The English department held a celebration of TU’s new Creative Writing major this past weekend. The celebration included panel discussions, workshops and readings by acclaimed writers and literary scholars. Among these writers were novelist Rilla Askew, autobiographer and transgender activist Katie Rain Hill, author and US Marine Phil Klay, author and professor Trudy Lewis, novelist and book reviewer Benjamin Lytal, fantasy writer and editor-in-chief of Nimrod International Journal Eilis O’Neal, young adult novelist Lindsay Smith, and fiction writer Vu Tran.
The celebration kicked off Friday night at Mainline Art Bar. Students, teachers, professional writers and even casual writers from Tulsa read aloud their original creative pieces. There were 16 total speakers, with a diversity of writing forms represented, ranging from short story to free verse poem to spoken word. Dr. Grant Jenkins of the TU English Department acted as the host of the event, announcing the names of the speakers and intermittently promoting the creative writing classes available at the university.
First up was Alan Culpepper, a professor at Tulsa Community College. He read two pieces, “The Death Dance of the Fig Wasps” and “Rain Against Glass.” The first piece was inspired by the actual “dance” that Culpepper has watched fig wasps perform, and he invoked the imagery of that scene with his words. With “Rain Against Glass” he described a different kind of scene, one with a contemplative speaker looking out beyond a rain-covered window.
Clay Cantrell was next, a PhD student at TU who holds a MFA in poetry from the University of Memphis. He read a blank verse poem with no punctuation entitled “Final Cutoff Notice.” The piece read as both social and familial commentary. There was a harkening back to the beat poets with the fast-paced and unrelenting wording.
Adam Lux, a physics and creative writing student at TU, read a piece on relativity. The piece’s religious inspiration blended with the philosophical tone to invoke an enlightening journey for the listener. He also performed a piece called “For Tulsa.” It was an ode that connected well with the celebration of arts within the city.
After Lux, Savanna Deweese performed a spoken word piece, “World War 3” and her intimate evocation connected the cosmos with her own body. In the tradition of most spoken word performances, she directed the piece first towards herself and then towards the audience, inviting them to feel the “planets” in their own skin.
Playwright and writer of fiction and nonfiction Kelley Friedman read a short passage about the discovery of her Multiple Sclerosis. More of a diary entry than a poem or story, the piece was told in first person with a very casual and familiar tone. It was both touching and humorous, a light-hearted invitation into a painful part of her life.
Danielle Medaris, a senior at TU, read aloud three poems regarding the same subject but written at different times. The intense changes of emotion between each poem could be seen through both her physical voice and the voice she put into the writing itself. The poems were quite straightforward, which allowed her voice to be the point of interest more so than any underlying message within the words.
Eilis O’Neal, author of the YA novel “The False Princess,” closed the night by reading aloud part of a chapter from her new fantasy book about a young girl with empathic powers. The chapter read much like a traditional young adult novel, with a quirky and misunderstood main character interacting with a new world around her.
The inherent talent and the mastery of skills that the night’s readers possessed invoked admiration from the audience. It started the celebration of creative writing in Tulsa in an intimate and affecting way.
Tulsa’s creative juices continued to flow into Saturday, with a “Tulsa in the Literary Imagination” panel being held by Tulsan writers Rilla Askew, Benjamin Lytal, Katie Rain Hill, and Eilis O’Neal. When the panel’s emcee, Dr. Jenkins, asked questions about Tulsa’s influence over the writers, O’Neal and Askew admitted to being strongly influenced by the history and culture of Tulsa.
O’Neal recounted going to the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature ceremony at a Tulsa library when she was a child, regarding it as the first time she had seen “real writers” in person. She attributes this experience as the moment of realization that she could be a professional writer.
Askew also had a life changing experience as a young writer when she was sent by her high school newspaper to interview James Brown before his concert in Tulsa. This was the first time she had been truly exposed to the city’s race relations, and led her to study the Tulsa Race Riots heavily. Her 2001 novel Fire in Beulah was directly influenced by these studies and she says now that she “cannot separate the wound of race relations from Tulsa.”
Lytal and Hill have less palpable inspirations from Tulsa, but inspirations nonetheless. In regards to his book, A Map of Tulsa, Lytal admitted that it was difficult to write about the city when he lived in it because it was “right under [his] nose” but that Tulsa has a unique combination of modern culture and antiquity.
Hill came to Tulsa when she was 12, and it was here that she opened herself up to releasing her feelings through writing. She was asked to write her memoir while she was a student at TU, a daunting task for someone who had never publicly shared her writing before.
When people ask her why she remains in Tulsa rather than a city more supportive of transgender activism, Hill explains that she feels “Tulsa needs [her].” Hill, along with the other writers on the panel, spoke of the major literary and cultural changes Tulsa has seen in the past 10 to 20 years, saying that “things have gotten so much better.”
Askew encouraged writers to research into the history of “where you come from” in order to understand how to write about the city Tulsa is now.
Later that day, five creative writing workshops were held in Tyrell Hall. I took the workshop on writing poetry held by Dr. Jenkins, which was fun and enlightening. We practiced giving into our subconscious, finding random phrases in different politically or socially charged books rather than actually reading them front to back. We then created modernist poems out of these phrases. Some of us read our poems aloud, and most of the workshop’s students seemed to be amazed at the work they had created. It was an inspiring introduction to what the creative writing program promises to bring to TU.