Now is a good time to be an Oklahoman writer. We live and work in an Oklahoman Renaissance. In part, developments in higher education, like the addition of undergraduate and graduate writing programs throughout the state and the talent they attract and nurture, explain this sudden confluence of accomplished writers. But there is a deeper reason. Oklahoma is ripe for renaissance after the past century and more of suffering. Sorrows artistically fertilize a place. After the war of Roses and then the religious controversies and two-way martyrdom in England, Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne wrote masterpieces. Out of the renewed struggles of 20th century Ireland, Yeats, Synge, and Heaney shaped poetry and drama. Harlem gave us the songs of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Oklahoma has seen bloodshed and injustice in the conflict between white settlers and native cultures. We’ve seen the struggle of the pioneer in an inhospitable climate, the dustbowl, the Murrah building, tornado after tornado, drought. Oklahomans know hard times. This suffering bears fruit in novels like those of Rilla Askew and in the poems of writers like Jim Barnes. Though the weight of this suffering may be expressed directly in poems and stories about what Oklahoma has been through, it need not be expressed directly to be present. Oklahoma writers offer an abundance of subject matter grounded in suffering, but, whatever the topic, they display a quality developed through suffering and its inheritance, a quality that I can think of only one word for: soulfulness.
The only treatise on aesthetics I have ever found completely convincing is James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Baldwin tells the story of a straight-laced teacher, the narrator of the story, who seems to think he has escaped being defined by suffering, until his reunion with his troubled musician brother, Sonny. At the story’s climax the narrator has an unparaphrasable epiphany while listening to Sonny play piano with his jazz combo:
He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness. . . . He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise.
That “making it his” is an individual process, but it can be a cultural process also: the narrator also speaks of “with what burning we had yet to make it ours.” This artistic/cultural process of building from ash is enlivening the literary arts in Oklahoma, something like what Auden must have meant when he said of Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”
What we offer here is not a total representation of Oklahoma poetry. It is a sampler, a little bit to get you started. Its limits are my own limitations of network and knowledge. I tried to reach out to a diverse group of writers. I’m very glad to have poems ranging from traditional to experimental. Not everyone I wanted to include had something to send (heck, not everybody answered my emails), but everyone I included is someone I wanted in. There are a lot of great poets in Oklahoma not included here, but here you have some of the best writing being done in Oklahoma today. I hope you enjoy it.