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Beyond the Books

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Author and teaching artist RJ Young works with KIPP Tulsa Preparatory student on creative writing

OSU-Tulsa’s Center for Poets and Writers aims to share the power of words


The vision for the Center for Poets and Writers at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa goes beyond bringing award-winning authors to town: The center aims to share the art of writing and its power to change lives with the community.

A ninth-grade boy stares blankly at a sheet of paper in front of him, at a loss about what to write.

Author RJ Young crouches in front of him, making eye contact and hoping to spark a personal connection.

“What’s the first thing that comes to your head?” Young asks, red-framed reading glasses hanging from the front collar of his gray hoodie. “Whatever it is, write it down.”

In between interviews with national media outlets as the New York Times, NBC News and National Public Radio, Young carves out time each week to work with KIPP Tulsa University Prep High School students, encouraging and challenging them to find their voices and express themselves on paper.

Author of the internationally acclaimed 2018 memoir Let It Bang: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey into Guns, Young is an OSU doctoral student and a member of the inaugural class of teaching artists at the Center for Poets and Writers at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa.

Because of its presence on the OSU-Tulsa campus, the KIPP Tulsa high school was the first to participate in the center’s new Teaching Artists initiative. The school’s mission to prepare students from underserved communities for college made for an ideal partnership.

“It’s a natural fit to bring local K-12 students together with OSU graduate students and alumni,” said Dr. Lindsey Smith, associate professor of English and interim director for the center. “Our teaching artists are published authors who help students connect with writing and language in creative ways they may not have experienced before. Our teaching artists’ expertise enhances what our K-12 colleagues are doing to serve young people.”

Educational resources

Dear Oklahoma podcast recording on stage

Modeled after a similar program in Houston, the center’s Teaching Artists initiative connects writers to the community and provides a resource for funding-starved local schools struggling to boost students’ reading proficiency.

The center aims to help Tulsa-area children become better readers and writers.

“The research is clear that writing — including creative writing — is a critical predictor of future success,” Smith said. “Not only does excellence in writing increase academic achievement, it also instills self-confidence and a greater understanding of our shared humanity.”

Immersing students in the craft of writing helps them develop critical thinking skills, creativity and empathy. Studies also show that writing boosts cognitive growth and organizational skills while nourishing the love of learning.

Center for Poets and Writers teaching artists are currently serving in Jenks, Sand Springs and Tulsa schools.

But the program’s focus isn’t only on youth. Teaching artists also provide adult instruction, such as noncredit workshops on filmmaking, poetry and publishing.

Literary arts outreach

Founded by Oklahoma author Teresa Miller, the Center for Poets and Writers moved to OSU-Tulsa the year the school was founded in 1999. After Miller’s retirement, OSU-Tulsa selected Smith to lead the center in 2017.

Dr. Lindsey Smith
 

Dr. Lindsey Smith (from left) teaching artist Clemonce Heard and chef Matt Owens plan a menu based on Heard’s poetry for the “Poets' Dinner” fundraiser.

Smith has carefully but enthusiastically forged ahead with new ideas while honoring Miller’s rich legacy.

She continues to bring renowned writers to Tulsa, with a particular focus on Oklahoma and Native American authors.

Among Smith’s first guests were Arigon Starr, a member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma and the creator of the Super Indian comic book series, poet and author Allison Hedge Coke and 2018 Oklahoma Poet Laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish.

But Smith’s greater vision is to establish the organization as Tulsa’s premiere literary arts outreach center.

“It’s the right time for Tulsa to have a literary arts outreach center akin to those in destination cities across the country,” Smith said. “A city’s cultural life is important to increase tourism, but it also educates and inspires the community. Creating a literary arts outreach center is the logical next step to expand OSU’s land-grant mission of community outreach here in Tulsa.”

Expanding influence

To reach readers and writers where they are, Smith established the Dear Oklahoma podcast and the Words on Air web series, both popular digital mediums that can connect a wide and varied audience with notable Oklahoma-centric authors.

Dear Oklahoma, she said, is her favorite new project, partly because of her partnership with Dr. Emily Hull, visiting assistant professor and director of the Deep Roots: Oklahoma Authors Oral History Project at OSU’s Edmon Low Library and Kelly Burley, director of public radio station KOSU. The podcast is available on the library’s website as well as on iTunes, TuneIn and Stitcher.

“We all share a passion for Oklahoma and a desire to promote and support writers who hold up a mirror to our communities,” Smith said. “We hope the podcast inspires others to consider what they would say if they wrote a letter or other creative piece to our state. Maybe someone listening will get a nudge to keep writing.”

Words on Air features conversations with renowned writers such as Black Panther comic creator Christopher Priest and award-winning Oklahoma author Rilla Askew.

Each episode offers new insight into a writer’s work. The series can be directly accessed by computer or mobile device on the OSU-Tulsa website and OStateTV, a boon for those who can’t make it to a venue for readings and a free resource for teachers to supplement their curriculum.

Regardless of the avenue used to reach the public — whether digital or in person — the center’s broader goal is to make Tulsa a city that is just as enriching for writers as it is for readers.

“The literary arts are not only a reflection of society, but they bring the community together through the expression of shared experiences,” Smith said. “Our vision for the Center for Poets and Writers at OSU-Tulsa is to create a place where people can discover and learn the art of writing and its power to change lives.”

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