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The Other 17 Percent

Oklahoma Poet Laureate Nathan Brown comes to Sisters



Nathan Brown attacks words like a man fresh from the desert stumbling into a buffet. That's not to say he doesn't choose his words carefully because the current Poet Laureate of the State of Oklahoma doesn't waste a syllable either in his poetry or in conversation. His writing ranges from unpretentious intellectualism to matters of faith, love and loss, and he wears his deep and abiding love of Oklahoma on his sleeve.

"To be honest, music was my first career," Brown tells me. "I've played music all my life. I was in a band by the time I was 19. In my 20s I was working as a professional songwriter in Nashville and Nashville pretty quickly destroyed my love of music. I came back home to Oklahoma and I never actually touched a guitar or performed or wrote a song for five years. During that time I took a creative writing course and I had a professor who introduced me to a kind of poetry I didn't know existed."

The art of poetry has somewhat shifted in its appeal over the last few decades as it has become more of an esoteric exercise in pseudo-profundity for the academia as opposed to a storytelling device used as a window instead of a wall.

"I hated poetry for all the same reasons as other people hate it," Brown says, "because it feels like an inside joke or some kind of snooty party we're not invited to. I kept looking around going 'Am I the only one who cares absolutely nothing for any of this?' I discovered there was this other poetry written by storytellers; people who knew how to do it and it made sense and, not only that, but when I read there poems it felt like the end of a great Bob Dylan or James Taylor song."

Upon discovering poetry that truly spoke to him, Brown has the remarkable stamina to have written a poem a day for the past 15 years, and in the course of that, has published 10 books of his work, leading him to be chosen as Oklahoma's poet laureate for 2013-2014.

He takes poetry seriously and makes sure those he teaches take it seriously, as well.

"I wanna say this as someone who believes in poetry and loves it and wants to be a part of solutions, not problems: The problem is that the ink jet printer made everybody a poet," Brown tells me. "When I teach creative writing workshops I bring my guitar with me and I'll randomly hand it to someone and say 'play me a song' and they'll sit there and stare at the floor and they'll say 'I can't, I don't know how to play guitar' and I'll say 'Then why is it because you have a laptop you think you're a poet?' Great storytelling, great writing, great poetry comes from a life dedicated to the craft."

As we start to wrap up our conversation, Brown relays a story to me I had never heard that completely sums up how I have always felt about poetry, but was never self-aware enough to fully elucidate. "Billy Collins got in big trouble when he was U.S. Poet Laureate for saying one time '83 percent of American poetry is not worth reading.' Everybody got so angry that they didn't listen to what he said next which was 'But that other 17 percent...I can't live without it.'"

Nathan Brown lives for his words and doesn't use them for therapy or for praise, but because he is a storyteller and a poet, and that's all he ever could have been.

Nathan Brown

6:30 pm

Sat., June 7

Paulina Springs Bookstore, 252 W Hood Ave. Sisters.


Taking it Back

By Nathan Brown/

The poem I suppose

I would have written begins:

It's still shocking, even though

you know it's coming,

to witness so first-hand

the death of a church,

like being present at the

break and slide of glacier

into ocean. Eleven or twelve

people sit, look uncomfortably

at all the empty metal chairs while

the preacher speaks in a tone

and at a volume more appropriate

for hundreds, to these few remaining

like the rich folks on the Titanic

who sat there patiently, because

the wealthy simply do not drown. But,

then came the responsive reading

Of the Prayer of Confession, voices

Out of tempo, and my tired,

Limping life rose to the surface

Like a cautious whale, spewing

The scatter of scripture up into my face.

The words were for me,

and I had to take them,

accept them, let the tear form

and rewrite the poem.

-from "Suffer the Little Voices."- Greystone Press (2005)

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