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Silicon Alleys: Poetry Festival Highlights Elemental Verse

Forrest Gander is one of the poets headlining SJSU's Legacy of Poetry Festival.

On the campus of San Jose State University, poets and meteorologists will join together to raise awareness about the effects of climate change, via an interdisciplinary festival over several days next week. Each April, SJSU celebrates National Poetry Month and Earth Day Week by hosting the Legacy of Poetry Festival.

This year, faculty scientists will participate in a symposium with poets who regularly explore issues of ecology, sustainability and climate change in their work. The theme of the festival is Water and Fire, after two of the five main elements. Both elements can either sustain life or destroy it.

"We picked those two because the poetry written about them is so urgent," said Alan Soldofsky, one of the festival organizers. "And because California has been besieged by forest fires, droughts, floods, so they seemed like appropriate, urgent topics to address in a wider public context, through the forms that involve poetry."

The two keynote poets at this year's festival are major figures: Forrest Gander and Arthur Sze. Both recently wrote poetry collections nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, both have science and engineering backgrounds, and both address water and fire in their work.

In his early college years, Gander trained as a geologist before earning a master's degree in creative writing. He writes about the effect of human civilization on the warming of the planet and geological effects that would have taken millennia without our assistance—that is, changes that have unfolded only within the last 200 years. Specifically his work investigates how changes in ocean levels and temperatures affect the lives of humans who live in low-lying areas. He also translates French, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese poetry, often working in collaboration, or with youth in other countries to produce poetry that addresses global warming.

Arthur Sze takes a more Taoist approach. A second-generation Chinese-American, Sze started out studying math and engineering and even today sees connections from those subjects to the architectural forms of poetry. His work incorporates everything from botany and thermodynamics to philosophy and Zen. Sze recently retired from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe where he became quite familiar with indigenous cultures and was also that city's first poet laureate. In his new book, Sight Lines, Sze contemplates water as an element of both sustainability and destruction.

"We have two keynote poets who have an interest, and dual focus, in both environmentalism from a science point of view, and also from a literary point of view," Soldofsky said.

The opening reading for Legacy of Poetry Day features SJSU students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the community on Wednesday, Apr 17 at 4:15pm, followed by the keynote poets reading at 7pm, all of which is free and unfolds in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Main Library. Then on the following day, Apr 18, a noontime panel session, "Symposium on Water and Fire: The Poetics of a Warming Planet," features a conversation between the keynote poets and SJSU faculty meteorologists Dr. Craig Clements and Dr. Eugene Cordero, both of whom devote their award-winning work to similar issues. Clements runs SJSU's Fire Weather Research Laboratory, and Cordero is the founder and director of the Green Ninja Project, an educational initiative helping middle school kids discover the relevance of science to their lives.

It doesn't stop there, of course. The festival will also present the Water and Fire Poetry Slam on Apr 19. Hosted by Santa Clara County Poet Laureate Mighty Mike McGee, the slam will feature participants performing poems or spoken word pieces that address global warming via reflections on the elements of water and fire. Anyone can enter the slam, and the top three winners will receive prizes.

"The role of the poet has always been a prophetic one," Soldofsky said, emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of the festival. "And now more than ever, we need poets who are schooled in more than just literature, but a kind of broad view of natural sciences and engineering, to understand what that kind of research is about, to translate it and turn it into something urgent to wake people up."

For info: legacyofpoetry.com