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Friday November 17, 2000

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Former US poet laureate to give reading in Tucson

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By Phil Leckman

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Event commemorates UA Poetry Center's 40th anniversary

The UA Poetry Center's decades-old tradition of bringing top poets to Tucson continues tonight as two-time United States Poet Laureate Robert Hass reads in celebration of the Center's 40th anniversary.

Hass, an English professor at the University of California Berkeley, served as poet laureate from 1995 to 1997 and is widely regarded as one of the nation's finest living poets.

"I think he is one of the great poets of our time," said Poetry Center director Jim Paul.

Hass is the author of four books of poetry and a book of essays, and has also translated the works of several major foreign poets. His appointment as poet laureate is one of many honors and awards Hass has received, including the Yale Series of Younger Poets title in 1973 and two National Book Critics Circle Awards.

The poet laureate position, which is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, carries a one-year term and offers a $35,000 stipend but has few official responsibilities - the recipient must give one public lecture, one reading and organize a literary series at the Library of Congress.

However, the laureate's duties go beyond these tasks.

"In practice, you're supposed to be the spokesperson for American letters," Hass said, noting that recent laureates have taken much more active roles. "The last three laureates - Rita Dove, myself and Robert Pinsky - have tried to use the position to raise awareness of American poetry and literature in general."

Although his two-year term made writing difficult - Hass called it "the opposite of being an artist" - he contends that poetry and literacy are closely linked.

"From the beginning of the American colonial experience, poetry was always an indicator of the depth of literacy in the culture, kind of like an indicator species," Hass said. "If poetry is around and vibrant than literacy is OK - the connection between the two is actually deep and complicated. To encourage one is always to encourage the other."

Hass said he sees the Poetry Center - with its mission of promoting the poetry of Arizona and the Southwest - as part of this fight against illiteracy and that it helps make Tucson "one of the top centers of the culture of American poetry."

"The connection between this and the Poetry Center - between the literacy work and the poetry work - is that American culture gets made regionally," he said. "So much of what's good about American writing is the connection between people and their culture. This gets shaped by landscape and environment."