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Photo: Valerie Grant

The Poetry of Tulsa: The Scene for Readers and Writers

BY Kathryn Parkman

Tulsans have been crafting words to express their individual and collective identities since the first people settled here in the 1830s. These poetic stories quilt a beautiful tapestry of our city’s history. Tulsa was first settled by Muscogee (Creek) tribes who brought with them oral traditions and songs on the Trail of Tears. The Muscogee tribes weaved tales to depict their origin, mourn the removal from their land and express the impact of statehood on their way of life. Read a few of these pieces.

More than a century later, another poetry scene developed out of Central High School when Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Dick Gallup and Joe Brainard published White Dove Review, a celebration of avant-garde poetry. The literary journal was central in connecting Tulsa to the poetic Beat Movement of the 20th century. The young men favored experimentation and sought to “present literature and art in a constructive light.” The group of young men, therefore, selected works by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, among others, for White Dove Review. They rejected the gaudy ideals of society: “Culture, along with some short-lived memories, is all a civilisation leaves behind it.”

According to an article in This Land magazine, the quartet published five issues between 1959 and 1960 with a typewriter borrowed from their friend, George Kaiser, a University of Tulsa student (and future billionaire philanthropist). Today, the White Dove archives are housed under lock and key in the Special Collections department of McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa.

Poets to Know 

A guide to Tulsa’s poetry scene would be incomplete without a trip to Central Library at 5th and Denver. Consider it your portal to Tulsa’s great literary works. Here are a few names to get you started: 

Ron Padgett is based in New York City now but boomerangs back for hometown readings every couple of years. He still writes brilliant poetry and most recently received the 2018 Frost Medal, presented annually by the Poetry Society of America for a distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry. His poem "How to Be Perfect” juxtaposes the want for formulaic perfection with the reality that societies standards for perfection are unrealistic. Perfection looks different person-to-person. He jumps from resting, to using a specific type of toothpaste, to not practicing cannibalism as ways to achieve perfection. This poem has been used as an outline for many workshops in Tulsa and around the United States.

Ted Berrigan became influential in New York City’s poetry scene. After graduating from the University of Tulsa with his bachelors and masters degree, he co-founded C Magazine in 1963 and wrote several books of poetry. He is famously known for giving his masters diploma back to the university with a note saying that he was “the master of no art.” He ultimately believed that poetry was more than learning lessons and following rules.  The Sonnets and The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan still circulate through the Tulsa City-County Library system.

Joe Brainard spent his childhood in Tulsa. His most popular work, “I Remember,” shows glimpses into the joys and hardships that come with adolescence and growing up. He paints pictures of anecdotes from his life in a way that is relatable. If you read closely, you’ll catch a few Tulsa references.  

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa in 1951. The legendary poet, musician, activist, playwright and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is adorned in honors and awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award. Some of her more famous poems include Eagle Poem and Perhaps The World Ends Here.

Most recently, Harjo published Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, a collection of poetry that explores collective consciousness influences by her ancestry and personal experiences. You can read it here. She believes that her writing comes from the sources that shape who she is, “all past and future ancestors, my home country, all places that I touch down on and that are myself, all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, [and] all earth.”

Yevgeni Yevtushenko, the famous Soviet poet who died last year in Tulsa at the age of 84, is perhaps best known for his poem “Babi Yar,” which memorializes the murder of thousands of Jews during World War II in Kiev, Ukraine. According to the The New York Times, “Mr. Yevtushenko’s poems of protest…captured the tangled emotions of Russia’s young—hope, fear, anger and euphoric anticipation—as the country struggled to free itself from repression… after Joseph Stalin’s death.” Dissident political activism was a dangerous trade in Soviet Russia. Yevtushenko was nearly barred from travel after protesting the trial of writers accused of producing anti-Soviet propaganda. Once in the United States, he taught at several prestigious universities, including the University of Tulsa. 

In 1995, Yevtushenko told an interviewer that he liked living and teaching in Tulsa more than New York City. “[My students] are different people, but they are very gifted. They are closer to Mother Nature than the big city."

Sometimes Tulsa appears as a character in poetry, even by poets from elsewhere, like this untitled prose poem by Karl Shapiro, who was born in Baltimore, educated in Virginia and died in New York City. Shapiro experimented with looser forms in his 1965 collection The Bourgeois Poet

From the top floor of the Tulsa hotel I gaze at the night beauty of the cracking-plant. Candlelit city of small gas flames by the thousands, what a lovely anachronism dancing below like an adolescent’s dream of the 1880s… Those oil men in the silent elevator, like princes with their voices of natural volume, their soft hats and their name-drops…

Groups to Follow 

Grant Jenkins teaches poetry at the University of Tulsa and organizes the semi-regular Poetry Symposium, which features readings and workshops, and a free lunch. “Tulsa is becoming a more active community than ever before,” Jenkins said. “Any kind of experience you can get in New York, you can get here.”

TU is also home of the international literary journal Nimrod. In 1956, founding editor James Land Jones wrote in Nimrod’s inaugural issue that the magazine was created as "an organ of expression for the literary ability that is in this area.” The journal publishes writing of distinction, both experimental and traditional, from around the world. Nimrod publishes their journal twice annually (available by subscription), curates poetry for The Tulsa Voice and hosts an annual conference for readers and writers.

Poetic Justice is a nonprofit group that teaches poetry workshops to women incarcerated at the Tulsa County Jail. Emphasizing voice, hope and the power to change, these workshops have helped women feel freer to express themselves. In and outside of jail, participants have turned their lives around, reunited with family, and stayed clean of drugs and substances. You can support the group's efforts by purchasing their poetry anthologies and other merchandise from their website.

Mused is an organization dedicated to bringing poetry into Tulsans’ everyday lives. It seeks to create a community of “better readers,” readers who are thoughtful in their thoughts and actions, and promote ideas of social responsibility. Starting this year, Mused will collaborate with Tulsa Artist Fellowship poets for monthly workshops. 

The Chicago-based program Louder Than a Bomb engages schools and community organizations in workshops, poetry clubs, youth-led open mics, showcases, panel discussions and an annual teen poetry competition. The Oklahoma chapter teaches young people the rich tradition of oral storytelling and the spoken word through creative writing, publishing and performance education. Learn more.

Places To Go

Living Arts, 307 E. Brady St., hosts several poetry events throughout the year. Keep an eye on current and upcoming exhibits or follow the gallery on social media.

Bound for Glory, 4264 E. 11th St., carries many great poetry books and zines. Check out “SisterSpeak,” a feminist zine collective created by poets and artists from Tulsa and beyond. Subjects range from motherhood to coping with trauma and self-harm. 

Poetry lovers in Tulsa should also consider the Rural Oklahoma Museum of Poetry for daytrips. Open from dawn to dusk in Locust Grove, an hour east of Tulsa, ROMP’s mission is “to bring poetry and people together, to encourage wordplay and literacy, and to provide a space where everyone can have an experience of poetry.” Admission is always free and open to the public. 

This Land Store,1208 S. Peoria Ave., carries books by all the most important and influential Tulsa poets, plus stationery and other goodies for literary types. 

Magic City Books, a Tulsa Literary Coalition project, sells a curated selection of local books and hosts visiting authors and poets on a semiregular basis. Run by Tulsa’s favorite literary hypeman, Jeff Martin, local bookworms have many readings and events to look forward to from this new bookshop located in the Tulsa Arts District. 

Your Turn 

Head to MixCo, 3rd and Denver, where Cypher 120 hosts an open mic/open jam every Thursday night. On Monday nights at Yeti, 417 N. Main St., the space turns into a creative souls’ haven right around 9:30 p.m. A few blocks over at Gypsy Coffee House, 303 M.L.K. Jr Blvd., the set usually consists of a slightly younger crowd. Sign-ups are at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7.

Contributing: Bea Baker