The City and the Writer: In Oklahoma City with Nathan Brown

By Nathalie Handal

Image of The City and the Writer: In Oklahoma City with Nathan Brown

                                    Special Series / Oklahoma 2014

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Oklahoma City as you feel/see it?

Oklahoma City is an “easy” place to be and move around in. Someone from Palm Springs or NYC may not feel that. But I do. And I know we have the reputation for being a red state. The reddest, in fact. I see that perception, however, as being a by-product of the extensive rural culture that makes up a good 90 to 95% of our state’s population. (A guess . . . not a sound statistic.) At the same time, I see the conservative socio-political bent as being a fairly natural by-product of all rural cultures. And I mean nothing negative by it. Rural Oklahoma is ridiculously beautiful, if you know where you’re going. And it is home to some of the most gracious and hospitable people you’ll ever meet, if you know how to carry yourself. But Oklahoma City is quite progressive in many ways, and is even undergoing an arts and culture renaissance of sorts. The maniacally fun and insane prog-rock band, The Flaming Lips, have played a role in this to some extent.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

No Oklahoman, let alone someone who lives in OKC itself, was unmarked by the bombing of the Murrah Building downtown on April 19, 1995. I had a professor at the time who was in his car a street or two over and was blown sideways five to six feet by the blast. He did not speak for a few days. He was a Red Cross volunteer and, therefore, one of the first on the scene. Horrific. 186 people died, and 680 were injured. 9/11 is the only act of terrorism inside the US considered to have been more devastating and destructive.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

When it comes to “area” or landmass, Oklahoma City is (depending on whose statistics you look at) the seventh or eighth largest city in the U.S.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, might top the list for many. He won the National Book Award for that one, and it was considered groundbreaking at the time, when it comes to issues of identity and race. It’s also my understanding that Louis L’Amour spent most of his writing career here. His novels encapsulated a young Okie’s romance with all things western.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Locals refer to the Adobe Bar at The Taos Inn as “the living room of Taos” in northern New Mexico. And though Oklahoma City is too big to make such a claim about any one hangout, I have to say that The Red Cup coffeehouse comes as close as any cool spot I know. This is my favorite place to write. Grungy. Been there forever. City councilmen and longhaired lawyers eating right beside skateboarders and punk rockers. What brooding writer doesn’t love that mix! It’s just “the place.” The place where I meet my daughter after school. And the place where they have the best vegetarian Frito Chili Pie I’ve ever had. Just love it. And I spend hours there at a time.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

To me, this is simply Route 66. I realize it only passes through the city. But honestly, some of the best stretches of Route 66, period, are in the state of Oklahoma. And when I leave for road trips early enough, I’ll forgo the Interstates every time.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

One of my favorites is the Paseo District. It’s a tiny strip. Maybe a city block, if that much. But it has wonderful restaurants and galleries. And it is home to two incredible weekly open mic nights—one for music, one for poetry. The place is called “Sauced.” And they make killer, to-order, pizza-by-the-slice. It’s a “hang” that comes close to rivaling The Red Cup.

Where does passion live here?

Hmm… to me the passion really lives in the arts renaissance of the younger crowd throughout the city. There has long been a supportive music scene with venues for live performance all over the metro area. We’ve had some great bands come out of OKC. The Flaming Lips won a Grammy a while back. And there’s always Garth Brooks and Toby Keith, if you’re into that. But now it’s more the visual arts and poetry, along with an influx of foodies. We’ve had an infestation of hipsters, so the coffee culture and cool little boutique restaurant scene has picked up as well. All of it together, brings a wonderful energy to this city.

What is the title of one of your works about Oklahoma City and what inspired it exactly?

“Two Tables Over’ is an entire collection of poems that was inspired by my favorite haunt, The Red Cup – as well as by the souls who haunt it. This place crawls with material and humanity on so many levels. If I don't know what to write about on any given day, I just wait a bit, and a story will walk in the door sooner or later. This also happens to be the book that won the 2009 Oklahoma Book Award. I don't know if there's some kind of connection . . . but . . .

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Oklahoma City does an outside exist?”

Oklahomans have the unique privilege of being more of an “outsider” than most Americans when they travel in other parts of their own nation. I have—and I mean actually—had a waitress in Boston who was, first, frightened when she found out where my father and I were from, and then, second, still convinced we rode horses to church on Sunday. My parents once had a waiter at Sam's (a nice place on the wharf in San Francisco, I believe?), with a white napkin draped over his arm, who, after some fun banter, asked them where they were from. When they replied “Oklahoma,” he simply said “Oh my God,” and walked away, never to really speak much to them again. What do you do with that? I have no idea.

 

Nathan Brown is a songwriter, photographer, and award-winning poet from Norman, Oklahoma. He is also serving as the current Poet Laureate of the State of Oklahoma for 2013 to 2014. He holds an interdisciplinary PhD in English and Journalism but mostly travels now, performing readings and concerts, as well as leading workshops and speaking in high schools, universities, libraries, and community organizations on creativity, creative writing, and the need for readers to not give up on poetry. He has published nine books, most recently Less is More, More or Les and Karma Crisis: New and Selected Poems, finalist for the 2013 Paterson Poetry Prize and the Oklahoma Book Award. A previous book Two Tables Over, won the 2009 Oklahoma Book Award and his CD, Gypsy Moon, came out in 2011. www.brownlines.com.


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