Poet and translator Kaveh Bassiri knows a thing or two about the art of landing in a new place. Born in Tehran, he moved to the U.S. as a teenager. He studied poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. He’s lived and worked in New York, Berlin, San Francisco—in other words, as he put it, “all places you see a lot of good art.” Now he joins the just-announced new cohort of Tulsa Artist Fellows as one of 52 TAF awardees currently based in Tulsa thanks to the two-year, $40,000 fellowship, which also provides stipends for housing and studio space.
Anytime a new Fellow moves in, we get a little excited. Anyone who’s spent more than a few weeks here knows that Tulsa is the furthest thing from a cultural desert, but it’s always a plus to see an infusion of new ideas and practices into the bloodstream of our creative community. These artists bring a wealth of diverse training, experience and insight from across the country and the world (and many, like Phetote Mshairi and Nathan Young, from right here in Oklahoma). TAF’s Open Studio sessions remain shuttered due to COVID, but the Fellowship still aims to share that wealth through initiatives meant to connect TAF artists with the life of the city.
For Bassiri, that starts with listening. “When I go to a new place, I like to learn about it, and that opens up the door of asking questions,” he said. “I'm coming from the idea of wanting to know. I'm not coming here to judge but to understand. I don't believe people should come parachuting in and then give opinions about the place. You go there, you listen, you try to learn from the people what their challenges are, what they are excited about, what they look forward to changing.”
Bassiri’s work centers on poetry, translation and film in the Iranian and Iranian-American experience, and the liminal, often loss-filled space between two languages, cultures or histories. He’s the author of two celebrated books of poetry, a longtime editor, an award-winning translator and a key figure in amplifying Iranian-American literature in this country. For more than a decade he’s been organizing public events that bring different voices together to listen, to question and to celebrate—notably as literary arts director of the Persian Arts Festival, which held regular readings of Iranian-American and Persian poetry and prose at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, and as co-curator of several reading series that brought together emerging and established writers, including the Reading Between A & B and Triptych Readings in New York and Improved Lighting in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he’s working on a Ph.D.
Bassiri had been to Tulsa before, for a Nimrod event, but after he applied for the TAF fellowship he made a trip from Fayetteville to start digging deeper into the city's history and cultural geography. “I like that it feels like a growing arts community,” he observed. “The whole area around downtown is very lively and it looks like there's a lot of opportunity and potential. I love the Philbrook gardens. I loved seeing such a mixture of students from different backgrounds sitting down at the Gathering Place Lodge and working on their homework.” He’s visited Living Arts, toured Gilcrease, and taken in shows at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, and he said he looks forward to learning more about local Indigenous and Black communities and their art. Coming most recently from Northwest Arkansas—another region where the arts economy is booming thanks in part to philanthropic giving—he said the two areas have “an interesting link.” “In that sense, Tulsa and Fayetteville are very similar, with a lot of activities around the arts.”
Still, Bassiri noted, Tulsa’s complex and often troubled history has given it a different set of gifts and challenges. For one thing, Tulsa had an oil boom that radically transformed the city in the early twentieth century. “I'm not really interested in the very complicated political angle of it,” he explained. “I'm interested in the social angle—how the community changed. One of the interesting things about Tulsa is the art deco architecture: all of a sudden, bam, it's the oil boom, and you know exactly when these buildings were created. Oil creates these interesting time gaps and historical fallout.” And there’s a clear link to his own country of origin: “So much of Tulsa was created by its oil history; so much of Iran was created by its oil history.”
Today, there’s a sizable Iranian community in Tulsa with whom Bassiri hopes to connect. He’s already thought up dozens of possible ways to engage with the city’s many voices, and he shared them with the excitement of one who has spent much of his career organizing top-tier opportunities for people to come together around words. To name a few of his ideas: an Iranian film series, a Tulsa edition of the Persian New Year festival, readings connected to new anthologies of Iranian-American literature, perhaps a popular celebration of the White Dove Review (Tulsa’s short-lived but potent contribution to the Beat Generation). Bassiri also hopes to bring some of his Fayetteville colleagues down the road to share their writing here, and take some emerging and established Tulsa writers back that way to do the same.
For local cultural organizations and individuals outside the Fellowship, new arrivals like Bassiri can bring much needed inspiration and support. It’s long been an adage here that if you want to get any attention in Tulsa, the first thing you need to do is move away. It’s time that changed, and with its Arts Integration Awards and other hyperlocal initiatives, TAF has a role to play in shifting the pattern. This summer’s Welcoming Session gave a strong taste of what’s possible. As Mason Whitehorn Powell recently pointed out in an essay for First American Art Magazine, Native TAF artists have been enacting community arts integration practices with notable success. (Think Anita Fields inviting public contributions to her project “In the Absence of Gathering,” or Sterlin Harjo featuring Tick Suck in Love and Fury, his documentary about Indigenous artists, or Yatika Fields bringing Nani Chacon to Tulsa to create a mural on Peoria Ave.) “The list of connections and collaborations goes on as artistic relationships circle back around to support one another,” Powell wrote. “[Chacon’s] Connected Pathways mural represents an idea that is embodied by the spirit of artists centering Indigenous concepts and realities in their Tulsa-based work.”
For Bassiri, the fellowship is an opportunity to work on new writing, complete an anthology of Iranian experimental poets, and give time and focus to new projects about contemporary issues for Iranians and about his recent experience caring for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, in Tehran. But also, he said, “I wanted to be part of the community.” “I love the idea of being in an artistic community and having to collaborate and learn from other artists,” he explained. “A writer’s job as you know is very solitary, so being with a group of artist fellows as well as in a larger art community becomes invaluable. For my projects, I also think a community of artists and writers is more ideal than an academic setting. In my visits, I found Tulsa to have a vibrant arts scene and I admired a number of current and previous fellows. I was excited by the fellowship’s support of various mediums, such as translation, and the range of artists.”
As any translator could tell you, there are countless local voices everywhere that really need to be heard. In the current cultural climate, practicing the art of listening is more urgent than ever. When Karl Jones holds an art exhibit at Josh New’s Kendall Whittier photography studio or a dance party at 473; when Atomic Culture and Nathan Young present shows by Tulsa noise musicians or films with Foxy Digitalis; and when Shane Darwent engineers innovative Greenwood experiences such as “Cycling the GAP” and “Bridging the GAP” with Kolby Webster and Adam Baldwin, they exemplify TAF artists and arts integration fellows walking side by side with local people and local history—perhaps speaking in different creative languages, but connecting all the same. Creativity is all about the polyphony, the listening, the asking, the mashup, the alchemy, the evolution. Who knows what other acts of translation and understanding can happen when the new TAF fellows come to town?
If you go
PLATFORM: a landing space for TAF's current and previous public engagement projects
Follow TAF on Facebook for up-to-date event listings
All Rights Reserved