The event spotlighted 21 Tulsa poets in an engaging display of local talent.
On Friday, March 10, Living Arts Tulsa put on their annual Oklahoma Avant Garde show to a crowd of about 70 people.
First walking in, I was welcomed by a variety of the current art installation housed at the Living Arts venue in downtown Tulsa. A variety of technology-based pieces begged to be turned on and played with, but unfortunately the exhibit was powered down as it was not the main event. Another wall had what appeared to be random words and phrases such as “Brad Pitt smokes weed” and “no communist gods” marked in big black Sharpie. These words seemed almost to be written by the poets, or maybe even that the poets used some of the references for inspiration, though there was likely no correlation. Regardless, it set the tone for the non-traditional art that was going to be read later that evening.
Different degrees of experimental poetry and spoken word filled the night. Twenty-one individuals read, ranging in age from college sophomores to retirees. Dr. Grant Jenkins, a creative writing professor at TU who gives off a slight dapper old hipster vibe, emceed the event, reading several of his own poems between the different performers he introduced.
While the performers originated from different backgrounds, a few common themes of politics, Christianity, pop media, technology and the experimentation with word emerged. The blank, white-brick wall behind the poets lent itself as a canvas for the poets to paint whatever they saw fit in the ten or so minutes each poet spent.
At least 10 to 15 of the speakers are current or past TU students, several of which read poetry for their very first time with the encouragement of Jenkins.
Because of the sheer number of poets, it challenged them to be memorable or be forgotten. So many of the poets, such as Stacy Kidd and Crag Hill, would normally have stood out, at least when being read along on paper, but with the overwhelming number of performers and no way to read the poetry along with them, it became hard to differentiate between everyone.
Lewis Freedman opened up the night with his lilting voice that helped carry the gravity of his statements at times, and at others, helped bring laughter with the juxtaposition of his tone and his words. One such example was when the fair-haired man sadly asked the audience, “Will they ever ask me to donate my eyebrows?”
One of the next memorable poets of the night went a different direction than most toward the world of sci-fi. Xandra Kaste’s simple blue shift dress, black combat boots and a bob haircut mashed with her dynamic yet somehow robotic voice that fit perfectly with her dystopian themes. She created memorable lines by not relying on heavy large words to weigh down her spoken words but instead played with ingenuity and well-placed, out-of-context clichés such as “Do not tap on the glass.”
Another TU student, Adam Lux, wowed the audience with his first three poems called “Voice of My Father,” “Song Heard in Pews” and “Songs Heard in Basement.” They were sentimental and easy to relate to while still carrying that slight avant garde feel to them.
Caleb Freeman, a former TU student, brought the first big bounds of laughter with his poem based off lines he found off Craigslist Missed Connections. Even though the vast majority of the audience polled admitted to never having visited that particular part of Craigslist, everyone related to the feeling of encountering creepy dating app profiles or witnessing movie-level stalkers or even the personal experience of sudden unexplainable feelings toward a random stranger. I cringed during most of this piece, in sympathy to Freeman for knowing how he must have had to go through dozens of these thirsty posts for his poetry.
One of the few non-TU affiliated poets of the night was Chad Reynolds, who kept it real and relevant by having at least three very politically charged poems, including “Amended Amendments Amended,” “Erasure of Chinese Exclusion” and “President Donald J Trump’s Inaugural Address in First Person Plural.” Reynolds took an-in-your-face approach, which worked well for his outwardly opinionated pieces. In the last one mentioned, he used a pretty spot-on impersonation of our president, adding to his piece even more. I desire to read more of his poetry after tonight, especially with the tease he did by only reading parts of his pieces to the audiences. Not many other poets left me with an active thirst to read more of their work in particular to the extent that he did.
Brett Oliver was another breakout artist. He came at the encouragement of Dr. Jenkins, and while you could tell it was his first time reading aloud by his nervousness, he was easily one of my favorite performers of the night. His poem “Flatlined” featured a simple one-word-at-a-time style that went through the day of the narrator who was going through “heartache,” as said by the increasing repetition of the word. Both of his pieces showed a deep sense of underlying emotion and master of the language.
Right after Oliver performed, Brennen Gray took the stage. Gray’s approach took a different turn, with his first poem sounding like a jumble of a somehow still-coherent free writing of a time he walked around for a long time, jotting down his thoughts along the way. This seemed to be a popular one, but not as much so as the engaging piece he did by asking his various friends to send him text messages just out of their predictive text feature on their phone. The audience again erupted into laughter about the theme of technology, which was appropriate given the exhibit that most attendees sauntered through before the show.
Yet another TU student who nailed it was Thomas von Borstel. He followed the theme of technology and took tweets he found to create a hilarious entourage of relatable and comedic quotes, such as one Twitter user saying how they wanted to “be smothered by thick thighs.”
The final standout performance that I enjoyed was Brett Tyndall, another former Jenkins student, who wrote another political piece about “the redneck conservatives” and their “commandments,” and one piece that was chock full of memes that had the younger generation in tears but the older generation in attendance in complete confusion.
Overall, it was an amazing display of talent from around the Tulsa and general Oklahoma area. It ran over an hour longer than the intended end time, and it was visible by probably a third of those in attendance having left by the end of the night. There should have either been several fewer performers, or a short, allotted time that everyone had to stick to. At the same time, it would have been hard to pick which of the performers to cut, as they all fit together so well.
Despite the excessive length of the program, the show demonstrates an important role being formed in this community. Jenkins emphasized that he helped start this event with the purpose of advancing the “punk-ass poetry” scene in Tulsa. After all, Tulsa is becoming a big name for art, Jenkins claimed.
With events like this, I am starting to believe him.