When I first came to Tulsa 53 years ago, I had little thought about poetry. In my arms was a ten-day old baby, on my arm, a struggling young lawyer. But poetry is subversive, it creeps in when you’re not looking, it asks to be spoken, it demands to be written. It survives with or without an audience. But for those of you who have never been to a poetry reading, have never snuggled in with a book of poems, or always confess, “I just don’t get poetry!”—we lament your loss. And ours. For without doubt, poets want to be heard and read, and thrive in a receptive, even critical atmosphere. We want to hear what works, and what doesn’t. We find that out from our audience—their energy, response, even anger or tears.
Though all poetry is subversive, obviously not all poetry is political. Most is personal, lyrical. But we do know that for the last 100 years or more, we have been treated to poetry free in subject matter and manner.
Since 1956, Nimrod has led the charge in Tulsa to discover the best writing available. “Best” meaning, we know it when we see it: It is vigorous, lacking in sentimentality, exacting in language. And, as far as content goes, poetry that has to be written. Not merely an exercise, but a demand. Words shaped into a language, enforced by rhythm. Words that are often insubordinate, that swell from a deep well of desire, or a need to set down the essential—and pass it on.
Enough of theory! Tulsa—the boomtown, the Oil Capital of the World, the home of a few gangsters, and many industrialists—has always had its poets. Some like Ted Berrigan, who published at the University of Tulsa, and Ron Padgett, who started Central High School’s White Dove Review, moved to New York and became part of the second-generation New York School of Poets.
Others came to Tulsa, stayed in Tulsa, wrote from Tulsa, and developed a poetry scene. And not alone. For poets—though they will write regardless of an audience— welcome a bit of support now and then: a place to publish, a place to read their works aloud to an audience that will hear them. Writing of any kind is a solitary endeavor, but as well as solitude and a room of one’s own, the company of others, the collaboration of other struggling writers and teachers, readers and listeners sparks creativity. One learns from a responsive audience. It isn’t the applause that is craved; it’s the understanding, the kinship. And the audience, what does it gain?
Insights, catharsis, delight in a new twist to language that has gone dead—and perhaps a nudge into the creative sphere they have inhabited, if only momentarily.
Several organizations and individuals have helped the poetry scene in Tulsa, for audiences as well as poets. Nimrod began its mission of discovery of new writers in 1956 and continues to this day. In the 1970s, Winston Weathers, TU professor and poet, started the “Tyger’s Eye” to promote poetry throughout the city by giving readings of established poets in churches and small theaters.
Virginia Myers, who helped found Living Arts of Tulsa, was a primary force in giving local poets a stage for their work. In the ’80s, she organized a series of Sunday poetry readings at Harwelden, home of the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa. The Open Door on 15th Street, one of the first coffeehouses in Tulsa, hosted poetry readings and live music.
In 2008, Manly Johnson established “Poet’s House” at the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa, 2210 S. Main St. There, in a comfortable library, one may browse through the collection, read or borrow a book, or sit and write, surrounded by the living words of a thousand poets.
For a while, the Central Library had a poetry event during National Poetry Month in April. Nimrod also had readings during National Poetry Month in bookstores around Tulsa, particularly at the Borders on 21st Street. The largest of the readings at bookstores was part of the national “Favorite Poem Project” created by then Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.
Other Poets Laureate of the U.S. and Oklahoma have visited Tulsa, given readings, gabbed about the poet’s craft and place in society, and energized and inspired local writers and readers. Under the auspices of the Center for Poets and Writers at OSU-Tulsa, we experienced the talents of Poets Laureate Rita Dove, Billy Collins, and Robert Pinsky. Ted Kooser, former insurance executive from Nebraska, came to Tulsa for the Nimrod conference one month after he was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate.
However, equally, if not more important to the developing poetry scene was the influx of new poets of excellence from all over the country who were winners of the Nimrod awards or came to the annual conference as master teachers. Discovery is Nimrod’s mission, and they take it seriously.
Discovering and encouraging budding writers has also been the mission of Living Arts. Now in their new location next to the ONEOK Field, and with their energetic director Steve Liggett pushing the envelope, Living Arts is still a center for Tulsa poets to display their work, as they did in Virginia Myers’ day. On September 16, the Tulsa poet and performer Deborah Hunter once again curated “Earth Rhythms” an extravaganza of poetry, music, and dance.
On April 30, 234 people took part in Tulsa’s first “Poetry Walk” at the Oklahoma Centennial Botanical Gardens. Despite the ticks, it was a huge success. Not only did participants get to walk through four “ecological zones” (Persimmon Grove, Prairie, etc.), listen to poetry read aloud, and hear live music streaming through the woods, but they were also invited to write, if the spirit dictated, during their journey, and to hang a poem on the haiku tree. Next year, the Botanical Gardens and Nimrod are planning a separate walk for children, with poetry activities geared to the young in heart.
And why a poetry walk? As Stanley Kunitz, former Poet Laureate, admonished: “Poets are such a sedentary lot. We need to get outside, engage the physical, get the blood moving, which, in turn, stimulates the brain.” It is important to involve the body in the creation of poetry—walking, dancing, engaging the kinetic sense. What we often take for granted is our greatest ally— breathing and walking.
Moreover, it’s fun to remember that traditional poetry is marked off in “feet” (iambic, etc.) and that poetry was originally danced as well as spoken. Even the most complex—or should I say, intellectual—poems rely on rhythm (as well as sound, word choice, and so forth) to stream the content into the blood and mind of the listener/ reader — to make it memorable.
But as much as we need the body to propel the mind and the poem, and as much as poetry in performance is energizing to the listener and the author, poetry on the page is as necessary as ever. On the page, we are able to read and reread and reread. We read the poem with our eyes and ears and heartbeat and breath—and mind. We feel its rhythm and sound patterns. We discover nuances we never noticed on first reading or hearing, we claim the poem as our own and it lives on the page and in our memory and in our bodies. So it goes. The page, the performance, and poetry, all necessary to life, to the complex and simple pleasures of life, to joy and sadness and informed, critical thinking. Tulsa is doing its part to reaffirm those values through poetry on the page and in performance. Obviously, if the run-down in this article is new to you, we need to do more.