By Matt Gabrielson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Keeping the spirit of poetry alive in Tucson is what writer, poet Alison Deming does for a living. For the last four years, she has been the director of the UA's Poetry Center. She spends her days overseeing library operations, teaching in the creative writing department at the UA and organizing special projects in the community.
When not in an administrative capacity, she finds time for her own writing. Her first book of poetry, Science, and Other Poems recently won the 1993 Walt Whitman Award of The Academy of American Poets, an honor given annually to the winner of an open competition among American poets who have not yet published a first book of poems.
In a 45-minute interview, Alison talked with the Wildcat about poetry, her own creative process and the UA Poetry Center. What follows is an exerpt from that discussion.
Wildcat: How do you find time to write with all the administrative and other duties involved with the Poetry Center?
Deming: I try to balance it all out. You know, when I can, I stay home for a few hours and write. When the reading series is over, I try to do a residency in a writers colony or something like that to get my mind off all the administrative details. When I'm really working well, it's not hard to achieve a balance. When you're working well nothing stops you. You just find an opportunity in the day to do a little bit of writing. But there are certainly times I get consumed with the details of running the center. I told myself when I took the job that if I have any authority to run the center it comes from being a poet myself, so if I let the writing slide too much, it hurts my job as director. Maintaining the balance is always a challenge.
Wildcat: Congratulations on the recent award for your book. It is one of the most exciting things I can think of for a writer.
Deming: Yeah, its pretty amazing, seeing the actual book and getting it into the hands of poets and reviewers and people interested in contemporary poetry. The prize is a great gift and a really wonderful way to get a book started. Needless to say, I couldn't be happier about it.
Wildcat: How did you get started in writing?
Deming: I think I started doing it because it seemed my experience passed too quickly. Time passed too quickly. Everything I experienced rushed by and became part of history, part of the past. And there is something very frightening about that too me. I think I came to writing as a way to slow that down, to stop and pay attention to what I was experiencing, to the time I'm living in. To me it's all about a certain quality of attention to your own existence. I'm just not wanting to ride through life like I'm on a white-water raft, but I want to get out of the boat once in a while, step back and look at what is going on.
Wildcat: That's a necessary attitude, I think. I'd like also to talk about the Poetry Center. First, how long the has been it been around?
Deming: It got started in 1960 by a woman named Ruth Stephan, who was a writer, poet and editor from Connecticut. She used to come out here for the winter. And she realized that most universities were starting to spend more of their resources on science and technology and not so much on poetry. She wanted to do something that would give poetry a lasting place. So she donated some houses and some money, and the Poetry Center began.
Wildcat: How many books are housed or on the shelves?
Deming: There are now about 26,000. I think we get about 1,200 volumes a year. The money left to the center is an endowment from which we still buy all the books and journals. It is a really good example about what one gift can do over a long period of time, because now we have one of the very best collections of poetry anywhere in the country.
Wildcat: What is the goal behind the Poetry Center, as you see it?
Deming: Well, Ruth Stephan said it was to maintain and nurture the spirit of poetry. We want to keep this one of the very best collections in the country. And we really want this to be a center that's important to the university community, the whole community of Tucson and to the country in general. It is part of our literary culture.
Wildcat: Who takes advantage of the center? I mean, is it mostly UA students? Poetry students? Or is it anyone interested in good poetry.
Deming: Students yes, and winter visitors come and use it, or poets from out of town who are passing through, that kind of thing.
Wildcat: Now, a person can't come in to the center and, say, make a copy of a tape or check out a book, etc. Why?
Deming: The tapes are copyrighted. And there is a Xerox machine for people to make copies of poems they want to take. But they can't check books out partly because we have a lot of things like artist-designed books, or limited-edition books that really can't be replaced. Books by small presses that don't exist anymore or first-edition books make this more like a special-collections library.
Wildcat: And yet security is pretty relaxed. Those without principle can just walk out with a whatever book they want.
Deming: And people do, actually. We have a big problem with theft. We have never wanted the place to have a lot of high security and be really intimidating, but it may be something we have to do. And we may do it next year. People love poetry in this community so much that they like to leave the center with it in their backpacks. Every once in a while a book will get stolen and then a month or two later, or a couple of years later they'll show up again as if someone just had to have that book for a while.
Wildcat: A security system would make this place less inviting.
Deming: I know it, I know. I've sort of always wanted to believe that people who like poetry couldn't possibly be taking these books. But then poets tend to be a little naive.
Alison Hawthorne Deming's new book, Science and Other Poems is available for a read at the UA Poetry Center located at 1216 N. Cherry Ave. For information about the book or the center, call 321-7760. Read Next Article