By Rebecca Seiferle
Following poetry, that “barefoot rank” as Emily Dickinson describes it, can lead in marvelous and unexpected directions. In the intervening decades since I decided at the age of fourteen to pursue poetry, I don’t think I ever imagined being a poet laureate. Being named Tucson’s Poet Laureate in September 2012 was a completely unexpected and delightful honor. When Mano Sotelo, a noted Tucson artist and sometimes teaching colleague at Southwest University of Visual Arts, contacted me saying that he wanted to nominate me for the position, I was honored by his regard but hesitant, thinking it was unlikely that I would be chosen.
For those who aren’t aware of the process of selecting Tucson’s Poet Laureate, a brief description follows. In early 2012 Tucson Pima Arts Council had launched a call for nominations for the poet laureate position. The process required two nominating letters along with supporting materials, a CV or submission of a biographical statement that indicated the nominee was a poet of local, national, and international standing. A committee at TPAC including people from the Tucson literary and arts community, the Tucson educational system, and the general community reviewed the nominations. Eventually samples of work were requested from a smaller group of candidates, and the committee sent a list of finalists to the Mayor’s office with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild making the final selection.
History dwells in every word, and those intersections of myth, historical events, and culture have been a deep preoccupation in my poetic work. Both in writing my own poetry and in translating poetry, I return to the root of the word, not just because of curiosity but because I am often troubled by the weight that the word carries. “Word,” “wound,” and “ world” feel intimately connected, historically associated. My sense of poetry is of finding some living language, a space that can breathe, like the living body, like the living earth, within and out of a history of oppression and historical wounding. Like all words, the word “laureate” is weighted with the origin of meaning, an original wounding, and a relationship to the world.
Intertwined in the roots of the word “laureate” is the laurel, an aromatic evergreen with dark green and glossy leaves. Woven around the word is one of many stories associated with the Greek god, Apollo, god of music and poetry, truth and prophecy. But like many Greek gods, Apollo was double-faced, the god of not only healing but the god of plague, and the story of the laurel is the story of a wounding. The laurel truly belongs to Daphne, that young nymph who fleeing Apollo’s unwanted sexual advances called upon her father, a water god, who hearing her cries for help turned her into a laurel. The laurel is Daphne, her aromatic and evergreen presence, testifies to what survives and persists. She is the individual voice that is often silenced or unheard at the edge of the river.
“Uneasy lies the crown” goes the line, and it could be said that being a poet laureate has always meant negotiating the uneasiness of wearing a crown, of being marked out even by a wreath fashioned of laurel. How to negotiate the demands of individual experience, Daphne’s voice crying out at the edge of a river, and the demands of a public role? Laureates are ‘crowned’ by political powers, kings once, nations, and now, increasingly, in the United States by state and city governments. I would rather revise the role, so that a poet laureate is not one who is crowned but one who crowns. So that it’s not so much the sprig torn from the living tree, but a sprig like a cutting, that given the right conditions can grow roots, be transplanted, take root and branch and flower.
In that vein, a major focus of my poet laureate work has been outreach to the local schools. I launched the Tucson K-12 Poetry Contest in 2013. Our first competition drew almost 200 entries from kindergarten students to high school seniors. Recently at the Tucson Festival of Books, we held our second awards ceremony for the contest and awarded 12 prizes in four age categories. The competition the second time around drew almost 300 entries. It is my hope that we can keep this contest going, as it promotes writing poetry throughout the student schools, and even those students who do not win an award have the reward of articulation, of seeing how it is possible to share one’s own experience with another through language. Another event that I am particularly proud of was the January 8th Memorial Reading, which was held this year at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. At this reading, the honorable Ron Barber, and a dozen readers from the Tucson and beyond read poems that had been written in response to the terrible events of Jan 8th four years ago. Kore Press had solicited the work in the months following the event, and it was deeply meaningful to work with the press as well as the Poetry Center and the January 8th Memorial Foundation to have this evening of witness and remembrance. As poet laureate, I hope to honor all the green growth in the world, whether in encouraging young poets, poetic literacy among children, honoring the earth through words, or healing what has been wounded.
Rebecca Seiferle is the author of four poetry collections: Wild Tongue and Bitters, (both from Copper Canyon Press), and The Music We Dance To and The Ripped-Out Seam (both from Sheep Meadow Press). She is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the Grub Street National Poetry Prize, the Western States Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, The National Writer’s Union Prize, and the Poets & Writers Exchange Award. Seiferle is also a noted translator from the Spanish; Copper Canyon Press published her translation of Vallejo’s The Black Heralds in 2003, and her translation of Vallejo’s Trilce (Sheep Meadow Press, 1992) was a finalist for the PenWest Translation Award. She has taught at a number of colleges and writer’s conferences, including Brandeis University, Vanderbilt University, Hamilton College, the Stonecoast MFA Program, Provincetown Fine Arts Center, and the Summer Literary Seminars. She teaches at Southwest University of Visual Arts. In 2012 Seiferle was named Tucson Poet Laureate.