Life on These Plains

By Nathan Knapp
May 1st, 2015

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PROVINCIAL

When I moved to Seattle from Oklahoma for college, I hardly ever heard the term provincial. It’s a word I’ve always hated. You could say I hate it because I’m a native Oklahoman, and Oklahoma is often afflicted with the term.

Four years later, however, telling Seattleites I was moving back was a different story. Nobody straight out said Oklahoma’s so provincial, why would you want to move back there? I’d guess that the main reason for this is because I didn’t know many graduate students at the time, and grad students are the main employers of the word. But I could tell by the looks on many of their faces I’d let them down. What was a cultured person—which was, let’s face it, how I liked to think of myself—moving to Oklahoma for?

Other than the cheap rent, wasn’t it going to suck?

 

HONORARY COASTIES

Later, once I got back to the land of my youth—for grad school, no less—I’d hear the actual word spoken out loud—provincial—and see it in action. The reason I hated the word then (and still do) stemmed from a suspicion of mine that often those who like to accuse other people or places of provincialism do so out of a gnawing insecurity.

A lot of the folks who bag on places like Oklahoma either (A) live on the East or West Coast and have never even visited; (B) consider themselves cultured intellectuals; and/or (C) once lived on one of the coasts, in places like Brooklyn or San Francisco or Portland. Often, these people consider themselves honorary coasties, even if their time spent on either coast was a short one—say, the amount of time spent to gain a master’s degree in screen studies—and who now, to their great disdain and dismay, find themselves bogged down in the cultural backwater that lies below Kansas and above Texas.

 

CONFESSION (1)

I considered myself an honorary citizen of Seattle. After arriving in Stillwater for orientation in the Oklahoma State University English Department, I often introduced myself by telling people I’d moved there from Seattle. Only after letting that salient fact sink in would I say I was originally from Oklahoma.

 

NYC

I’m reminded of an experience I had in New York City last spring, when, in a bar on 72nd and Broadway, I ran into a very drunk writer who’d recently published his first book. He told me to call him Pan, which I did. He had lived in Manhattan his whole life, he told me from over the top of his black turtleneck sweater, black suit jacket, and black jeans.

I’m a writer too, I said, and told him I lived in Oklahoma. A mistake.

You must have plenty of time to write, he said, nearly spilling his drink on me. What else would you do there?

 

CONFESSION (2)

As a teenager growing up in the Kiamichi Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, I dreamed of little else but leaving, of never coming back, hating the place in a way that you can only hate where you’re from.

 

LIFE ON THESE PLAINS (1)

The fact remains that—predispositions against the word aside—Oklahoma is provincial, in more ways than one. We are out, as Timothy Egan describes it in The Worst Hard Time, on the frontier.

There is very little art culture to be found here, and, some would say, even less art. Driving through the state in any direction, people can hardly be blamed for seeing the place as one giant churchyard. Our politicians are known for nothing if not conservative whack-jobbery.

 

CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER

Since first reading Walker Percy’s Moviegoer years ago, I’ve long had a suspicion that a large part of bringing a place into the American cultural consciousness involves the work of major artists in various mediums.

For example, although almost no one would argue that Mississippi is a less backward-looking place than Oklahoma—most likely more so—Mississippi has culture. There’s Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, Eudora Welty and her many stories, Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, plus the whole history of blues music from Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters on.

The Magnolia State’s a place where a writer or an artist can live and not have to explain why. Point to any bookshelf or record collection and you have your answer.

It’s not that I think writers ever ought to have to explain why they’ve chosen to live in a particular place. Why should they, any more than anybody else?

I suppose it’s because the general American citizenry, despite not paying much attention to writers in general, still expects them to want to live in places that ooze some sort of artsiness, like the Greenwich Village of the fifties and sixties, like the San Francisco of the seventies.

 

TEXAS

To figure out why Oklahoma is stuck in such a (perceived) cultural doldrums, it’s relevant to take a look at the states that border ours, and to ask a few questions of geography, of place, and of region. Our well-known neighbor to the south, Texas, though often similarly maligned for its politicians, is at least culturally respected, not only for Austin—which I like to call Portland South—but for the fact that it is large enough to belong to two distinct and culturally rich regions of the country. Texas contains both the humid South of the Confederacy to the east as well as the lone vaquero on horseback, riding along the edges of mesas in its high-desert west.

Another important factor in Texas’s cultural legitimacy, and perhaps the most important for our task at hand, is that its landscape has been both valorized and memorialized in the annals of literature, history, and film, from Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked novels and countless John Wayne films to the myth of the Alamo itself.

 

ARKANSAS

To our east there is Arkansas, which also has the luxury (and, I suppose, burden) of belonging to the South. It’s the birthplace of writers such as Maya Angelou, Dee Brown, and Charles Portis, who happens to be the author of the second-most famous book primarily set in Oklahoma, True Grit. Arkansas is also the home of Fayetteville, which the cool kids keep telling me is like Austin’s sister. According to my logic, this makes it Portland East.

 

MISERY

Up I-44 northeast of Tulsa, one quickly runs up against the Missouri line, a state that has long had similar identity issues as to region. While Texas seems self-assured—this is Texas we’re talking about, after all—in its marriage of West and South, the Show-Me State, commonly grouped with the Midwest, has long shared many cultural affinities with the South, of which the recent events in Ferguson are but one example. It’s a divide that goes all the way back to antebellum times.

We don’t need to talk much about Missouri, though. Missouri sucks.

 

SUNFLOWERS

Kansas, with whom we share our largest northern border, seems largely Midwestern in character—possibly in reaction to Missouri’s identity issues. As you climb into the high plains of Kansas’s western half, however, as the grain silos grow larger, with Capote’s In Cold Blood etched into the place’s DNA, you get the feeling you’ve left the Midwest altogether. Either way, the Sunflower State, with its humble, outstretched farm country, possesses a humility that appeals to me.

Doesn’t hurt that it’s the nearest place to where I currently live[1] where I can purchase New Belgium Beer.

 

WEST OF HERE

It comes as a surprise for many people that Oklahoma actually shares a border with both Colorado and New Mexico. For many years it surprised even me.

I was born and raised in the state’s extreme southeast, a ten-minute drive from Arkansas and a little over an hour from Texas; for most of my childhood, the thought that Oklahoma bordered such a far-off place as New Mexico prickled my inner fantasies with possibility. So last summer, with the help of a friend, I decided to check it out and make sure Oklahoma’s New Mexican border was really there. We drove out the entire treeless expanse of the Panhandle and stopped at the Land of Enchantment sign, far from anything that most people might call civilization. (I may or may not have pissed on the sign.)

Both Colorado and New Mexico are a good deal sexier than Oklahoma. In terms of Western culture, New Mexico not only has the benefit of nearly 400 more years of culture-making than Oklahoma, it has a long history of writers of both European and Native American descent, a history that spans all the way from D.H. Lawrence to Leslie Marmon Silko and Simon J. Ortiz in the present day.

To the north, Colorado has also been well documented in both history and film. Even life on Colorado’s least famous feature—its eastern plains—has been well chronicled by novelist Kent Haruf.

All five of our neighbors, then, belong to distinct geographic regions, even if two at a time, as with Texas, Missouri, and Kansas. More importantly, all of them have undergone a process of cultural myth-making that Oklahoma distinctly lacks, Rodgers & Hammerstein be damned.

 

LAND RUN

Oklahoma didn’t achieve statehood until well after all of its neighbors (except New Mexico), and didn’t join the Union until 1907, over a decade after Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. Originally designed by the U.S. government as a landing space for the forced deportation of the southeastern Native American tribes, it was a place wanted by not even the always-hungry proponents of Manifest Destiny.

Oklahoma was originally thought of as undesirable land, which is why it was initially designated as “Indian Territory.” In many ways, it served as the continental U.S.’s last frontier, not officially opening its borders to white settlers until 1889, emptying forth whites onto the lands of Native Americans who’d already had their land forcibly removed from them years before.

Oklahoma: settled for the first time to satisfy America’s racism, and a second time to satisfy its greed.

 

THE PARK

“Nowadays, when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him,” wrote Walker Percy in The Moviegoer. I’d argue that it’s this process of certification—or rather, lack thereof—that constitutes much of Oklahoma’s problem. He continues:

 

More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

 

For Percy’s narrator, Binx, to be Anywhere is to be no one, and to be no one is to be in despair. This process of certification, repeated throughout the arts, is just what gives places like New York and Los Angeles their mystique. When a writer describes a scene in New York, she doesn’t have to state that what she is describing is happening in Manhattan—she only states the neighborhood: the Upper West Side. Or even dispenses with neighborhood and provides the street: Broadway.

Even the numbered streets stand up: if you tell us a character is walking down 42nd Street, we all know you’re talking about Midtown, Manhattan.

Even my dad falls prey to this habit, though he has only lived there for four years. Recently, while we talked about an upcoming visit of mine, he told me that we would have to go “over to the Park” while I was there. Since I know that there are many parks in New York, I asked him which one. The Park! he said, exasperated. You know, the Park?

 

THE PARK(S)

I used to live in Seattle, where there were and still are a lot of parks. At least when I was going to take someone to one of them, I’d trouble myself to provide the name: Discovery Park, Gasworks Park, Golden Gardens, etc. It seemed like the polite thing to do.

 

THIS LAND, YOUR LAND, EVERYONE’S WOODY GUTHRIE

Unmoored from the pride of Southern-ness, or Midwestern-ness, or Western-ness, Oklahoma has no wider region to lean on for credibility.

And sure, we have The Grapes of Wrath, but Steinbeck was more concerned with the social injustices of the nation as a whole than Oklahoma in specific. If any place is specifically Steinbeck’s, it’s the Salinas Valley in California. While Woody Guthrie was birthed in the woods of central Oklahoma, sometimes I doubt anyone not from here even knows where he was born. Guthrie—just as much as the land in his most famous song—belongs to everyone.

Oklahoma’s not what Walker Percy’s narrator would call Somewhere, or even Anywhere. It’s Nowhere.

 

WILLIAM HOLDEN, ARRIVING

There is a scene in The Moviegoer in which Binx, on a stroll through the French Quarter of New Orleans, notices the actor William Holden asking a “malaise”-stricken young man for a light. The young man plays it cool, and he gives Holden a match without freaking out about encountering a celebrity.

Suddenly the young man’s malaise vanishes: “The boy has done it! He has won title to his own existence, as plenary an existence now as Holden’s…. He is a citizen like Holden; two men of the world they are. All at once the world is open to him.” Binx watches the actor turn down the street, “shedding light as he goes. An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it.” Percy isn’t talking merely about the larger-than-life glow that accompanies celebrity. He’s talking about the capacity for one’s reality to rise above what he calls “everydayness.” This is the capacity for one’s reality to be truly real. When William Holden crosses Canal Street, certifying it, he creates for the place a sense of what I call placeness, which is realness.

 

PLACENESS (1)

Now, existentialism might seem like an odd inroad to talking about Oklahoma’s (perceived or real) lack of culture, but I’d like to argue that there are no places in this American country that enjoy a quality of placeness without a corresponding groundwork of artistic place-making.

Besides a great deal of writing by Native American writers such as Joy Harjo,[2] N. Scott Momaday, Linda Hogan, and LeAnne Howe, certification by non-Native American artists has been uncommon.

It’s not that those Native American voices are unimportant, either. Momaday is one of America’s greatest living fiction writers of any color or ethnic background. Harjo is a highly esteemed artist in her own right. But the mainstream has functioned in such a way as to cloister the work of Native American writers. It’s a troubling reality that must be addressed by the literary community and by the culture at large. My aim here, alas, is more modest.

 

WILLIAM HOLDEN, LEAVING (1)

Outside the realm of Native American writers, Oklahoma has produced close to nil. As of yet, there has been no great specifically Oklahoman writer—Native, white, or black. Ralph Ellison left for New York when he was still young. Though Oklahoma comes up occasionally in John Berryman’s Dream Songs, he too moved to New York at an early age. Momaday, whose The Way to Rainy Mountain and essay collection The Man Made of Words often deal with the rugged landscape and weather of southwestern Oklahoma, makes no mention of the place in his best-known book, House Made of Dawn.

As of yet, no one has done the heavy work of making Oklahoma a place in the same way that Faulkner made Mississippi or Toni Morrison made the Ohio River Valley.

William Holden has not walked down our metaphorical Canal Street—yet.

 

WILLIAM HOLDEN, LEAVING (2)

Of Percy’s hypothetical person-without-certification, again: “More than likely he will live there sadly”—in the place which he’s never seen depicted in art—“and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood.”

For many years Oklahoma has been unable to retain its artists, who’ve often sought the greener pastures of New York or elsewhere.

It’s not as though some notable folks haven’t passed through on their way to New Yorks both literal and metaphorical: the poet Ted Berrigan did his master’s studies at the University of Tulsa; the aforementioned Momaday and Harjo have stopped by and moved on a number of times; the novelist Brian Evenson taught for a number of years at Oklahoma State; the Pulitzer finalist poet Angie Estes accepted a tenure-track position at OSU but stayed on for only a single year. Perhaps most notably, Eric Clapton spent a large part of the seventies as the “King of the Tulsa Sound,” playing with Oklahoma musicians and learning from noted Tulsan J.J. Cale before moving on down the road.

Leaving Oklahoma has been the rule rather than the exception.

Artists who find themselves here do not often stay long. Whether it’s the miserable summer weather, the state’s ruthlessly conservative personality, or the call of employment in the much more artist-friendly or currently in-vogue places like Madison, Wisconsin, or the Portlands of Oregon or Texas or even Arkansas, artists always seem to be looking for a way out.

 

PLACENESS (2)

Yet neither the Pacific Northwest nor Madison, Wisconsin, were always such heralded bastions of the arts. In 1947, when the poet Theodore Roethke landed a tenure-track job at the University of Washington in Seattle, the head of the UW English Department told him, “Ted, we don’t know quite what to do with you; you’re the only serious practicing poet within 1,500 miles.” And though the tech revolution has brought about San Francisco-like rent hikes—Seattle currently seems hell-bent on running its working artists right out of the city limits—few would argue that it’s a cultureless place. Seattle is clotted with bookstores,[3] readings, great musicians, and other such ilk.

So what happened? How did Seattle pass from a timber-logging, dock-working town on the frontier to one of our most cultured cities?

 

PLACENESS (3)

For one thing, it didn’t remain the frontier for long. And Roethke’s presence, I’d argue, was the main agent of change. His claim to being the only poet for hundreds of miles didn’t last long; through his work as a poet and as a teacher of writing, he attracted and helped develop such notable poets as Tess Gallagher, Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, Jack Gilbert, David Wagoner, and Richard Wright—no mean list of twentieth-century poets.

Seattle transformed itself from a lonely outpost in the territories to a waypoint for American writers-to-be, and it did so because a great writer—a maker of culture—came, stayed, and transformed the place.

 

CONFESSION (3)

Side note: on a gray morning at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle, I went outside the Convention Center into the gray morning light for a smoke. I saw a man who, through what I hoped was an inconspicuous attempt to read his name card, I realized was the poet Robert Wrigley, smoking a cigarette. I tried to think of an excuse to talk to him and asked him for a light. Though Wrigley seemed like he was in a foul mood,[4] he obliged, handing me a miniature orange Bic. He seemed irritated to be accosted with conversation—I probably wasn’t the first young writer to recognize him—but at some point our brief conversation turned to Theodore Roethke, whom he has cited as an influence on his award-winning Reign of Snakes. Wrigley, broodingly looking off toward Puget Sound, somberly—and somewhat ominously, I thought—declared: “If it weren’t for him—we wouldn’t be here right now.” At which point he stubbed out his cigarette and walked away.[5]

 

LIFE ON THESE PLAINS (2)

This has been a difficult essay for me to write. For much of the past two years, I’ve written and rewritten it, scrapped whole draft after whole draft. I suppose much of the problem for me has lain in the fact that deep down, I’ve worried that such an essay would be greeted by the same response as my confession of being from Oklahoma was greeted by my turtlenecked New York acquaintance.

The hand that turned the key in the lock of my inability to write about Oklahoma, though, came, oddly enough, from the movies.

In the quiet darkness of a late-night showing in a Tulsa cinema of August: Osage County, I felt a queer stirring inside me as the film’s opening shot squared itself on the screen. A wide, golden prairie, and a windmill, turning. An oil pump, slowly teeter-tottering. The whiskey-soaked, Oklahoma-accented voice of Sam Shepard.

This was a place, an accent that I recognized, a sound I knew deep down in my bones. I sat in the darkness enraptured as Meryl Streep’s character intoned: Is anyone ’sposed to smoke, lopping off the first syllable of supposed and hitting the second s with force.

These are my people, I thought. On a goddamn big screen. It was something I’d never seen before.

August: Osage County is a portrayal of an extremely dysfunctional family gathered together at the disappearance of the family patriarch. The family is so dysfunctional that some conservative Oklahoma legislators used the movie as an excuse to excise the Oklahoma Film Commission’s film-incentive program. (“If you could bring the whole city of Hollywood here, … I wouldn’t want them,” said Representative David Dank, R-Oklahoma City.)

The thing that struck me, though, about the film’s portrayal of the family is that they’re nothing if not Oklahomans, defined by a fierce pride and exacting independence.

They’re a brutal bunch to watch. And it’s clear that the land on which they live is just as harsh. Meryl Streep hollers at her daughter, who has moved on to the greener pastures of Boulder, Colorado: What do you know about life on these plains?

Yet that brutality, that harshness, is honest, and beautiful to behold. It’s clear that both the film’s director, John Wells, who fought to make sure that the film would be shot on location near Pawhuska, and its writer, Tracy Letts,[6] know this land, these people, and love them.

 

LIFE ON THESE PLAINS (3)

When I emerged from the theater into the cold winter air, I knew I could love these people, and this place—without apology. The place had acquired a realness, a placeness, that allowed it. It had been certified for me.

Oklahoma may be a long way from becoming a bastion of culture, or even of the arts in general; such a transformation takes time. But the more artists and writers and filmmakers who choose to work here—and, perhaps more importantly, live here—the better it will get.

It doesn’t hurt that the rent is pretty damn cheap.



[1] Stillwater, Oklahoma.

[2] Who, it should be noted, was very recently inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame in Tulsa.

[3] Among major U.S. cities, Seattle actually clocks in at no. 1 in bookstores per capita: http://literarytourist.com/2009/01/2008-top-ten-most-literate-us-cities-and-top-ten-cities-with-most-bookstores/

[4] I hope the description that follows of Mr. Wrigley doesn’t seem disrespectful or meant to paint him in a ridiculous light. I’m sure I was projecting a bit with regard to his foul mood. However, it is terribly satisfying for a writer to fit—to a tee—the stereotypical image of the cigarette-smoking, brooding, and begrudgingly conversing writer. I might simply have caught him at a bad time; it’s very possible that only moments before our encounter, he was arguing with his wife over the phone, or was sitting down to move his bowels only to find that there was no toilet paper left on the roll. Again, there’s no way of knowing. I myself wasn’t in that pleasant of a mood. Like nearly every writer present under the age of 35, I had a nasty hangover.

[5] To tell the truth, I’m not sure if he walked away right after he said this, or shortly after. In fact, I’m pretty sure what he meant was that if it weren’t for Roethke, the AWP Conference would never have come to Seattle.

[6] Who hails from and lives in Tulsa.