Poet Lansana visits Cameron
Assistant Managing Editor
At 7 p.m. on Sept. 18 in the CETES Conference Center, the Visiting Writer Series featured author Quraysh Ali Lansana who presented a reading of his creative work.
Lansana has served as director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University from 2002-2011.
Mr. David Bublitz, a professor of journalism at Cameron, introduced Lansana, saying his work has been published widely in journals and magazines across the country and internationally.
The majority of the work Lansana presented at the reading is rooted in Oklahoma history with regard to race, class politics and culture. His most recent publications include The Walmart Republic and The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop.
Lansana said he is an Oklahoma native, having grown up in Enid.
“Because I am a student of history and having spent the first half of my life here,” Lansana said, “the peculiar and unique history of this state is fascinating to me, always has been.”
Born in 1964 and the youngest of six children, Lansana said he is a direct descendant of the black arts movement and the black power movement.
“The black arts movement created output,” Lansana said, “whether that be music or theater [or] poetry, steeped in the mantra of work by, for and about black people.”
Lansana said his work is rooted largely in the African American experience in this state and in this country.
“I grew up in a house with my older siblings’ music and politics and ideas,” he said. “I think because of that, also because of really the growing up of color in Oklahoma, I’ve always been rooted or grounded in politics or social justice concepts.”
Lansana said his series of short poems titled “Bible Belted,” which are found in section two of the The Walmart Republic, are about growing up in Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma is neither south nor west when you think about it,” Lansana said. “If you removed Oklahoma City and Tulsa from Oklahoma, what would you have? You’d have wheat fields and water and very little diversity of any kind. So, this is the construct for the idea of the Walmart Republic.”
Lansana read some shorts poems from the Bible Belted series.
“Bible Belted: Found One,” he read. “Oklahoma. The birthplace of Will Rogers, Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, Sam Walton.
“Bible Belted: Found Two. Oklahoma. The birthplace of the Dawes Act, Tulsa Race Riot, the Reservation, a 900-foot white Jesus.”
Although Lansana said almost all of his work is rooted in what happens in the world around him at the time he writes, he does not consciously decide that a work will be political.
“It’s just the way that I see,” he said. “It’s the way that I think first and foremost about how folks are being treated…what’s right, what’s wrong, based on my own opinion.
“Because of who I am and my experience and my upbringing and my love of history, social justice has always been a part of how I create.”
One person who has impacted Lansana’s life is Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, which she received for poetry in 1950.
“Ms. Brooks was my mentor and teacher for about 11 years,” Lansana said. “In class, she, as I phrase it, was an igniter of mind riots. She loved to sit back, throw an idea on the table and watch us ransack and lute and sort of get at this concept…I still have a folder full of poems with red ink from her editing, and the ink’s still dripping from the pages, and that was some time ago.”
Lansana said he considers Ms. Brooks his cultural grandma to whom he was very close and learned different things applicable to both life and creative craft.
“I learned certainly a great generosity, a great kindness from her,” he said, “as well as a dedication and a commitment to exactness – precision.
“She’d give a reading and sit and sign everyone’s books who stood in line,” he said, “so sometimes she’d be signing books for two hours. … She would often labor for three months or so over one word in a poem because it was that important to her – that the words on the page were reflecting as close a proximity as possible her feelings, her thoughts, what she was attempting to articulate.”
Just as Ms. Brooks was a mentor to Lansana, Lansana was a mentor to Bublitz when he was a part of the Red Earth Low-Residency program at Oklahoma City University, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.
“David is an outstanding poet,” Lansana said, “and he’s going to be great things. He’s going to be a major success.”
As for coming back to Oklahoma for the reading, Lansana said he was happy to see Bublitz, as well as other Oklahoma friends whom he calls “Oklahomies.”
“I do enjoy coming home,” he said. “I can call Oklahoma home again. I still live in Chicago, but I enjoy coming home. I enjoy giving back. I’d like to continue to build on doing that more often.”
For more information about Lansana and his creative works, visit http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/quraysh-ali-lansana.