This machine writes poetry
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
“Good people, what are we waiting on?”
The refrain of Woody Guthrie’s folk battle cry, “What Are We Waiting On,” is at the heart of the all-original work written by the Woody Guthrie Poetry Group, or the Woody Poets, now in its 13th year. The group has done readings since 2005 in conjunction with Okemah’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which starts July 11.
Oklahoma poet and editor Dorothy Alexander, a founding member of the Woody Poets and a coordinator and anthology editor for the group, elaborated on how the theme resonates with her.
“When are we going to change things? [Woody was] about change. Let’s move on. Let’s get beyond ourselves, let’s get beyond whatever muck we’re in at this point,” Alexander said. “Sometimes people have to be jogged, and I think art is perhaps as much as anything, maybe as much as politics, spurs people to change. It’s a way of expressing a need for change, and Woody was all about that.”
The WoodyFest poetry readings started when George Wallace, noted poet and former writer-in-residence of the Walt Whitman Birthplace, attended the festival in 2004 at the behest of his friend, songwriter David Amram. Wallace questioned the festival’s lack of a poetry contingent, given Guthrie’s history as a poet. He contacted 1995 Oklahoma Poet Laureate Carol Hamilton, who was then joined by Jim Spurr, Nathan Brown and Alexander as the first group of presenting poets. Wallace also approached the festival committee to secure a spot on the 2005 WoodyFest program for the poets, a feature that’s continued every year since.
Alexander, who grew up in Roger Mills County during the Dust Bowl, is an apt choice to help carry on Guthrie’s poetic legacy. During her childhood in the Dust Bowl years, she and her family attended country dances, social gatherings organized by the community for families with little to no money. Guthrie, who at the time lived in nearby Pampa, Texas, often performed music for these dances. She recalls her mother later hearing Guthrie on the radio in the early 1940s, when Guthrie had moved on to California, and asking her father, “Isn’t Woody Guthrie that boy who used to come and play for the dances?”
While Guthrie’s been in Alexander’s orbit for nearly her entire life, she credits his recent resurgence as an Oklahoma icon to the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2011 purchase and eventual relocation of Guthrie’s archives to Tulsa from New York.
“The tremendous price paid for them gives him legitimacy, if that’s the right word,” Alexander said, though she notes his legacy has been celebrated outside of Oklahoma for some time, even inspiring the work of Bob Dylan. “He has been so admired in many places. Oklahoma can be a little slow to recognize their own.”
At home and abroad, admiration for Guthrie’s work has certainly surged in recent years.
“He was the voice of our conscience. He was a socialist, and he always, always allied himself with working class,” Alexander said. “He had his little sticker attached to his guitar that said, ‘This machine kills fascists.’ He’s always been the voice of the working man, the working poor.”
Through his writing, Guthrie still manages to project that voice, and the growing interest in the poetry at WoodyFest is just more and more people chiming in to his chorus.
“Poetry has always been a way of protest and resistance,” Alexander said. “Last year, we had the largest crowds we’ve ever had in all of our readings. I think that’s why we saw so many people from so far away and all through all strata of society submitting poems last year, wanting to have a voice, for someone to hear their voice. That’s what ‘What Are We Waiting On’ means. … Let’s say it now. Let’s say it over and over, say it louder this time, let’s say it stronger, let’s say it better. And that to me is what art is about, not just poetry.”
It was hard to go, but harder to stay,
to endure the wind, to wake each morning
in drought, swirling in a pool of poverty
like a June bug in a cup of milk.
The ones who went suffered broken hearts.
I’m coming back someday, they wrote,
but most never did,
the old life too small to fit anymore.
They’re still out there in Bakersfield,
Phoenix, Tempe. They shuffle along the streets
in packs, watch for senior discounts
and cars with Oklahoma license plates.
But, they stay as far away as they can
from the drought-bitten prairie
with its dusty winds of longing.
And cling to a more certain life.
Thing is, they can’t forget.
Gone for decades, they still call
Oklahoma “back home.”
When I go to visit, they talk and talk
about how it was, and ask: Is it still that way?
I always lie and say, Well, it hasn’t changed much.
What I don’t say is, It never was the way
you remember it.
— By Dorothy Alexander, born in 1934, who still remembers the Dust Bowl & The Great Depression