Kitty and I had a great time at the Oklahoma Celebration of Books in Tulsa last Friday and Saturday. We promoted the Oklahoma Center for the Book; talked with authors, readers and aspiring writers; and caught up with some of our librarian colleagues. Like Kitty, I was quite taken with the presentation by authors Sue Monk Kidd and Michael Cunningham.
I’m going to share another highlight of the event for me: the panel on Oklahoma Landscapes which was moderated by William Hagen. Panelists were writers Jim Barnes, Rilla Askew and Hannibal Johnson. The session focused on the importance of “place” in literature; or as Oklahoma Poet Laureate Barnes noted, a story without place is lacking soul. Every Okie knows that we, outselves—indeed, all Americans— have a problem determing if Oklahoma is southern, midwestern, southwestern, or part of the great west. (Just look at the comments on Steve Lackmeyer’s post on his OKC Central blog).
Certainly the diversity of the state’s landscape plays a role in this. Angie Debo noted that taking the shape of our state and placing it anywhere else on a map of the U.S. would not result in a greater diversity of terrain. Debo’s observations, it turns out, were right on: the EPA says Oklahoma is one of only four states with more than 10 Eco-Regions, and that it has the most Eco-Regions by mile than any other state.
Although the panel discussed Oklahoma’s diverse terrain and its influence on the feeling of place, a main theme of the session was on Oklahoma’s unique “place” in American history and culture. It is the place, Johnson said, where three races—European American, Native American, and African American—came together under extraordinary circumstances. All came to this land, Johnson said, for different reasons, but all came because of a great promise; and it was the breaching of this promise for two of the races that frame a unique narrative of Oklahoma history. This theme is echoed in Askew’s short stories and novels as well.
During the course of the panel, Askew’s essay Most American came up. This essay has been published in both Nimrod and in the book Voices from the Heartland, a collection of writings by Oklahoma women. The essay is an eloquent and provocative piece of writing that speaks to the soul and heart of our state and its people. It’s as good an answer to who, what and where we are as anything ever written about our strangely wonderful home.
Most American by Rilla Askew on Google Books.
“As Oklahoma’s Poet Laureate, Jim Barnes has the task of broadening understanding and appreciation of poetry,” Henry said. “His work is a testament to the strong cultural fabric of Oklahoma and an inspiration for others to follow.”
Jim Barnes’ remarks upon learning of this esteemed appointment, “I am indeed honored and delighted to accept the Poet Laureateship of Oklahoma. I am honored to serve my home state in the cause of literacy and literature, and I am delighted to think, with the appointment as Poet Laureate, that perhaps all my years of living in the realm of poetry have not been outside the boundaries of understanding. No art is more important to me than poetry, for poetry makes everything happen.”
Go to this site for a nice soundbite from the author before his recent acclaim.
The Oklahoma Humanities Council facilitates the poet laureate selection committee, which reviews statewide nominations on behalf of the governor, and coordinates the activities and appearances of the poet laureate throughout his/her term.
For Poetry, Picture and a Biography of Jim Barnes, go to http://www.thehypertexts.com/Jim%20Barnes%20Poetry%20Picture%20and%20Bio.htm.
His newest collection, is Visiting Picasso. His other works include the non-fiction prose book, On Native Ground: Memoirs and Impressions, which won the American Book Award in 1998. He has also authored several volumes of poetry, including The Sawdust War: Poems ; Paris: Poems; and On a Wing of the Sun: Three Volumes of Poetry.
So I’ll end with one of his poems, from On a Wing of the Sun,
Contemporary Native American Poetry
‘For one thing, you can believe it:
the skin chewed soft enought to wear,
the bones hewn hard as a totem
from hemlock. It’s a kind of scare-
crow that will follow you home nights.
You’ve seen it ragged against a field,
but you seldom think, at the time,
to get there it had to walk through hell.’