Education Afield: Poetry is Action at the Tucson Poetry Festival


When I was nineteen, I asked someone what a poem was. She told me that it wasn’t like a story, because those happened in time; bodies following an arc across pages. And I knew, even then, that a lot happens in time. We wake, we live, we read the news, we take our dog for a walk. Our dog becomes older. We wish time would move faster. Sometimes we do not. My teacher, the poet Michael Klein, said in his keynote speech at Goddard College that being a drunk made time seem endless and that “the difficulty of being sober at the beginning is knowing that time has places where it ends and that the body—which used to walk through fire—now remembers the places where it shuts down.” In time, changing life’s trajectory is akin to tackling some version of ourselves off the tracks. It makes me think about how I play rugby, a sport where bodies clash bodies towards the earth. My body’s own inertia. Sometimes I cannot imagine throwing my body one more time, but I do.

Back in August, the board of the Tucson Poetry Festival and I gathered to ask the question, “What do we need, here—in Tucson—now?” This is my second year asking this question with them. Last year, we wanted to come together as a community, so we called the festival “Poetry and the People.” This year, it feels like our inertia is thawing and, if it’s not, then it has to, if we plan on moving forward into a future we want to live in. There is nothing else to do but act. “Poetry is Action”—the theme of the 35th Annual Tucson Poetry Festival (April 12-14, 2018)—came from this sense.

My friend, ten years ago, told me what a poem wasn’t and then she told me what a poem was. A poem happens in space, outside of time. The resistance remains, but it’s of a different quality. It seems to me that many poets have felt into those walls inside of themselves, especially in the face of real truth. Ursula K. Le Guin said at the National Book Awards last year, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.” This year we’ve invited poets who we believe will help us ask questions, in different ways, around the idea that “Poetry is Action” so that we might use poetry to affect our lives in time, to dream and then enact into existence something hopeful, something new.

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is the first undocumented student to earn an MFA from the University of Michigan and his work as an activist creates space for other undocumented artists. CA Conrad works through somatic rituals to disengage from “factory poetry”. Kay Ulanday Barrett is a transgender, pinoy, disabled poet, performer, educator, and speaker who steps outside of traditional forms and structures to call in listeners. Teré Fowler Chapman’s voice echoes through Tucson consciousness both on the page and on the stage; they’ve given us all so much. Isaac Kirkman literally walks miles through the streets of Tucson and the outer edges of the desert taking in that which is not always seen. The youth poets of Spoken Futures are the dreamers and the doers of the future. They will take what is next from our hands with renewed vision.

The festival itself seeks to not just entertain and inspire, but also to educate. We want to learn alongside you. Each featured poet will offer a workshop that grows forth from their individual style and perception. The Tucson community is welcome to attend any or all of these free workshop offerings. By extending spacious and accessible opportunities to learn from those whose work we are celebrating, we hope that we will become better poets—and better dreamers of the future we want to be a part of.

Em Bowen is the Executive Director of the Tucson Poetry Festival and is a storyteller, a writer, an essayist, a poet and a person who thrives and is always changing (much as we all are, whether we realize it or not). Their work has been published in the Tucson Weekly, The Atlantic, Zocalo, Wild Gender and The Feminist Wire. Em earned their MFA from Goddard College and is the former producer of the Tucson Gender Identity Project.

The Tucson Poetry Festival will include a number of free workshops and readings. Festival organizers welcome you to visit or like the Tucson Poetry Festival on Facebook to keep up to date with the festival’s full schedule and to read more about this year's inspired line-up.