Does Tucson Need Three Poet Laureates to Bring It Back from the Brink of Censorship?

At the same time California celebrated the naming of Juan Felipe Herrera as its first Latino poet laureate and San Antonio announced a "bold" decision to launch renowned Chicana author Carmen Tafolla as its inaugural poet laureate, the city of Tucson, Arizona stole all of the national headlines last month as a literary bonfire with its removal of classics from outlawed Mexican American Studies classrooms.

Facing an unprecedented wave of censorship, book confiscations and banishment, and indiscriminate attacks on intellectual freedom and first amendment rights, Tucson has unabashedly staked out its claim as ground zero in the defense of poetry and literary arts by virtually every major literary, publishing, library and academic rights organization.

Heralded by the New York Times editorial board, a caravan of "librotraficantes" authors from Texas and other states even descended on the Old Pueblo last month, in an attempt to transcend the censorship borders and distribute books that had been raked from the classroom shelves. Last summer, the national WordStrike writers group launched its cultural campaign in Arizona.

If a city ever needed a poet laureate -- a visionary, fearless, deeply rooted voice of clarity and insight -- Tucson would rank at the top of every list.

In fact, the Old Pueblo, wracked by divisions, demoralized by a Tucson Unified School District that considers Mexican American literature a "distraction" or even dangerous, and unable to stand up to the Tea Party-led state legislature and its school superintendent side-kick John Huppenthal, probably needs THREE poet laureates: a poetic triumvirate of las comadres, who could begin the long and painful and desperately needed process of giving voice to the dreams, fears and daily challenges of its diverse residents, and using poetry to heal a divided and segregated city and challenge it to imagine a different future.

Tucson has an extraordinary literary tradition: Pioneering Chicano author Mario Suarez published his groundbreaking stories here, just down the street from National Book Award-winning poet Ai in Tucson's historic barrios; literary titans like Luis Urrea, Susan Sontag, Edward Abbey, Joseph Krutch, Leslie Silko, Barbara Kingsolver, Demetria Martinez, and Arizona's renowned poet/professor Richard Shelton have called Tucson home at one point, along with legions of other acclaimed poets and novelists like Gregory McNamee, Simon Ortiz, Patricia Preciado Martin, Pamela Uschuk and inaugural poet laureate William Pitt Root.

Las Comadres of Sowing the Seeds writers collective in Tucson might be the only poets -- and writers, story-tellers, artists -- who could fill such a void in this divided city. Over the past decade, authors like Elena Díaz Björkquist, Mari Herreras and Andrea Hernandez Holm have actively participated in city-wide events and anthologies. All three poets publish frequently in various literary magazines and venues; Díaz Björkquist is also a frequent performer and lecturer; Herreras is an award-winning journalist with the Tucson Weekly, as well; Holm is a graduate student in the University of Arizona Mexican American Studies department and Facebook moderator of the national initiative, Poets Responding to SB 1070.

Díaz Björkquist and Holm with poets Francisco Alarcon, Odilia Galvan Rodriguez. Photo courtesy of Diaz Björkquist

In view of Tucson's spiraling literary tragedy in the national news, I asked this future poet laureate trio how they would handle their roles as the public voice of the city, ways in which literature could be used for community discussion and celebration not censorship, and what poet Grace Paley called the "still small possibility for justice" through poetry.

Jeff Biggers: Given the national spotlight on TUSD's dismantling of the Mexican American Studies program and subsequent removal of texts and curriculum materials, what role do you think Tucson's Poet Laureate should be playing in informing the Mayor and the public on issues of literary arts, censorship and intellectual freedom?

Mari Herreras: Normally, a poet laureate wouldn't have to do this, but we don't live in normal times right now. But because of that, I think Tucson PL would have to take a lead in calling leaders to speak out in support of MAS and speak out against the state and how the district reacted to the law and acting powerless in reaction to racism and local control.

Elena Diaz Björkquist: I think a poet laureate would have the responsibility of researching issues dealing with literary arts, censorship, and intellectual freedom and presenting the information to the mayor and the public. Too often the position winds up being honorary. I think that as poets we are using our pens to write poetry that is relevant to the times. Witness the incredible response that we've gotten on the FB page Poets Responding to SB1070.

Andrea Hernandez Holm: There is a long history of book banning on this continent. The Spanish set to task burning Indigenous codices right away in an effort to erase pre-colonial history and establish Spanish and Christian thought as the new, "official" history. But, the poets kept writing and every word they wrote was resistance against oppression, resistance against those efforts to erase their history. As writers, we have an obligation to remember these types of assaults against knowledge and word and speak out against any effort to repeat them.

If there were a Poet Laureate of Tucson or even Arizona, I would have expected that person to be speaking out against what has been happening here. I would also hope that that person would be working to bring together the poets, writers, and other artists of the area. There are a number of writers in Arizona whose work have been affected by the dismantling of the MAS program and the effective banning of materials -- our Poet Laureate would have been in a great position to be reaching out to those authors and bringing them together to fight against these actions. This could have been accomplished by combining a number of forums -- community presentations, board meetings, city council meetings, social networking, and interviews, just to name a few.

JB: Does the poet laureate have an obligation to speak out on local issues of book banishment, censorship and attacks on intellectual freedom, and what forums should the poet laureate use to give voice to such concerns?

EDB: Anyone who writes is concerned about book banning, censorship, and attacks on intellectual freedom. I think a poet laureate would be obligated to speak out. Social media such as Facebook has given us an opportunity to reach a multitude of people but I think face-to-face is still very important. Maybe having a series of discussions with poets, civic leaders, and the general public would be helpful.

MH: Of course. We are talking about words here, and poetry across the world has always been a vehicle for political discource, lamentation and voice for the powerless or disenfranchised. As a writer for the Tucson Weekly, I joke that I am not in the best company when in comes to folks who love poetry, so another recourse for me, is being able to torture people like Jim Nintzel, Jimmy Boegle and Dan Gibson. They are good people, but not poetry people -- this could also be the job of the PL.

Mari Herreras. Photo Courtesy of Herreras.

JB: If you were Tucson's poet laureate, would you have participated in the celebrated "Librotraficante" events, and what poem would you have read?

AHH: I would hope that if I was the Poet Laureate of Tucson, I would have been invited and expected to participate in the Librotraficante events. I would have shared the following poem, "Evolution of a Revolution". This poem was published in the commemorative issue of Coraje!, published by students of the MAS program at the U of A, for the Conference for Combating Hate, Censorship, and Forbidden Curriculum in December 2010.

EDB: If I were Tucson's poet laureate, I would have participated in the "Librotraficante" events and as one of the authors of a "banned/boxed" book, I was going to participate but was plagued with allergies that weekend. I was planning to read one of my poems from Poets Responding to SB1070. The book banning, the dismantling of Chicano Studies, laws like SB1070 are all part of the racism being exhibited to Chicanos in Arizona.

Evolution of a Revolution


In Arizona
sorrows float with the sunlight.
Their heat on our flesh is familiar.
We shift, shrug ignore,
accept these generations of disappointment
too heavy to leave the atmosphere.

In Arizona
the fearful and hateful
use power to further ignorance.
We stand up on the broken hearts
of those who walked before us.
Their songs of promise lift us:
We shall overcome with peace
We shall conquer
with our humanity
There will be justice
because truth is ours.

Nothing changes.
We remain invisible
unless driving brown
or learning brown
or thinking brown
and then we are reasonably suspicious
dissident illegal.

517 years, 6 months, and 29 days (approximately)
and we are done.
Ya basta.
Our children will not suffocate
on our sorrows or your hate.
We rise in protest and wait,
ready to consume you.

MH: Yes and I would have intruded in the events big-time. That was one missing piece that several of my friends in my Las Comadres de Sowing the Seeds writing collective discussed -- where were local writers. Some of us showed up, but there wasn't a welcome wagon. I guess, there didn't have to be -- we needed to be there without an invitation.

JB: How could Tucson's poet laureate engage more students, teachers, librarians and community members on the TUSD Ethnic Studies crisis?

MH: My comadre Andrea Hernandez Holm and I feel motivated now more then ever -- so perhaps if Tony Diaz deserves any credit it is in us finally bringing writers together to do just this -- what a PL should and could do -- but with our own version of Nuestra Palabra. But this is Tucson, not Texas. We have our own Alamos and unique perspective -- that perspecitive only works if it includes Pasqua Yaqui writers, Tohono O'Odham writers, Pocho writers, Chicano writers and everyone, like you, who has a heart mixed with sand, nopal and ocatillo. You know, people who love Tucson for everyone she is.

I think in working students/schools it means being there and showing up to express and share a love for writing and reading poetry out loud. It means working with librarians and community members to also state the obvious -- we've neglected, big time, standing up for Mexican American Studies. We've hidden behind acronyms and our office buildings for too long. Now, look what has happened? Some could say it is too late, but I hope folks don't go there. Engage now. Immediately. Perhaps what Tucson and supporters of MAS need right now is a poet laureate who also knows how to organize the community and create a strategy... but that's another story.

AHH: First of all, the involvement from TUSD and U of A students regarding HB 2281 has been phenomenal. I can not tell you how amazed I am by them. They are brave young people, fueled by a love of learning, a love for their community, and a true understanding of what equality and justice should mean. I think that any Poet Laureate would be wise to help bring the experiences and wisdom of those students to the rest of the community, and then together speak to the importance not just of programs like MAS, but of literacy, literature, and learning. Tucson is a very large community and there are a number of school districts, public libraries, etc. that have not become part of the conversation about the TUSD crisis, or HB 2281 in general. I can't really speak to why this is so, but I suspect that part of the problem is that many people think that they, or their schools, neighborhoods, etc. are not affected because they are not in TUSD or they are not Mexican American. They need to be reminded that we are all impacted by what is going on.

EDB: I think a poet laureate could bring people together to discuss the issue in a civilized matter. Some of the actions on both sides have caused people who are supportive of the Chicano Studies program to distance themselves. We need to come together and present a united front.

JB: Does the position of poet laureate really matter to a city -- or rather, do poets, writers and artists play a role in the city's cultural development -- or is it simply a symbolic position?

MH: The title of poet laureate on a national level is always an interesting discussion. As Americans, we're don't really care about poetry or this kind of title as they do in other countries, where there is a celebrity behind the title and notion. But this is also Tucson -- we invented the notion of Keep Tucson Weird and part of that means we look at the world differently anyway. If any city can embrace a poet laureate and allow them to create a role that is meaningful and inspiring -- Tucson is that city and community.

EDB: A poet laureate could really matter to a city if it is more than a symbolic position. Not only for the reason that Senator Leticia Van de Putte noted but because s/he could be a conciliatory force in bringing people together for civilized discourse. The Mayor and the City Council would have to agree on the duties of the poet laureate and give the position power to implement them, otherwise it would be simply an honorific appointment.

One more thing -- Chicano poets don't seem to be included in many of the activities/events dealing with poetry in Tucson. If we are, it's because we make the effort to be a part of whatever is happening.

AHH: The position of Poet Laureate should not be "just" symbolic. I realize there are any number of reasons people write and many of those reasons may have nothing to do with social justice or human rights, but a Poet Laureate should come to this role as a speaker for the community. When the events of 9/11 happened, Congress asked then-U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins to write a poem. He was hesitant, perhaps overwhelmed by the task, but he did it. That poem, "The Names", speaks to sorrow of loss, the great shock and sadness created by what he called a geopolitical trauma. Poets can not just be bystanders. We are compelled to consider the human experience and attempt to make sense of it for ourselves and our fellow humans.

I think that a poet who accepts the position of Poet Laureate must view the title not just as an acknowledgement of her or his writing accomplishments, but as a declaration that she or he is recognized as a community representative. As such, that poet does have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of the community members, and so, even if it is only to historicize an event or a moment in poetry, the Poet Laureate should be ready to just that.

Poets Responding to SB 1070 was created by Francisco X. Alarcon, who himself has been nominated for the position of Poet Laureate of California. Francisco is a professor, beloved poet, and an advocate for justice throughout the world. When SB 1070 became law, he reached out to poets and writers around the nation to rally in resistance. The Facebook page serves as a forum for users to talk about the law and related issues and, most importantly, share their poetry with others. Since the page was established, over 1000 poems have been submitted. Our poetic family includes well-established and awarded poets, emerging artists, and even teenage poets -- all who are united in their fight for human rights. In addition to the Facebook page, group members have presented at national and international conferences, taking the mission of the group to as many people as possible. We are currently compiling an anthology of selected poems.

The gathering of poets, even in "cyberspace" has worked to unite people around the world by bringing together the many stories and perspectives of those of us affected by SB 1070. At a time when laws like 1070 and HB 2281 are attempting to silence voices and diminish perspectives, Poets Responding is working to assert a place for them. Our poets have held a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Capitol; distributed our poems at rallies and protests; and, recently, taken our poems to the top of the pyramids in Mexico City. These amazing poets are committed to creating a safe space, one of support and great friendship, where we know our words are appreciated, where we are encouraged to speak up and speak against injustice.