Cybele Knowles on Creating Audiences for Poetry

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Posted 2.4.13 by RW Blogger

Cybele Knowles works as a program coordinator at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, where she coordinates the PW-funded Center’s Reading and Lecture Series, Classes & Workshops program, and Closer Look Book Club. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and an MA in English from U.C. Berkeley. Her poetry and prose have appeared in the Destroyer, Spiral Orb, Diagram, Pindeldyboz, the Asian Pacific American Journal, Faucheuse, and the Prose Poem.

Cybele KnowlesI have served as the coordinator of the University of Arizona Poetry Center Reading and Lecture Series for four years. The longer I work with this literary program, the more I admire it and understand its power. This year, the series celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. It has been sustained over the decades by an extensive community of individuals and organizations, including Poets & Writers through the Readings/Workshops program. It is capacious and generous, representing many poetic voices, and (for the most part) free and open to the public. One of the things I particularly admire about the series is that our poetry readings regularly attract audiences in excess of 150 people. In today's post, I want to share a sketch of how the Poetry Center creates an audience for poetry, using the example of a reading by Mary Jo Bang with Joni Wallace on October 6, 2011, which was supported by Poets & Writers.

We (the Poetry Center staff) conceive of our task as creating an audience not just for poetry events, but for Poetry with a capital "P." Therefore we treat each reading not just as an event, but as an occasion to educate local communities about the poetry being presented. To get people reading the poems before the event, and to help keep them engaged afterward, we schedule ancillary programs in conjunction with each reading.

In the case of the reading by Mary Jo, the ancillary events included a visit to a University of Arizona literature class and a “shop talk” about Mary Jo’s work. Shop Talk is the Poetry Center’s poetry discussion group, which is free and open to the public. We also led our Poetry Center docents (a group of fifteen dedicated volunteers at the time; currently, there are many more) through an introduction to Mary Jo’s work. The reading itself, attended by 160 people, was recorded for the Poetry Center’s online audiovisual library, voca. Recordings are tagged with accurate metadata, which enhances their value as an archive. Now available on voca, Mary Jo’s reading can continue to be enjoyed and experienced by many others. And last but not least, about a year after the reading, we scheduled our Closer Look Book Club to read Mary Jo’s translation of The Inferno. Typically our book club reads prose, of course, but we took advantage of a seasonal theme of “Narratives in Translation” to “serve up” poetry to our prose readers. Both the Shop Talk and Book Club were led by poet Joni Wallace, who also read with Mary Jo, and whose first book, Blinking Ephemeral Valentine, was selected by Mary Jo for the 2009 Levis Prize.

We have additional ways of connecting visiting poets to local communities. Other ancillary events we schedule for a visiting poet might include a meeting with middle- and high-school students, or a workshop offered through our community Classes and Workshops program, or a meeting with Poetry Center donors or other specific community- or university-based group.

Through this multi-pronged approach, we introduced Mary Jo to many readers, and I know that through this process she garnered new fans, as did Poetry with a capital “P.” As you can imagine, pulling all this off took a lot of coordination! Even though the Reading Series is only one of the Poetry Center’s many areas of activity, all eight of the Poetry Center staff, and many volunteers, must pitch in to produce the series in the manner described above. In my post next week, you’ll meet some of the hard-working team at the Poetry Center.

Photo: Cybele Knowles. Credit: Allie Leach.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Tucson is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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