Poetry man has vision for center

New executive director finds much to like, shares favorite things
2013-08-15T00:00:00Z Poetry man has vision for centerKathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 15, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Tyler Meier has big plans for the University of Arizona Poetry Center:

The new executive director wants to expand the website and make it more interactive and easier to use. He wants to continue digitizing the recordings of readings by poets who have come to the center. He wants to expand the education program for K-12, collaborate with other groups to heighten awareness and love of poetry, and raise $1 million for an endowment fund, a task started by his predecessor, Gail Browne, who retired early this year.

But when we spoke with him late last week, he was still fresh from his move from Ohio and had been on the job for only five days. While he's been planning, he has also been scoping out the center, built in 2007 and the only university-affiliated building dedicated to poetry in the country.

And he's found much to his liking.

He led us on a tour and pointed out some of his favorite things about the center.

We asked him for his top five; he came up with many more, including the center's devoted volunteer staff, which would be at the top of the list, he said. We've boiled them down to six of his favorite things about the center:

1. Vintage posters. During the 1960s and '70s, word about readings by poets was spread by posters designed by UA art students. About a dozen of the center's collection of close to 50 posters are framed and line the west wall of the center, on the way to the elevator. They give a hint of the breadth of the center's history - there are posters for poets such as Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov and Philip Levine. Some of the posters celebrate the Pop style of the era (the poster for Levertov's 1967 reading is pink and green and features the typeface that defined many works in those days); some are slightly obscure (Snyder's poster includes the red sun of the Japanese flag; you are likely to understand that only if you knew the California-based poet spent several years in Japan); and some are just plain hard to read (the poster for Kinnell's 1970 reading almost requires a guidebook to decipher his name, which seems to be carved out of elongated piano keys).

"This whole collection is a remarkable one," Meier said as he pointed out details in several of them. "I love walking past these."

You can find the whole collection online at azmemory.azlibrary.gov/cdm/search/collection/posters - but seeing them in person is the real thrill.

2. New books. The center acquires about 1,000 books a year for its collection, now numbering more than 70,000. The latest to come in warrants their own space on a shelf in the stacks.

The presence of books on that designated shelf is like a promise to visitors that there will always be something new and surprising at the center, Meier said.

"This changes all the time," Meier said about the books on the shelf.

"It makes me happy."

3. The mural in the Children's Corner. Artist Sid Henderson is close to finishing the wall mural in this section at the south end of the center's main room. The desert scene features a few fantastical figures, flowering plants and, at its center, a huge mesquite tree with deep, deep roots. It is around those roots that Henderson has used chalkboard paint, where children can write their own poems.

Meier, who has a 4-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter, is proud of this small space for the younger set. "It's a place where they will feel welcomed," he said.

4. Bamboo garden and memory fountain. A door on the east side of the building opens to a narrow garden that runs most of the length of the building. The outside wall has a binary code cut out of it - a nod to the building as a library. Translated, that code says, "If I stay here long enough, I will learn the art of silence." It is a line from "Desert," a poem by Richard Shelton, a poet and retired UA creative-writing professor. The west side of the garden is anchored by the center's glass and wood wall. From the garden you see why it's been dubbed "the turning wall" - it curves and flares. "It reminds me very much of the ribs of a boat," said Meir, explaining the center is the "schooner sailing across the desert."

At the north end of the garden, the Steve Orlen Memorial Fountain quietly flows. Orlen, a popular poetry professor at the UA, died in 2010. There's a serenity about the garden; a place to speak in whispers, if at all.

"It's meant to be a contemplative spot," Meier said. "Voices happily haunt us here."

5. Rare-book room. Meier especially loves one piece in here, a book-not-in-the-form-of-a-book, "Inside Chance." The Alberto Rios poem is printed on a heavy paper stock and folded into a flexagon. The outside is cubelike and resembles a die; inside, visible through openings in the cube, is the Earth. Designed by artist Linda Smith, the piece allows you to change the order of lines and words in Rios' poem by just folding and refolding the flexagon. It's a hit with kids - it's often brought out for education events - and it's as big a hit with Meier, who leaned over and studied the book as it revealed line after line.

The piece, he said, is the perfect illustration for the center's education program this year. "Our theme is entrances and exits," he said. "How do you enter a poem? How do you leave an experience?"

You can see - and even unfold - the book. Just ask a librarian.

6. Poet's cottage. When the Poetry Center was in an old converted house on North Cherry Avenue, the home next to it served as the poets' residence when they came for readings.

That concept has been carried over, and just a few steps across the walk from the center's main building, behind a locked gate, is the Poet's Cottage. It features a tiny garden with a writing table, a small kitchen, stained glass brought from the original house, a living room with shelves of books and a bedroom with another writing desk. A bright red bicycle sits just inside the door, waiting for a poet to hop on and explore the campus.

As Meier winds up the tour of the cottage, he spies a book on the coffee table. It's a guest book signed by the poets who stay there. They write notes, pen poems and draw pictures.

Many poets, like doctors, have indiscernible handwriting. As Meier leafs through it, often running his finger over a signature, he struggles to read the messages left behind.

Finally, he gives up. He can decode those messages when he has more leisure time. They will, most likely, become another of his favorite things.

If you go

• What: The University of Arizona Poetry Center

• Where: 1508 E. Helen St.

• Summer hours, through Aug. 31: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.

• Info: 626-3765 or arizona.edu

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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