In one week, Robert Hass will leave his students, his family and a crop of fledgling tomatoes for a speaking engagement in Boise. Hass is a former poet laureate of the United States, a MacArthur "genius" fellow, two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, a featured writer in the Yale Series of Younger Poets and a professor of English at UC Berkeley. If that doesn't establish his caliber, consider that Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), is flying in exclusively to introduce Hass to his far-flung public.
The occasion is part of the NASAA (National Assembly of State Arts Agencies) 2005 conference-held this year in Boise for the first time. Every year NASAA invites arts organizations around the country to discuss funding, education and the reasons to keep fighting for funding and education. This year, the six-day event is called "Shaping Cultural Landscapes," and the focus is accordingly built around physical and figurative environments in which art, culture, society and economy converge.
Convergence is a concept familiar to Hass, who splits his passion between writing, teaching, environmentalism and amateur bird watching in accidental Korean wetlands (he insists the demilitarized zone has become the great nature preserve of Asia). It is a wonder one man could cram so much into one life and still have time to grow tomatoes (however green and undersized), but Hass seems to dwell in the rhythm of his writing-uninterrupted, like falling into air.
During his tenure as U.S. poet laureate (1995-1997), Hass redefined the role. The only responsibilities attached up to then were arranging a few readings and introducing one literary series at the Library of Congress. The pay was appropriately "part-time," but Hass found a way to commute weekly from UC Berkeley to Washington, D.C., where he began researching what he views as an unalienable right-literacy.
"When people get up and say the Pledge of Allegiance, I always quote from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address-equality before the law and equality of opportunity-that means everybody gets to learn to read," he said. Unfortunately, good teachers work in bad systems and funding is scarce, but Hass will not give in to the dismal picture.
"A lot of people are willing to work on their communities; you just have to remind them that it needs to be done," he said. "I have plenty of faith in human beings, but Americans haven't been willing to fund public education. It's not very complicated."
Convincing citizens is one thing, but convincing the elected officials who control the money is key to promoting and preserving the arts. This issue will top the bill during NASAA 2005, the goals being greater support for artists and institutions and fostering audiences that will give back.
"The central focus is professional development for those who have leadership roles in advocacy and carrying out public funding for the arts. NASAA gathers these folks and strengthens their skill sets while refreshing their efforts," said Dan Harpole, executive director of Idaho Commission on the Arts.
Harpole has been a member of the NASAA board for five years and threw Idaho's name in the hat in 2003 for selection for the 2005 conference. Idaho won the draw more than a year before several state art entities, including Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Log Cabin Literary Center, received honors from organizations like the NEA. "It demonstrated the growing national recognition of Idaho arts associations," Harpole said, adding that NASAA 2005 "is undoubtedly the most significant and largest conference on the arts in the state's history."
Nearly 400 guests have registered, so far representing 44 states. In addition to seeing Hass, they can look forward to documentaries by Hal Cannon, readings by his fellow cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, a lecture by Mark Moore of the Kennedy School of Government, tours of local museums and galleries, workshops on everything from story-telling to management and a huge celebration of the 40-year anniversary of the NEA. The series promises to be a shot in the arm to beleaguered advocates and something of a lighthearted boot camp for those just joining the fight.
One of the veterans, Hass still makes personal contributions through higher education and programs he spearheaded during his Laureate days. One is Watershed, a gathering of writers and environmentalists who expose inner-city kids to nature writing. Another is River of Words, described as "an international poetry and art contest for children in kindergarten through twelvth grade that invites students to explore their own watershed, discover its importance in their lives, and express what they've learned, felt and observed in words and images."
"The point of environmental education and nature writing is to teach kids how to learn their neighborhoods, the trees and architecture, to get a sense of the world as a made place," Hass said. "But you can't become a steward of something you don't love, and you can't love something you don't know."
This essential "knowing" is what drives Hass to supplement the dwindling or nonexistent art programs in America's public schools. He is convinced of the power art has to change lives and landscapes and to remedy the damage done by "violent films and six-dollar boxes of popcorn."
"American arts are in some way very powerful and in other ways terrifically impoverished by the limits of popular, commercial culture," he said, hoping NASAA and his part in it will serve to re-inspire and steel educators, administrators and artists for the ongoing struggle. "My role is to be the artist," he said, "to read some of my own work and the work of others to remind them and myself what we're trying to do."
"Shaping Cultural Landscapes," September 8-11, www.nasaa-arts.org. Grove Hotel, 245 S Capitol Blvd, Boise, 333-8000.
Robert Hass's reading, with an introduction by Dana Gioia, September 9, 4:30-5:15 p.m., FREE, Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St.