TU Poetry Professor Dr. Grant Jenkins opened the annual Tulsa Avant-Garde Poetry Reading (an event where TU students and Oklahoma poets presented their work) by promising to play his electric bass in the background throughout the event, noting that he thought poetry readings could get boring.
I think I can guess what he was getting at; if you advertise an event as an “avant-garde” poetry reading, it’s very easy for the performances there to degenerate into self-absorbed and ultimately stuffy pieces that sacrifice all at the altar of appearing edgy.
Yet by the end of the night’s first act, Dr. Jenkins hadn’t gotten a chance to play more than a few licks. Far from pretentious and tedious, the poems performed were emotionally raw and engaging.
Take, for instance, TU junior Leah Suleski’s piece on the contradictions between our culture’s expectations of female beauty and its tendency to blame sexual assault victims for what they were wearing. Through an endlessly clever stream of word associations and garbled cultural references, Suleski delivered an artful and searing indictment.
Then there was TU junior Kate Roddy’s coming-of-age poem, where she warned us, among other things, that you just can’t trick yourself into thinking that two twin beds side-by-side form a king bed.
If you’re not sure how you feel about that metaphor, rest assured that it hit me hard when I heard it performed out loud. There are a lot of intangibles at these poetry readings.
Of course, not all was deadly serious, and some of the most experimental pieces were a lot of fun. Tulsa Community College English Professor Sloan Davis performed “Litany,” a poem that invited the audience to respond “Always be writing” to each line.
The poem mixed such disparate elements as exhortations to write even while you’re at the bar with uncomfortable jokes from mass emails in an attempt to catalogue the elements of a society where text messages and emails make the written word increasingly central to daily life.
All told, the Tulsa Avant-Garde Poetry Reading provided a promising look at how loose, primal and ultimately absorbing avant-garde and slam poetry can be.