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The Poetry Center celebrates its 60th anniversary

Heather Newberry

The University of Arizona Poetry Center is located at 1508 E. Helen St. The center hosts many events and speakers throughout the year. Photo taken Aug. 19, 2018.

The University of Arizona Poetry Center is celebrating 60 years of existence with 60 rare books in an Online Exhibit this November with multiple events, including a virtual celebration on Nov. 17. The Poetry Center will also showcase historical first-additions and fine press work that dates decades back, all the way to the 1960s.   

The Poetry Center was founded in 1960 by Ruth Stephan neé Walgreen, a poet and philanthropist, who gave the UA a small cottage to start a poetry center.

Stephan played a heavy role in the Poetry Center, donating books and financial resources. Stephan and Poet Robert Frost were at the dedication ceremony on Nov. 17, 1960. Frost became the first person to give a reading at the Poetry Center.   

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As the University expanded, the Poetry Center relocated many times before it settled down at the Helen S. Schaefer Building in 2007. 

This year brings a range of opportunities for the Poetry Center to expand its digital platform according to Tyler Meier, UA Poetry Center’s executive director.

Traditionally, the center has interacted with the public in-person. However, due to the circumstances, library staff have worked to facilitate more virtual interaction with the public. 

The Poetry Center recently launched a podcast called “Poetry Centered” this summer in hopes to gain accessibility and reach. 

The books in the collection come from a variety of authors, which library staff have made available for anyone to view online.

“The collection has grown into one of the most important collections of poetry in the world,” Meier said via email. “Looking back, you can track the history of 20th-century American poetry through Tucson and the poets who have lived here and who have visited. It’s an incredible legacy, and this anniversary helps us take stock of all that has been accomplished.”

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Meier argued that any study of language equips you with tools to understand the world, which is an endlessly transferable skill in the workplace, part of the key to a rich cultural and civic life. 

“Some define poetry as our best use of language — I like to think that in the Poetry Center the University of Arizona has one of the most important records of the best uses of language in the world,” Meier said.

Sarah Kortemeier, the Poetry Center’s library director, said we can expect to see “Borderbus” from artist Felicia Rice and former United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and other collections new to the center. 

“Some materials acquired for this exhibit enrich the Poetry Center’s holdings of fine press work related to poetry: for example, in this exhibit, we’re presenting a number of works from Aralia Press,” Kortemeier said in an email, “which was founded at West Chester University in 1983 to teach the art of printing to graduate and undergraduate students.”

Sarah Gzemski, publicity and publications specialist for the Poetry Center explained how the Poetry Center’s Rare Books Endowment was funded through generous donors who recognize the importance of the archival work the center does. 

“Rare books are not just famous or old, though some are both,” Gzemski said via email. “We also collect artist books and books that come in very small editions, ensuring that the public will have access to these works of art for decades to come.” 

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According to Kortemier, the Poetry Center’s 60th anniversary is a milestone for the UA.

“We are among the largest collections of contemporary poetry in North America; we have peer institutions, for example, in Chicago and New York, and it’s quite notable that this world-class collection lives here in Tucson,” Kortemier said. “The Poetry Center’s status as a literary arts organization is a testament to the excellence of the UA and the enthusiastic support of the Tucson community. It’s a privilege for all of us on staff to be part of this work.”

You can learn more about the 60th anniversary with a visual timeline and learn more about the rare book collection and virtual events on the poetry center’s website

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