Casa Libre Celebrates a Decade of Literary Arts

February 21, 2014 |
Casa Libre's "storefront" sign on 4th Avenue. photo: Craig Baker

Casa Libre’s “storefront” sign on 4th Avenue.
photo: Craig Baker

It is a Wednesday night and the place is packed, with overflow spilling out into the open-air courtyard. The lack of legroom is no surprise seeing as the venue only seats about 25 shoulder-to-shoulder. And tonight, the first event after their annual month-long recuperation period, Casa Libre en la Solana is showcasing the work of what Assistant Director TC Tolbert calls “three rock stars” of poetry.

Word junkies in every shade from casual hipster to staunch academic mill about, nibbling on free cookies and sipping wine from clear plastic cups. Few are able to overlook the opportunity to speak face-to-face with the talent—the real reason anyone comes to one of these things—their excitement telegraphed by frequent fits of nervous laughter.

There is perhaps no literary locale on earth quite as cozy as Casa Libre, probably because multiple artists at any given moment literally call it home. When founder and current resident Kristen Nelson opened the spot on North Fourth Avenue a decade ago, it was with the two-fold goal of furnishing writers with long-term residency opportunities in Downtown Tucson and providing a place for those writers to share their work. The artist-in-residence program went on uninterrupted for several years but unfortunately, says Nelson, “it became unsustainable” soon after the 2008 economic downturn.

By opening the vacant units in the space to lease by artists, Nelson was able to salvage Casa Libre as a venue and still offer weekend residencies to traveling writers. “So it’s very much still the same atmosphere, but there has been a slight shift in focus,” she says, adding that it was “very hard” for her to suspend the residency program in any capacity.

Casa Libre has thrived as a venue and quasi-communal artist living space for the past few years by continuing to offer programs like the emerging writers’ series “Edge,” the Native-focused “Stjukshon,” the multi-genre collaborative series “Trickhouse,” and regular classes taught by local writers.  There is hope, though, of restoring the residency program to its full glory. “We just wrote a three-year strategic plan (to bring the residency program back),” says Nelson. And that’s something to celebrate.

To that end, the Libre-rators (too far?) are holding their Tenth Anniversary Gala—what Nelson is calling a “friendraiser”—this month, Saturday, Feb. 22, at the YWCA just west of downtown. Nelson says she wants to “honor all of the people that have given their time and love and energy to Casa Libre,” and what better way to do that than by throwing a big-ass party? She says without contributions by people like former board president and current Tucson Poet Laureate Rebecca Seiferle, new president Elizabeth Frankie Rollins, Assistant Director TC Tolbert, and the audience members that keep the readings attended, Casa could not have survived as long as it has.

Casa Libre Founder and Executive Director Kristen Nelson poses with the books donated to the organization by writers who have stayed or read there. photo: Craig Baker

Casa Libre Founder and Executive Director Kristen Nelson poses with the books donated to the organization by writers who have stayed or read there.
photo: Craig Baker

“So the primary purpose (of the gala),” says Nelson, “is to celebrate all of those people.” According to Nelson, their tenure on Fourth Avenue has also been a key to Casa’s survival, so part of the ceremony is meant to celebrate the district itself. Local merchants, for example, have been invited to contribute hors d’oeuvres and centerpieces that reflect their specific flavor.

For the sliding-scale entry fee, gala-goers can expect to enjoy spoken word performances by local writers like Logan Phillips and Teré Fowler-Chapman as well as food, live music, dancing, and even a screening of local filmmaker Bob Byers’ short documentary about Casa Libre (still in production as of press time). A cash bar will also be in service.

If you are a writer, a reader, a poet, an artist, or just someone searching for a stimulating new scene, Casa Libre has got something to pique your interest. And though Nelson is not talking about physical proximity when she says she “hope(s) to have very little space between audience and performer” at Casa events, the level of closeness between literature buffs at one of their readings gives new meaning to the term “intimate.” And yet, that intimacy is the reason that Casa Libre might be the best place in town to “rub elbows” with the literary elite.

Here’s to another decade of pondering and mingling.

Casa Libre’s tenth anniversary gala is Saturday, Feb. 22 from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. More information, including tickets, is available at or by calling 325-9145. The YWCA is located at 525 Bonita Ave. Casa Libre is located at 228 N. 4th Ave.

Category: Arts, Business, Community, DOWNTOWN / UNIVERSITY / 4TH AVE, Entertainment, Events