woody guthrie poets

This machine writes poetry
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK

by Alan Gann

“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.”


DUST BOWL MIGRANTS

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

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enter through the drink shop: a banksy art show

Banksy street art finds a home in Oklahoma City
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC

Rarely does this much come from a game of H-O-R-S-E.

In fall 2012, Oklahoma City’s James Nghiem, a comedian, musician, and writer, planned an art show loosely based on the elementary basketball game. Each artist’s piece had to have a title that corresponded to one of the letters in the game. Nghiem said a visual artist friend of his had lamented a lull in her productivity, and he planned the art show partly as encouragement to spur her to create a piece for it.

Oklahoma City artist Mike Allen, then a casual acquaintance of Nghiem’s, submitted art for that show, and the two struck up a friendship. Shortly afterward, Nghiem relocated to Los Angeles for a while, and upon his return, he, along with Allen, found new inspiration in their shared interests and specifically in a type of gathering of pop culture aficionados he experienced in Los Angeles that he couldn’t find here.

“These shows totally started because I was depressed that California had something that Oklahoma didn’t,” Nghiem said, recalling a “Ninja Turtles” art show he saw while he was living in Los Angeles. “I have a lot of talented friends who don’t get a lot of opportunities to express themselves. I just want to see cool things happen and be involved in them in an invisible way.”

“James and I have long, winding conversations when we hang out, which sometimes lead to an idea,” Allen said. “We try to steer away from subjects that are too popular or too niche, but really nothing is off the table. I’m still shocked that so many people are into ‘Cowboy Bebop’ in this city.”

On Saturday, this creative conglomerate opens “Enter Through the Drink Shop,” a curated gallery show featuring the work of several area artists tasked to create pieces inspired by mysterious London street artist Banksy.

Allen, a longtime visual artist, said his submitted pieces for the Speakeasy shows have been different from his other work. “I have made a conscious effort to shed my normal style for these in order to fit the theme,” Allen said. “I’ve found that what I trade away in freedom of subject matter, I get back in freedom from expectation.”

Nghiem agrees about what the Banksy theme offers artists that other shows may not have: “Freedom. I think this theme is a lot more open-ended. I want people to say what they want in their pieces.”

The shows also push the boundaries of what visitors may expect from an ordinary art gallery: themed food menus, performance artists in character and live music are on tap for the Banksy show. The aim is more to create an environment based around the theme than to just have sterile art viewings, though the art itself is garnering attention as well.

“Someone from Allied Arts told me we have amazing pieces and is interested in a lot of our artists. That felt validating,” Nghiem said. “Also, the Speakeasy rearranged their space to have more of a gallery vibe upstairs for us. I’ve been doing comedy there for seven years, and I never thought they would do something like this for a project, especially something that isn’t my specialty.”

Nghiem may consider himself a comedian first, but his social experiments are sparking a considerable amount of creative interaction from those around him, visually and socially. “I like to use pop culture to try and get people to experience other culture. It’s a good way to put bands and artists in good situations and get people talking to one another,” Nghiem said. “It’s not really anybody’s job to facilitate this, but it’s better than living in a state where no one talks.”

From the artists’ side, Allen said, “A theme ‘levels the playing field,’ because it’s likely that most artists who submit, whether established or not, are trying something new.”

For people interested in participating in upcoming shows, Nghiem and Allen want everyone to know the door is open — and dedication and interest can trump perceived skill level.

“If I could just get people who live here to believe in themselves as much as I believe in them, we can really make something,” Nghiem said.

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derrick brown

Subtlety, subtext and surprises: Poet Derrick Brown talks about odd jobs, unusual venues and assorted weirdness
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK.com

Poet Derrick Brown is a writer and storyteller and president of Write Bloody Publishing, a celebrated independent press that has printed more than 100 titles, including his latest collection, “Our Poison Horse.” His resume also includes stints as a paratrooper, Venetian gondolier and contestant on “The Dating Game.” He currently is touring with actress and poet Amber Tamblyn (“Joan of Arcadia”) and will perform at District House Saturday.

Q: Where are you from and where do you live now?
A:
I am from Long Beach, California, and I live in Elgin, Texas. I’ve been in Texas for the last four years.

Q: What is the first poem you remember reading? And when did you write your first poem?
A:
All my firsts were ugly experiences. My first poems I found were confusing, and for years I thought poetry was only for the elite citizens and was lost on my working-class fuzz.

Q: When was the first time that the idea of poetry as a career manifested itself?
A:
When you are an artist, you do whatever you can to hit your bill due dates, have a few beers and squeeze in time to create. I never thought I could do it full-time and am pretty sure the rug could be pulled out at any minute. So, never.

Q: I’ve seen so many things that discuss all the jobs and kind of odd experiences you’ve had (paratrooper, gondolier, weatherman, “Dating Game”). What’s the single weirdest thing that you’ve ever done or that’s ever happened to you?
A:
A few things. One, someone asked if they could come back to my hotel room and bring a friend. Hubba hubba? No. The friend was a 6-month-old baby. A fan said they would make love to me post-reading if I would give my heart to the Lord — the lord of all Mormons. The comedian David Cross once told me, to my surprise, to let his dog out for a walk twice a day and leave the light on. I forgot to leave the light on, and the dog tore up the laundry room. I now know the exact size of the actor Ben Foster’s butt cheeks, (learned) during a tequila fight in Los Angeles. Let’s just say, if you can palm a basketball, you’re there. I shot a bottle rocket into the face and arm of Alexis Bledel on accident. She did not cry and said she doesn’t know how to cry.

Q: People are saying “Our Poison Horse” is more vulnerable/autobiographical than your previous books. Do you agree with that assessment?
A:
It is the most personal, but I don’t know if that holds more value than surreal or fantastical.

Q: Does the autobiographical content of your work ever give you pause when you’re putting it “out there” for consumption?
A:
No. I am still a nobody in this world. If Blake Lively put out a book of poems where she was keeping track of the foods that made her fart the hardest at night, that could be a job-killer for the many people she employs, so the stakes are high for her and very low for me.

Q: The concept of authors doing readings and book signings isn’t new, but Write Bloody seems more structured, like the authors are bands. Why does that approach work better for you?
A:
Well, Amber Tamblyn wanted to be at Barnes and Noble because she is big on fluorescent lighting and loud announcements about calendars on sale when you’re in the middle of a cancer poem. I try and put on shows in venues different than traditional venues because poetry has had so many bullets shot through it, and all the life has fallen out. I love turning the tables and shoving life into those holes. All those holes.

Q: I think writing poetry in general is kind of viewed as a solitary thing, thanks to a long list of famously depressed and isolated poets, but you’ve dedicated a lot of time to making it interactive, not just in your own readings, but curating, making records, organizing tours, etc. Why do you think the performance, the actual hearing of the literature, is so critical?
A:
It’s not critical to the life of poetry, but it is critical to moving an audience. No good writer writes poetry for the audience, but a great writer knows how to make a set depending on the temperature of the audience that night. Too many poets do not care about the relationship between reader and listener, so folks are expecting a drone-fest. Or they expect a bunch of fake actors, fake crying or yelling about politics without a sense of nuance. I sing “hoorah” subtlety — hooray subtext, hurrah surprises.

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