in 1986. This portrait
by LaVerne Harrell Clark was taken at
her September 1992 reading.
Post-confessional poet Frank Bidart, well-known for
his personae poems, read for the Poetry Center on
September 13, 1991.
at an unknown future date. That year, with the support of our community-based
development board, I made the recommendation that the Poetry
Center separate from this larger project, which meant we would also separate
ourselves from the prospect of having a state-funded building and need to
commit ourselves to raising four or five million dollars. This was truly a test
of our capacity to reach the community and of the community to respond to
The dual challenge—to hold onto aesthetic integrity while drawing major
donors to the cause—can be a perilous passage for an arts organization. Will
the organization’s core values be compromised? If we changed from a being
a “poetry” center to being a “literary” center would we attract more money?
Would that dilute the strength of what we’d accomplished over the years,
making us less distinctive and worthy of support? The prospect of raising
several million dollars for poetry was chilling—and the estimated cost kept
climbing the more years our project was delayed. While the Center had a firm
financial footing in its library endowment, its programs had been supported
over the years by a mix of public and private funding—small grants and
contributions from Friends of the Poetry Center. By the time construction
commenced in 2006, we were looking at a $6.8-million-dollar building, with
university support covering only $1.9 million. The success of the campaign,
which stretched over a decade, had everything to do with community
Photos: 1, Alison Deming; 2, LaVerne Harrell Clark; 3,4, Unknown
Sandra Alcosser has read twice
for the Poetry Center, first in
1992 and then as part of the
Center’s “Oh Earth, Wait for Me:”
Conversations about Art and
Ecology series in 2009.
In addition to nine volumes of poetry, W. S. Di Piero has published translations
of Italian works and books of art and literary criticism. He read for the Poetry
Center in 1993 and 2001.
board members who contributed time, money, and influence, as needed.
In addition, the Center partnered with the Humanities Seminars Program,
which offers non-credit courses “for community members in serious pursuit
of intellectual stimulation and enrichment,” and lacked a permanent home
on campus. Their constituency joined ours in common purpose and raised
funds for an elegant presentation space at the new Center.
My confidence in community support had grown over the years I served
as Director (1990-2002). It seems worth backtracking now to consider a
moment in the Poetry Center’s history when I began to appreciate the robust
interest in poetry and the unique strengths of our community. In 1992, Larry
Evers and Ofelia Zepeda launched a semester-long course and reading series
out of the American Indian Studies Program, cosponsored by the Poetry
Center and Department of English. “Poetics and Politics” brought thirteen of
the most accomplished American Indian writers (including Simon Ortiz, Joy
Harjo, N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko) to campus for readings.
The series began with standing room only in the customary lecture hall
seating a few hundred audience members. Each week the reading was moved
to a larger hall, as the audience swelled. We wondered if we’d end up in the
basketball stadium. It did not quite come to that, but the point was made out
loud that there was a much more committed audience for poetry in Tucson
than even we partisans had suspected. Beyond that, I became more convinced
Gerald Stern has won
the Ruth Lilly Prize,
the National Book
Award, and the
Award. He read for
the Poetry Center
in 1983, 1994, and
Benjamin Alire Sáenz read at the Poetry
Center in 1993, shortly after his first book of
poems, Calendar of Dust, won the American
that special interests in the audience for poetry are a good thing and need not
be a source for contention. There are indeed multiple audiences for poetry.
If we hosted a reading for an avant-garde poet, that brought a different
audience than did a populist poet or a Latino poet or a new formalist poet
or a bio-acoustical composer or a celebration by high school students of the
traditional corrido, a border ballad form. Some audiences were large, some
small, some constituencies overlapped and intersected with one another,
but they were always varied, and in love with the art of poetry. One tends
to celebrate only the big numbers, but in the life of poetry it is essential
to also celebrate the many small traditions that exist within this large and
encompassing and unfolding form of expression. This ethos reminds us to
continue asking: Who’s included? Who needs to be included? Perhaps our
longest-standing program addresses some of the most neglected citizens, the
prison writers’ workshop. All of these experiences with the poetry audience
in Tucson spoke, as we considered our expansion, about a community—
both the city and the university—that wants to be a great place for the arts
and understands how deep and broad its legacy in the arts goes. While state
support for both education and the arts in Arizona is dismal and diminishing,
we continue to have enough citizens who care about these values for us to
know that their support will be there.
Gustaf Sobin was a U.S.-born writer who, for more than 40 years, wove the
history, sensations, and language of his adopted Provence into his poetry
and prose. He read on February 7, 1997, and the Poetry Center held a tribute
to him on March 6, 2010.
Photos: 1, LaVerne Harell Clark; 2, 3, Christine Krikliwy
The design challenges for the new building were great: how to make a space
large enough to house the collection and its anticipated growth while retaining
a feeling of intimacy; how to provide access to an irreplaceable collection
of books, recordings, and photographs while protecting and preserving
these resources for the future; how to provide a welcoming space for public
events hosting several hundred people while offering silence and refuge; how
to foster interaction between community and university members while
leaving space for solitary reading and reflection. It will come as no surprise
then that the overarching theme of the building’s design, as conceived by
our gifted architect Les Wallach and his firm, Line and Space LLC, was
“contradiction = inspiration.”
The building has become a landmark, its opening celebrated by over 2,000
people who attended the day of festivities and performances in fall 2007.
Landmarks serve as navigational guides and the new Poetry Center serves
that function well, drawing in a growing range of audiences. New stories of
artistic apprenticeship are finding a habitat in which to grow. Local writers
offer classes and workshops that support the work of other local writers. In
addition to library patrons and reading series audiences, new constituencies
that frequent the Center include young children and their families who come
for Saturday programs called Poetry Joeys; K-12 students visiting on library
field trips; high school poets on a Corrido Field Day or Poetry Out Loud
David Rivard is a graduate of The University
of Arizona’s Creative Writing program.
Bob Perelman read for the Poetry Center
on January 29, 1997.
competition; and retirees attending the burgeoning Humanities Seminars
Program who have joined in discussion groups on poetry and prose.
Early in the design process, the Center held a salon with Poetry Center staff,
community volunteers, and architects to brainstorm about the relationship
between poetry and architecture. Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space came
into the conversation. Poetry is a form of “protected intimacy,” he wrote.
“The house allows one to dream in peace.” The private life of the mind is
the province of the poet, and the core principle governing this province is
the faith that by attending to inner imperatives, framing them within the
constraints of artistic/linguistic form, the poet reaches out to reveal our
shared humanity out of which the spirit of community rises.
Bachelard tells the story of the French poet Saint-Pol-Roux, who bought a
fisherman’s cottage perched on a dune of the Breton coast. The poet designed
and built around this humble hut a many-towered manor where he and his
family lived. “And soon, bound up in my egotism,” Saint-Pol-Roux wrote,
“I forget, upstart peasant that I am, that the original reason for the manor
house was, through antithesis, to enable me to really see the cottage.” I think
often of that relationship between hut and manor, when marveling at our
spectacular new building and all the responsibilities it places on us who are
for the moment custodians of its future. Our origins as an institution rose
quite literally out of a couple of rundown cottages. And poetry is a humble
Included among the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets,
Leslie Scalapino read for the Poetry Center on
February 22, 1989, and returned on September 24,
1997. This photo dates from the latter visit.
Photos: 1,Alison Deming; 2,Karen Falkenstrom
citizen of the art world, not given to commodification or stardom. How the
small art/language/culture is to survive with integrity within the large is a
question for our time that has many resonances. I take the metaphor to heart
and celebrate one particular resonance: poetry is the hut; community is
Marie Howe read from her then-forthcoming
book, What the Living Do, on March 5, 1997.
Audiences today still recount the awed
silence in the auditorium after she read from
these stunning elegies for her brother who
died of AIDS.
Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun was Consul of Slovenia when he
read at the Poetry Center on October 21, 1998. A considerable
body of his work has been translated into English.
Photos: 1,Dennis Evans; 2, Alison Deming
Internationally renowned Chinese poet Bei Dao read
for the Poetry Center in Chinese on March 3, 1999.
College of Humanities Associate Dean, Dennis Evans,
read the translations.
Eleni Sikelianos read with Jane Miller as part of
the Now and Next Series on December 1, 1999.
TO GATHER AND APPEAL: A Community Orientation to Poetry
Gail Browne and Frances Sjoberg
THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA POETRY CENTER’S fifth decade is marked by
an explosion of growth fueled by the tenacity, resolve, and vision of numerous
individuals. Foremost among these visionaries is our founder Ruth Stephan,
who left us, as stewards of the Center, with a charge to “maintain and cherish
the spirit of poetry.” This seems easy enough upon first impression, but the
more one lives with this founding mission, the more complicated it becomes.
What exactly is the spirit of poetry? Is it distinct from poetry itself? Stephan
defines her term elsewhere, in Notes Toward Developing a Poetry Collection,
where she writes, “spirit is the instigator and flow of all revolutions, whether
political or personal, whether national, world-wide or within the life of a
single quiet human being.” This charge, then, is kaleidoscopic. We are to
foster the instigation and flow of a poem. And of poetry. And of the revolution
By the Center’s fifth decade, this explosion of growth was necessary to
resolve dueling expectations for the Center. Patrons wanted, in equal
parts, a dynamic gathering place and a site for solitude and reflection. The
Helen S. Schaefer Building resolves the meeting-retreating contradiction
through an architectural progression toward solitude. The building itself
allows for a classroom of eighty adults to explore Political Shakespeare in the
Dorothy Rubel Humanities Seminars Room while just outside, and visible
through a glass wall, students from an elementary school recite poetry in the
Robert Hass celebrated the Poetry Center’s 40th Anniversary with a reading
at St. Phillips in the Hills Episcopal Church on November 17, 2000.
Poet and spoken-word artists
Tracie Morris and D.J. Renegade
headlined the Poetry Center’s
Mondo Hip Hop event at the
Rialto Theatre in downtown
Tucson on October 27, 2000.
Hillman Odeum. Concurrently, in the Michael and Helen Dobrich Library,
a graduate student peruses literary journals, researching where she might
submit her own poems. And in the Randall Rodman Holdridge Reading
Area, tucked among the stacks, relaxed into a leather armchair, someone sits
quietly out of sight with a slender volume of poems.
In 2000–2001, under Director Jim Paul, the Poetry Center’s Reading Series
was presented under the title Wide Open: Poetry in the Larger World. Poet
Barbara Cully read for the Series that year. In an interview published the day
of her reading, Cully said,
Before I had the opportunity to read my poems publicly, I wrote poems
quietly to myself that others might read quietly to themselves. After
reading publicly, a shift happened and I became aware of my lyrical voice
as a gift that I wanted to bring across to an audience. So reading, I think,
is one way to make one’s set of intentions larger.1
A similar shift happened at the Poetry Center when we became aware of
the myriad possibilities in the new space, gifts we wanted to bring across to
an audience—to all of our audiences at once in fact. Our aim was to create
something spectacular for the “larger world,” for those we had served in the
past and those we hoped to serve in the future. And we wanted to emphasize
that the Poetry Center, despite the spectacle, is an intimate space where all are
Poet and classicist Anne Carson read for the Poetry Center on
February 21, 2001.
Photo: 1,Christine Krikliwy
welcome. The design and construction of the Helen S. Schaefer Building, its
ability to house the world-wide alongside a quiet human moment, was a feat
to celebrate. Thus, to inaugurate the new building, we planned (and planned
and planned) a Housewarming Festival.
The experience of the Housewarming Festival in October 2007 was
breathtaking. More than 2,000 people filled the new building, participating
in carefully orchestrated and spontaneous events throughout. There were
readings by nationally renowned poets in the Hillman Odeum and readings
by high-school students and contest winners from the stairwell overlooking
the library. There were scavenger hunts as readers of all ages sought treasures
of facts and lines on the walls, in the books, and on the spines. Bookmakers
and public artists oversaw Post and Bind, an event in which writers
composed poems from prompts as their works-in-progress were projected
on computers and walls so people could observe the act of a poem being
written. Meanwhile, individuals queued up with sheets of paper to have their
pages folded, stacked, punched, and stitched by an assembly line of artists
so people could observe the act of a book being bound. Performing poets of
Typing Explosion, outfitted in 1960s secretarial garb, set to work on a series
of collaborative poems, taking requests from patrons and then hammering
away on their keys, communicating by way of bells and whistles, pulling
sheets from one typewriter to hand off and scroll quickly into the next so that
Gail Browne became Executive Director of the Poetry Center in
2002. Under her leadership, the Poetry Center moved into the
Helen S. Schaefer Building.
Fanny Howe has written over 30
books of poetry and prose. She
read for the Poetry Center, for the
first time, on March 26, 2003.
The Howe Reading was
co-sponsored by Tucson literary
groups POG and Chax Press.
somehow, miraculously, at the end of the line a finished poem was presented
to its commissioner. Meanwhile, kids in the Children’s Corner worked with
prompts of their own dispensed by a magic box, drafting elements of a
fantastic tale. When the kids were through, Stories that Soar actors took to
the stage, weaving the kids’ own lines into their performance. All this time,
on the ground, a corps of visual artists created chalk portraits of poets on
the sidewalks in the breezeway and in the Mary Dearing Lewis Garden. Stilt-walkers
and acrobats of Flam Chen wove their way among the crowds, calling
attention, at the proper moment, to a poet-spirit reeled down from the sky to
chant, inspire, and drop lines of poetry to the people below before gracefully
floating skyward by way of giant helium balloons.
This was the first time in the history of the Poetry Center that almost all of
the communities it serves—as well as people who had never before set foot in
the Center—came together at the same moment to marvel at the proliferative
gift of the written and spoken word. Our new architecture did not create the
Poetry Center, but it created a home capacious enough to embrace all of its
potential. The Housewarming Festival inaugurated the new cultural center
we had become. The message sent that day was that the Poetry Center is a
place where literary aspirations are realized, and it is also a space of creative
exploration for the community at large.
Photos: 1,2, 3,4,Christine Krikliwy
A former student in the University of Arizona MFA Creative
Writing Program, Li-Young Lee read from his work on
September 10, 2003.
The Poetry Center’s
Next Word Series
highlights new poetic
voices. The series was
inaugurated in October
2003 with poets James
Matthea Harvey, and
Olena Kalytiak Davis.
Most importantly, the Housewarming Festival would not have occurred
without a fanatical staff and an army of volunteers, who thought through, set
up, and oversaw every tiny detail. In 2000, the Poetry Center was run by four
employees and a couple of part-time student workers. They were a dedicated
lot, each person stretching his or her job description like a newly winged
creature pushing against the fibers of a cocoon. Building on tradition and on
the goodwill of its tiny staff, the Poetry Center started to grow, envisioning
and embarking on new programs, taking inspiration from everywhere and
hawking its wares to new audiences wherever they might be found.
Two Roads Converged
On an April afternoon in 2001 Gail Browne stepped into the Poetry Center
on Cherry Avenue for the first time. This was her first visit to Tucson a fact-finding
excursion to determine whether she would relocate from California.
She was about to relinquish her share of a San Francisco-based arts marketing
business in order to pursue a lifelong interest in poetry.
I remember my initial excitement that a poetry library of this magnitude
should exist in such a relatively small city. There wasn’t anything like it in Bay
Area or Los Angeles. But because it looked like a private residence I wasn’t sure
Michael Palmer read for the Poetry Center on January
28, 2004, and returned in 2010 as a participant in
Words Through: A Tribute to Gustaf Sobin.
how welcome I would be. I was coming from out of state, was a stranger, and
felt insecure about my place here. Nonetheless, I was captivated by the Poetry
Center’s charm—it felt like a space that had been well loved and tended to
over the years. I wanted to come back and dig deeper, to mine the collection for
what it had to offer. Still, I had a hard time believing it was available to me, as
a member of the general public, to access and appreciate.
Frances Sjoberg had attended Poetry Center readings in the Modern
Languages Auditorium for years, but in the late 1990s she began to spend
time in the library itself, embarking on a rigorous self-guided study of modern
and contemporary poetry. When a staff member left unexpectedly, she offered
to help out until a replacement could be found. Shortly thereafter Director
Alison Deming recruited her to apply for the job.
As a guest in the library, I would move from room to garden to room, reading or
listening to poetry. I was keenly aware of how rare this space was, and I entered
rarified time whenever I pulled an out-of-print book off the shelf and found a
quiet, sunlit spot to delve into it. When I wasn’t reading, Program Coordinator
Christine Krikliwy would regale me with stories and gossip of the Center. The
history moved me, and when I began to work at the Center, I truly felt I was
honoring a history as well as serving the present time. For the next nine years,
I continued to study, filling in a map of poetry, with the Center as my compass.
Photos: 1,3, Christine Krikliwy; 2, Unknown
After the demolition of the Cherry Avenue bungalows in
late 2003, the Poetry Center moved to a University
building on the corner of First Street and Cherry.
UA Creative Writing alumnus Tony Hoagland
read for the Poetry Center and delivered a
lecture in September 2004.
Nine months after Gail visited the Poetry Center for the first time, she was
hired as its executive director. She brought entrepreneurial and marketing
skills to a community of supporters who were determined to move the
Center out of that quaint bungalow into a home worthy of its history and its
holdings. She teamed up with Frances to envision that future and to chart a
course to get there. Gail managed the capital campaign and worked with the
architects at Line and Space LLC on the new building design and construction.
Frances took the reins to direct and develop programs in order to fill that new
environment. Together, they worked on organizational development to bring
it all together.
Our sustained gaze throughout was fixed on this moment, the point in time
when the Poetry Center would be built and occupied by a steady flow of
engaged visitors and a dedicated team that gives whatever it takes to create
a place greater than any one of us. Our aim was to celebrate the poets and
community members for whom the Center exists. And to find like-minded,
strong-willed colleagues on whom we could rely to tenaciously advance the
work of the Center. It was our good luck to embark on this project, with such
people, at this time.
The official groundbreaking for the new Helen S. Schaefer Building
took place on May 5, 2005. Pictured: Gail Browne, John Schaefer,
Helen Schaefer, President Peter Likins, and College of Humanities
Dean Charles Tatum.
The Poetry Center
developed a number
of programs aimed at
cultivating a love of
language in children.
The cornerstone of
these programs is a
curriculum of 38 poetry
lessons for 4 to 10
A Public–Private Partnership
From the start, the Center has been sustained by the University of Arizona.
Upon receiving the gift of the Poetry Center from Ruth Stephan in 1960,
President Harvill emphasized the great need for the study of literature
alongside the University’s developments in research science and technology,
citing the fundamental value of humanistic studies in dealing with practical
problems. The Center was moved from its original home to accommodate the
widening of Speedway Boulevard in 1989. A decade later, when the Poetry
Center was at the outer edge of its capacity, on the cusp of being moved from
one set of temporary quarters to another in order to make way for the world
renowned Bio5 Institute, a group of community advocates came together to
insist the vision of Ruth Stephan and President Harvill be upheld.
In the late 1990s, College of Humanities Dean Charles Tatum and Associate
Dean Dennis Evans assembled a group of arts and humanities supporters to
pool resources, share contacts, and advocate for a permanent home for the
Center. Among the leaders of this group was arts patron Helen S. Schaefer,
who agreed to chair a development committee. A chemist by training, Helen
was versed in poetry from a very young age. Helen and the others who banded
around the goal of creating a permanent home for the Poetry Center had
unique reasons to dedicate themselves to the project. The common thread
The Poetry Center continues to administer prizes for excellence in
poetry for University of Arizona students, including the Hattie Lockett
Award, the Academy of American Poets, Margaret Sterling, and Poetry
Center Prizes. The LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Award was instituted in
2009. Shown above are poetry contest winners in the spring of 2006.
Carolyn Forché read for the Poetry Center twice during
the 2000s, in March 2002 and again in February 2007.
She taught a two-day course in our Classes and
Workshops program during the 2007 visit.
Photos: 1, 2,3; Christine Krikliwy
among them was the belief that the literary arts play a crucial role in ensuring
a thoughtful, progressive culture.
It is well and good that an active Tucson arts patron like Helen had an interest
in the Center, but the question was raised: would individual supporters
answer the call to invest nearly $5 million to preserve a space for poetry?
The first gift, given in 1998 by Colleen and Jim Burns, was a leap of faith
in College of Humanities and Poetry Center leadership, and also in the
generosity of our community.
Shortly thereafter, UA alumnus Randall Holdridge and former managing
editor of the Tucson Citizen, George Rosenberg, took the initiative to write a
case statement for the new building. The Poetry Center joined forces with the
Humanities Seminars Program, a rapidly growing lifelong learning program
for adults. Like the Center, the Humanities Seminars Program promotes
literary and humanistic studies to deepen engagement with and strengthen
understanding of our individual and collective experiences. George had been
influential in other arts revitalization projects such as the restoration of the
Temple of Music and Art. As one of the founding members of the Humanities
Seminars Program, he headed up the effort of that group to raise $500,000 to
build a room in the new building where the seminars would be held. Randall,
a retired educator and school administrator, is an avid reader whose interests
span a wide range of subjects. Combing through Poetry Center scrapbooks
Construction of the Helen S.
Schaefer Building began in the late
spring of 2006 and was completed
by the summer of 2007. On a “hard
hat” tour of the site are former
president Peter Likins, president
Robert Shelton, Helen Schaefer,
Gail Browne, architect Les Wallach
and builder Harold Ashton.
In June 2007, the Poetry Center held a
three-day symposium, Native Voices:
Indigenous Language and Poetry. The
symposium brought together acclaimed
Native writers from Mexico to Alaska.
and archives reinforced for Randall that the library collection was extremely
valuable, and that there was a genuine need in Tucson to house these books
in a dignified setting. In his words, “Tucson deserved to have something that
represents high literary culture. The Poetry Center was that something.”
As the vision grew, so grew the number of visionaries who came forward to
lend a hand. Jimmye Hillman, a UA emeritus professor of economics, once
stated that agricultural trade policy “has to be concerned with the question of
how to build a community.” This statement could as easily apply to Jimmye’s
support of the Poetry Center. Jimmye worked with Marshall Fealk, a local
attorney, to secure a leadership gift from the estates of writer Jeremy Ingalls and
Mary Dearing Lewis. This gift confirmed the community’s commitment to see
the project through. The momentum was met by the University of Arizona,
which upheld its promise to exchange Ruth Stephan’s gifts of property for the
parcel of land on which the Helen S. Schaefer Building currently sits and also
provided $1.9 million toward construction costs.
The Center’s ability to define our community was enhanced by writers and
students of poetry who came from outside the usual English department and
publishing house channels. Tony Luebbermann and Colleen Burns turned
their full attention to literature after retirement. They are not only Poetry
Center advocates and advisors, they are active participants and library users.
Win Bundy, proprietor of Singing Wind Bookshop at her ranch in Benson,
On Native Voices, the Poetry Center
collaborated with UA Professor Ofelia
Zepeda, director of the American Indian
Language Development Institute.
Photos: 1 Unknown; 2,3,4, Christine Krikliwy
Leslie Marmon Silko gave
the keynote address.
Poet Sherwin Bitsui delivered an Image Speak
workshop at the symposium.
Arizona, brought her passion for books and her unstoppable can-do attitude
to the Poetry Center’s development committee. Win insisted that everyone
recognize-as she did-the long reach and absolute relevance of the Poetry
Center to everyone in our community.
These early gifts and affirmations signaled the moment the Poetry Center
became attuned to the fact that “the question of how to build a community” is
intricately bound with the question of how “to maintain and cherish the spirit
of poetry.” The public-private partnership we were engaged in to construct
the new building compelled us to strengthen existing services and identify
new programs to meet community interests and needs.
Engaging Readers and Writers
Building audience for the Reading Series has been a longstanding mission of
the Poetry Center and was something at which our predecessors excelled. Of
all the programs offered by the Poetry Center, the Reading Series is still, after
48 years, the mainstay. The challenge of the 2000s was to deepen community
engagement beyond the Series, to offer a variety of approaches to encounter
poetry, and to make these encounters meaningful to readers and writers with
varying degrees of experience.
A formal dedication ceremony was held for the Helen S. Schaefer
Building on the evening of October 13, 2007. Speakers included
Robert Shelton, Ofelia Zepeda, Congresswoman Gabrielle
Giffords, Stewart Udall, Helen Schaefer and poets Billy Collins,
Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Alberto Rios, and Alison Deming.
Brenda Hillman wrote a poem,
“To a Desert Poet,” for the
Dedication. Iowa City
Empyrean Press printed a
broadside for the occasion.
Lectures and panel discussions were woven into the Reading Series program
to give audiences an opportunity to better understand the poetic and
aesthetic concerns of a visiting writer. In the Helen S. Schaefer Building we
reinvented the 1960s Coffee Hour program, in which faculty previewed the
work of visiting writers before a reading. Shop Talks on poetry and A Closer
Look Book Club on prose explore the works of visiting writers and encourage
dynamic reading of great literature by providing facilitated and stimulating
discussions among peers.
We developed The Next Word in Poetry, a series within the series that
features two or three emerging writers for a reading and conversation. The
series evolved from a program that poet Jane Miller suggested in 2000 called
Now and Next: Poetry for the New Millennium, in which an accomplished
poet introduced a rising star. It also extended the spirit captured in some of
our most valuable early recordings, such as the 1972 reading by a very young
Ai, recently graduated from University of California at Irvine, discussing her
strong aesthetic, her new name, and her sources of inspiration. This recording
became increasingly valuable as Ai continued to develop her aesthetic and
became, herself, a source of inspiration for other young artists. Since 2003,
through The Next Word in Poetry, we have brought almost 30 emerging
writers to Tucson, each of whom we expect to captivate us for many years
The October 14, 2007 Housewarming Festival featured
performances by Flam Chen and a standing room only
reading by Billy Collins.
Photos: 1,2,3,4, Christine Krikliwy; 5,6,Tom Willett
Library displays and art exhibitions by local artists add another dimension
to readings and lectures. The Helen S. Schaefer Building is a gathering place
not just for people who love literature but for arts patrons of all persuasions.
In the Jeremy Ingalls Gallery we mount exhibitions of treasures from our
collection and present the work of professional and student artists, whose
projects make direct links to our programs or use the library collection as
a point of departure. Because the Poetry Center now presents most of its
readings in the Dorothy Rubel Humanities Seminars Room, which has a
sliding glass wall to accommodate up to 500 people in an indoor-outdoor
presentation space, reading audiences are now able to view these exhibitions
when they come for an event. More and more the Poetry Center is thought of
as not just a library and reading series, but as a cultural center that celebrates
the interrelation of literature, music, dance, theatre, and visual art.
The Helen S. Schaefer Building also prompted us to cultivate the Center as
an international destination for the exploration of poetry and poetics through
symposia. Although a delay in construction prevented us from presenting our
first symposium, Native Voices: Indigenous Language and Poetry, at the Center
itself, it defined the impact we are able to have and the significant effect of
bringing together leading artists with shared artistic concerns. In partnership
with the renowned American Indian Language Development Institute, we
brought more than a dozen distinguished native writers and storytellers
Gail Browne and Frances Sjoberg enjoy the festivities.
Robert Hass reads in the Hillman Odeum.
from the U.S. and Mexico to advance a discussion of the role of literature
in preserving and enlivening endangered indigenous languages. Conceptual
Poetry and Its Others, our second symposium, curated by critic Marjorie
Perloff, was presented in May 2008. Once again, poets and scholars from
around the world attended the events. The symposium spawned subsequent
books, articles, and collaborations among participants, demonstrating that
our symposia have the power to launch multinational literary conversations.
For writers of poetry and prose, our Classes and Workshops Program
offers instruction and support. But this program has value for students and
teachers alike. Students learn to hone their craft while teachers are given the
opportunity to extend their thinking about literature through the lens of their
own creative and instructive works.
Building on the writers-in-the-schools programs developed by Lois Shelton
and Alison Deming, we attempt to reach as many students and teachers as
possible by investing in curriculum-based K–12 programs. The development
of VERSE! Poetry for Young Children, a collection of 38 standards-based lessons
for four to six year olds, was a turning point for the Poetry Center’s educational
outreach. It provided a means for us to think about the next generation of
our own audience. It enabled us to see how poetry is not something that
people come to at a certain stage of life but something that can and should
be a lifelong experience. Children’s programs, like the Saturday morning
Performance group, Typing Explosion,
hammers out poems on demand at The
Photos: 1,2, Lisa Wise; 3, Christine Krikliwy
Poetry Joeys activities, bring into focus that poetry is a way of being in the
world, more than just a subject to be studied. The Children’s Corner and
Anika Burns Children’s Collection make this a family-centered experience.
The Bilingual Corrido Contest for Arizona High School Students gained
significance beyond what we could have imagined. The curriculum we
developed for this program in 2000 was meant to teach high school students
about a musical ballad form popular throughout to the Mexico-U.S. border
region. Developing the program was a challenge because it aimed to reach an
audience we hadn’t actively served before, and it asserted a musical form as
literature, which challenged some of our fundamental literary assumptions.
The Corrido Program has enabled us not only to serve the educators,
musicians, and students who participate in the contest, but also to serve and
educate ourselves about the way poetry flows through the general population
independent of the academy. In recognizing the unique literary movements
in the Southwest, we found one of our greatest strengths.
Ruth Stephan and Myrtle Walgreen Collection: The Heart of the Center
Every staff person at the Poetry Center enjoys a view of the library. The administrators
who work upstairs look down on it through floor-to-ceiling glass walls;
the librarians downstairs are surrounded by it. Architect Les Wallach at
On April 17, 2008, W. S. Merwin read for the Poetry
Center for the seventh time. He also spoke on “Poetry
and the Natural World.”
The Poetry Center offers a vibrant program called Poetry Joeys
for children ages 4 to 10. The monthly activities draw large
groups of children and families who participate in fun activities
that expand and develop children’s language flexibility.
Line and Space LLC made this design decision because he understood that
the library has always been the heart of the Poetry Center. Our collection
documents the history of poetry publishing in America for the past 50 years.
Today, as books on paper risk obsolescence, we are more aware than ever that
our collection is rare. Many of our holdings are unavailable anywhere else in
the world, and we’re often the first library in the U.S. to acquire new books
from small presses.
Right after the Housewarming Festival in 2007, our librarians began the
arduous process of retrieving boxes of books from off-site storage. It took
more than a year to re-integrate them into the collection, designating them
for the main stacks, the archives, or rare book room. We uncovered treasure
after treasure. In addition to the numerous rare and out-of-print monographs,
we returned to the collection full runs of influential journals, such as Yugen,
edited by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Tucson-based Ironwood, edited by
We still adhere to the acquisitions policy established by Ruth Stephan,
although poetry publishing has proliferated in the past decade. Thus, we
collect as comprehensively as we can within our financial constraints. After
years of converting our card catalog to an electronic system, our records are
now available through the international library database, OCLC/WorldCat.
On September 25, 2008, Jean Valentine read with her friend, fellow
poet Catherine Barnett. Valentine also visited Richard Shelton’s
prison writing workshop.
In May 2008, the Poetry Center held a three-day symposium,
Conceptual Poetry and its Others. Curated by Marjorie Perloff,
the symposium presented avant-garde artists Christian Bök,
Charles Bernstein, Tracie Morris, Craig Dworkin, Caroline Bergvall,
Cole Swensen, and Kenneth Goldsmith. Pictured: Tracie Morris.
Photos: 1,Frances Sjoberg; 2,3, 4, Christine Krikliwy
Thanks to LaVerne Harrell Clark we also possess an extraordinary photography archive of contemporary American poets. After LaVerne’s passing in 2008, her husband L. D. Clark donated 3000 of her negatives and prints to the Poetry Center, along with her Roloflex camera. The tradition she began of taking our visiting writers’ portraits continues to this day.
For the past decade audio technicians have digitized reel-to-reel and audiocassette recordings from the 1960s through the 1990s in order to assemble them in a searchable database developed in concert with College of Humanities. Most of the original recordings were in surprisingly good condition thanks to our dry desert climate. Our new audio-video electronic database not only allows recordings to be safely listened to now, but also preserves them for future generations of readers, writers, and scholars.
Hundreds of these recordings are now available online through the Poetry Center’s web site. How could we have imagined thirty or forty years ago that people from around the world would be able to hear changes in the timbre of W. S. Merwin’s voice over the five decades he read for the Poetry Center? Or that Lucille Clifton’s description of adventures in the desert with Lois and Richard Shelton would be shared so far and wide? The Poetry Center Today
We’ve come a far distance from the days when four employees ran the library, the reading series, and a handful of outreach programs. In 2010 the Poetry Center staff is an entirely different group of talented and equally dedicated individuals. Most have earned Master of Fine Arts degrees in creative writing and some hold advanced degrees in English literature or library science. The majority are graduates of the University of Arizona. Nearly all of them maintain active writing and publishing lives in spite of their demanding jobs. It’s not an easy balance to achieve, as many artists who do something else for a living can attest, but it helps to work in a house of poetry among colleagues who share the drive to create art.
While we all still see ourselves as generalists, the day-to-day work has become more specialized. Librarians must be trained in the technologies required of our digital age. Education outreach coordinators must also be teachers in order to develop poetry curricula for students at different developmental stages. Marketing experts and web designers are necessary to communicate the full dimension of our offerings to new and diverse audiences. Event programmers negotiate a highly competitive literary industry. And fundraising is a major component of everyone’s job description, not just the executive director’s. The success of the Poetry Center also depends on our extended family of hardworking volunteers who play vital roles in establishing and maintaining the atmosphere in our library. Students have volunteered at the Center since the beginning: they shelved books, cleaned up after poets in The Fieries and the Snuffies cottage, and kept the library open during evenings and weekends. Recently, we have made deliberate efforts to also recruit members of the Tucson community. These volunteers are retirees with a long history with the Poetry Center, newcomers looking for a connection to Tucson’s literary scene, and recent MFA graduates wanting to sustain a close connection to a place they love. They sit at the front desk and greet every visitor who enters to the Poetry Center. If, as poet Steve Orlen says, “the Poetry Center is the best living room in American to read poetry,” then it’s important to have someone friendly at the front door to say, “Come on in.”
In addition to receiving guests, volunteers and interns help with nearly every aspect of Poetry Center business, from setting up chairs and administering surveys to adding dust jackets and security tags to books. Volunteers with specialized skills and experience create databases and storage systems for sensitive documents and ephemera. Docents are trained to lead tours, offer special insight into the collection, and entertain visitors with stories from the Center’s past. Interns training in library science provide systems maintenance, processing support, and research for the Audio Video Library. Interns training in arts administration work in marketing, events coordination, and curriculum development. Interns also lead poetry activities and field trips for classes of students from preschool to grad school.
The Future of the Poetry Center
The Helen S. Schaefer Building demands sustained engagement with multiple audiences in order to fully capture the potential of the building and its grounds. New technologies enable the Poetry Center to extend this engage-ment beyond our physical landmark into electronic frontiers. As we continue to serve audiences, both near and far, we will keep focused on the Center’s most distinguishing features. Our librarians will acquire more rare and unique works of contemporary poetry, increasing the value of an already priceless archive. Our programs will continue to challenge experienced writers and readers, and we will continue to create thresholds for new audiences to enter. As we engage individuals across generations, we will explore new performance techniques and interdisciplinary approaches to convey the proliferate gift of the written and spoken word. We will provide more online resources and our digital interface will become increasingly elegant and accessible. Whether mining the Audio Video Library or experiencing virtual symposia, audiences outside of Arizona will have access to our diverse resources. The Poetry Center will be known as a place where literary discourse begins and flourishes, where creative explorations abound-a place of long reach and relevance to everyone in our community, both here and beyond.
1 Graig Uhlin, “UA Lecturer to Give Public Reading of Poetry,” Arizona Daily Wildcat, Sept. 27, 2000.
2 During the 2000-2010 era, we had the good fortune, between us, to work with the following Poetry Center staff members: Renee Angle, Timothy Bell, Wendy Burk, Michael DeHart, Alison Deming, Ann Fine, Annie Guthrie, Cybele Knowles, Christine Krikliwy, Maurynne Maxwell, Bonnie Jean Michalski, Jim Paul, Rodney Phillips, and Michael Rerick. We also worked with numerous excellent student workers, interns, volunteers, consultants and contractors. Without the hard work and care of these individuals the Poetry Center would not be where it is today. 3 George B. Frisvold, “Jimmye S. Hillman: An Interview,” Arizona Review: Economic Perspectives on Arizona’s Agricultural and Natural Resources, Volume 2.2, Fall 2004.
4 It’s impossible to name everyone who contributed to the success of the Poetry Center’s capital campaign, but we would be remiss not to mention Tom Sanders and the other development committee members-in addition to those named in this essay-who served from the early to mid-2000s, including Alison Deming, Norma Feldman, Richard Johnson, James Lipsey, Richard and Lois Shelton, Harris Sobin, and James P. Walsh. Recent members of the development committee help us to re-envision the committee’s work in order to understand and meet the needs of the Poetry Center’s next generation: James Hensley, Matthew Myers, Susan Wallach, and Lisa Wise.
Click tabs to swap between content that is broken into logical sections.