Fiestas in the Desert: Postcard From Tucson

April Conway

On the first Friday of this month, before an evening reading that marked the midway point of the twenty-seventh annual Tucson Poetry Festival, a group of poets, festival organizers, and an intimate band of local poetry supporters filled the back patio of La Indita Mexican restaurant just west of the University of Arizona campus. Under green, mesh tarps and mesquite trees, the literary assembly drank Negra Modelos and magenta jamaica (hibiscus) juice, snacked on just-fried tortilla chips and fresh salsa, and relaxed before the weekend of readings, workshops, and slams ahead.

Wearing a T-shirt printed with the image of a beaming Nelson Mandela, soldier-poet Brian Turner, who recently won the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, described the list of countries he hoped to snake through once he ventures away from North America (a requirement of the fellowship) in the fall. On the list so far: Italy, France, and India. Others in the group talked about a YouTube video of a Billy Collins poem animated using children’s drawings, and still others briefly acknowledged an unfortunate fact of life these days: layoffs.

The wind charged through the patio and dry bougainvillea blossoms swept like dervishes across the concrete as the guests shared a dinner of green chile chicken enchiladas, chicken mole, beans, rice, and homemade tortillas served family-style. Slam poet Buddy Wakefield ordered sticky, sweet Indian fry bread, powdered white with sugar, because he “had a taste for honey.” As plates emptied and the sky darkened, people began to peel away from the table. The festival board members left to prepare the evening’s venue; the poets tucked into cars and shuttled off for the second night of readings.

The Tucson Poetry Festival was held at the Tucson High Magnet School, the city’s oldest high school, which has been host to the event for over a decade. The three-story brick building, garnished with white columns, makes for a grand entrance. The festival was once held in the similarly elegant auditorium, but, reflective of a time when every expenditure is carefully considered, this year’s program was scaled back and relocated to the library. Despite its smaller size, the space had its own majesty: The area where the reading took place was nestled below a wide, vaulted glass ceiling.

The walls facing the audience were lined with Tucson Poetry Festival posters from years past, all featuring the signature image of the ocotillo branch blazoning the top, followed by the year’s theme and a list of headlining poets: “Love, Loss, Silence: Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sherman Alexie,” for example. This year’s poster for “Health and Healing,” featuring Samantha Barrow, Gina Franco, Andrea Gibson, Brian Turner, Buddy Wakefield, and Ofelia Zepeda, had yet to be framed and hung. The stage was decorated in warm, desert colors: A four-foot-long banner of the ocotillo branch in maroon and russet gold hung behind the podium, similarly hued gauze was draped on the walls, and black vases of daisies and tiger lilies adorned the stage floor. Wakefield, when he took the stage late in the program, would quip that he felt like he was about to deliver a sermon.

First to read was Zepeda, a professor of linguistics and writing at the University of Arizona and a member of the Tohono O’odham nation whose most recent collection is Where Clouds Are Formed (University of Arizona Press, 2008). After her introduction, Zepeda greeted the audience in O’odham, first locating the west, where she directed her prayers. Her long hair streaked gray and white, Zepeda peered just over the podium. The sound of her voice was like the hushed tone of an ocean humming in my ears. Her poems, which oscillated between her native language and English, and the stories she wove in and out of them, lulled her listeners into a silence, though she did elicit a few laughs.

The next reader, Wakefield, cast a different energy. Eyes wide, fingers nervously opening one plastic water bottle after another, voice carrying straight to the glass panels above, his was the energy of a short-circuit. If, as he claimed, he felt like a preacher, then he was also the confessor. With poems rolling from his tongue and stories puncturing the air, his performance felt like an airing of sins to a benevolent congregation, and at the end of the reading, in a gesture of vulnerability, he threw his arms wide open.     

The following evening, after a midday panel on the subject of poetry and healing, a repeat of the previous night’s yin-yang energy ensued. A crowd gathered before the stage as the wind roared above the glass ceiling. After an enthusiastic introduction by a graduate student clad in leather and plaid (“electric...catalyzing…her poems are lyrical, narrative, funny, sad”) Andrea Gibson took the stage. Dressed in black and sporting a turquoise iPod, Gibson graciously said, “You always want to live up to your introduction, and that was a great one,” then leapt into her poems. A poetry slam champion, Gibson showed her stuff, asking for audience participation, singing, and playing on her iPod some piano music that undulated behind her words. Members of the audience snapped their fingers along with Gibson’s strong twists in language and precise word play; they sighed hmm and shouted uh-huh, creating a kind of religious atmosphere. After ending one poem about Iraq war veterans and introducing another on gay marriage, Gibson said, “It’s all human rights and it all weaves together.” And, with that statement, she linked herself to the poet who followed.

Turner, a former lieutenant who served in Iraq, walked up the stairs, stepped up to the mike, and immediately began reading “Here, Bullet,” the title poem of his 2005 debut collection, published by Alice James Books. Echoing Gibson’s concern about human rights—he spoke of the Iraqi people and U.S. and Iraq relations: “I didn’t disrespect them; there were a lot of reasons they would be shooting at me”—and Wakefield’s and Zepeda’s practice of running stories into poems, Turner moved through one scene after another in the life of a soldier occupying Iraq, from learning the language of the Iraqis—“I still debate this in my head, the use of sacred language in my poems”—to returning to his home country. Mixing philosophical and rhetorical questions into his poems, Turner asked the audience to consider the responsibility of one’s country to the people of nations it engages in war. At the end of his reading—the end of the evening—the noise of the applause felt buoyant, filling the room and touching the night sky visible above.  

As Saturday night wound down, the poets, organizers, and a now broader crew of local poetry community members caravanned to an after-party at the festival board treasurer’s house. With a bonfire blazing under the eucalyptus in the backyard, and another fire being stoked in the living room, the party guests toasted with wine and beer from the back-porch refrigerator and sipped tequila from a stout bottle of Patrón. Feasting on a generous spread of figs, dates, dill chèvre, fresh strawberries, and a key lime cheesecake with a sheen of green frosting, the guests’ faces glowed in the balmy light flushing the adobe walls. They talked shop, told war stories (literal, figurative), and discussed upcoming books, slams, and a game-show-style reading at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center. When midnight struck, the guests left, kissing on lips and cheeks, congratulating each other on jobs well done, and wishing goodnight, but not goodbye.