Poet Laureate Nathan Brown combines poetry and music
Oklahoma Poet Laureate Nathan Brown held his acoustic guitar with one hand and a copy of his book with the other, but he spoke the language of both mediums with the same voice.
Brown came to share his art with Cameron University students, faculty and alumni on the evening of Sept. 12 at the CU Library. The Oklahoma Humanities Council sponsored the event, and admission was free to the public.
He hushed his warm tenor singing voice to make his speaking tone that evening.
Brown captured the attention of the audience with both of his inflections. He is the author of “Two Tables Over,” the winner of the 2009 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry. He wrote six other books prior to the release of “Karma Crisis” three years later.
Governor Mary Fallin made him the Oklahoma Poet Laureate for the 2013-2014 year, and since his appointment, Brown said he has been able to reach more audiences with his art. Before Brown took pen to paper to write poetry, he wrote lyrics as a professional songwriter and musician. His career took him to Oklahoma City, Nashville and Austin. After recording five albums, Brown said the intense labor fueling his career in the music industry was running low — his creativity was on the brink of complete exhaustion.
“Music has always been a huge part of my life,” Brown said. “But then when I went to Nashville and started working as a professional songwriter, it killed my love for music because it was business.”
To rekindle his creative spark, Brown took courses in creative writing. He now holds an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Oklahoma. He currently teaches History of the Arts and Humanities courses for the Liberal Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma and Introduction to Songwriting at Austin Community College.
“I burned out so bad that I came home and joined a creative writing class,” Brown said. “I just happened to get a really good professor who introduced me to a style of poetry that I never heard before. But this poetry touched me — some of it nailed me. It was powerful, and it made sense.”
Rather than writing in rhymes or within the constraints of rigid forms, Brown said he prefers writing in free verse. He remains prolific but places restrictions on his work by writing a poem to fit on a single piece of paper.
Brown said he responded to the challenge for the last 15 years, and if he misses a day, he compensates for lost work by penning twice as many poems on the following day.
“Here’s the deal — sometimes I will put limits on myself, like a poem has to fit on one page in my little journal, so whatever I write today has to fit on one page,” Brown said.
Relying on the element of surprise makes his poems more palatable to a variety of audiences. He is averse to sounding too pedantic or too edgy, and in this way, Brown said he is able to engage audiences more effectively.
“I don’t like to be overtly political or be blunt. I don’t like to preach,” Brown said. “I like to come in and take ‘em by surprise.”
For example, while the opening of one poem about good boys and girls seems lighthearted, Brown said it is more controversial than it seems.
“I say a couple of things that are really bad, but they are really honest,” he said. “The truth is that I am talking about something that is very close to me. The first half of that poem is humorous, and instead of coming in and pounding people on the head, I like to come in sideways to see if they’re with me and see if they’re going to follow me.”
“I like going to colleges — I want students to give it [poetry] a chance. I know poetry is not everybody’s thing, but this is where great music comes from.”