News & Community

Poetry for the People

October 04, 2021

The poetry of Quraysh Ali Lansana doesn’t sit still. Over the last few decades, the Enid-born author and educator has built a body of work that wanders with a watchful eye from the Oklahoma prairie to the skyscrapers of Chicago, the Deep South and points in between.

But it was Lansana’s upbringing with his five siblings in Red Carpet Country that first lit his creative spark. "I like to say that my first poems were written on the big sky of Oklahoma," he said. "I was essentially dreaming about what life was like somewhere else under the same sky."

The accomplished author of more than 20 books will be sharing his homespun and world-tested knowledge during the 2021 Oklahoma Fall Arts Institute during his Weekend 2 workshop, “Musicality of Language: Poetry Across Genres,” inviting participants to explore a variety of modes and exercises in approaching, writing and revising poetry.

We caught up with Lansana to discuss his writing practice, the world-shaping power of poetry and what participants can expect from his workshop for adult artists and educators on Oct. 21-24 at our Quartz Mountain home in southwestern Oklahoma.

Maybe we could start by talking readers through your general path to poetry. Can you lay that out for them? 

I always loved reading and books as a kid growing up in Enid. I am the youngest of six. I knew the words to my siblings’ music before I could spell those words. I was greatly influenced by my older siblings who had handwritten poems by Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni on their bedroom walls. … So certainly, their music and those poems had a great impact on me as a child, particularly as I was learning to read and falling in love with the words, sounds and power of lyrics, primarily song lyrics and music. And so, while learning to read phonetically, I think they had a great influence on me.

Also, I grew up in an AME [African Methodist Episcopal] church and so my cousins and I often had parts in holiday-based shows like the Christmas pageant or the Easter show or whatever. So, it was probably there where I also learned how to present publicly, and also memorizing words and sort of acting, if you will — getting a taste early on of the power of words and the power of public speaking. But I would say that I really sort of formally fell in love with poetry, in particular, in the eighth grade in reading class. There I was introduced to the work of Langston Hughes and Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks, who would later become my mentor, while also loving to read things like Beowulf.

I was also heavily influenced by this new form of poetry called rap. I was in eighth grade in ’78, so rap was two years old. It took a while to get to Oklahoma, but when I heard “Rapper’s Delight,” it literally changed my whole world, my whole composition, my whole being. It sort of brought all of these loves together: this love of language, this love of music or sound, and the ability to creatively have a message or an idea in verse. That really sort of brought it all together for me in eighth grade.

You touched on this briefly, but Gwendolyn Brooks was a huge influence on your life and on your craft. Can you can you talk a little bit more about how she impacted your philosophy as an educator, specifically?

Yes, sure. So, Ms. Brooks — she entered any classroom space, any teaching space, with the idea that she was going to learn as much, if not more, from her students as they were going to learn from her. And, you know, that certainly wouldn't always bear out to be the truth, but that's the way that she entered any teaching situation. She taught me to walk into a classroom as kind of a sacred space, and as an opportunity for everyone in the room — including the instructor — to grow and to learn. So, there's no hierarchy there. Everyone is there to learn from one another, and that has been a core foundation of the way I've taught now for 30 or more years. That remains very, very, very important to me.

"I'm interested in helping folks see more expansively."

Quraysh Ali Lansana, OFAI 2021 writing instructor

There’s a really wonderful quote from her, which you include in your workshop description: “Art hurts. Art urges voyages, and it's easier to stay at home.” What about that line spoke to you for this workshop?

I believe that art should move us to think and not tell us what to think. We have enough preachers and pundits and politicians who are engaged in the business of telling us what to think, but art should move us to think, and sometimes to act, but not tell us what to think. When I think about Ms. Brooks’ quote, I think about that. I think about the idea that, yeah, it's easier to stay at home, but the work of an artist and the idea of art is to move us to think, to feel — to find our commonalities as well as our differences, and to appreciate the expression generated by the artists and find a bit of yourself in that expression, whether that's music or visual art or dance or what have you.

And for those folks who show up and take that voyage with you, what can they expect from the workshop?

Number one: I am always interested in learning, and provoking or prompting storytelling through aspects from someone's life or someone's history that have been forgotten or neglected or under-explored. So that's certainly one aspect. Secondly, I use a variety of sensory prompts in this workshop to help trigger different types of memory and emotions. Whether it’s music or visual prompts or movement — I do some kinesthetic prompts in this workshop as well — my hope is to attempt to engage students in sort of unpacking some things they might not have thought about in a while or may have blocked out … an aspect of growth by being challenged in these particular ways.

You say great ideas often come from these unusual sources that you might not exactly expect to inspire art-making. Can you talk about a time when that happened in your own practice, when an idea was sparked by something you didn't expect?

That's a great question. Yeah, I think so. Very early on in my in my poetry life and career, I was in a band called the Funky Wordsmyths. I was in this band, and one of the other members of this band was Oscar Brown III, who's the son of the great Oscar Brown Jr., an amazing vocalist and musician. Oscar Brown III, we called him Bobo — that was his nickname. So, Bobo was dating a young woman at the time, and she was often very odd and standoffish to me, and I didn't really understand why. Sometime shortly thereafter, I found out that she felt like I had some kind of a crush on her or something, which was not the case at all. But I wrote a poem called “Window” as a peace offering. I hadn't done anything to create the situation, but she was dating my bass player and good friend, so I didn't want there to be any animosity or tension. So, I wrote this poem, which was literally a peace offering to her. And, you know, shortly thereafter they broke up [laughs]. But I got a great poem out of it!

That’s always good!

That’s just something that comes to mind. That's a great question. I had to think about it.

Well, that's a great answer. It makes me think about the utility of poetry. It’s not necessarily just an intellectual exercise, but it can actually have a function in the world.

Well, I think so. This spring at OSU-Tulsa, I’ll be teaching a sort of a global political poetics course. You think about the fact that poets and poetry, certainly in the 20th century, were at the forefront of some of the major changes across the globe. We go from Prague to Francophone Africa to various countries like Argentina and Cuba, as well as some of the major movements in the U.S. We start with Whitman protesting the Civil War and actually being maybe the nation's first major openly, same-sex loving poet, to the poets of the Women’s Movement and the Black Arts Movement, and so on. You know, poetry and poets have been very, very important in helping to shape these new visions, or further these visions politically. I consider that very utilitarian in a way that's often revolutionary as well.

Beyond specific techniques and strategies, what do you hope OFAI participants leave with after your time together? Beyond expanding their thinking about poetry and inspiration, how do you hope this impacts their lives?

Well first of all, I hope that folks leave with at least several drafts of new work, just from that kind of a standpoint. But what any professor or teacher wants is for their students to use muscles in their brain they maybe haven't used in a while. I'm interested in helping folks — and again, this is something I've learned from Ms. Brooks — see more expansively. Ms. Brooks believed, and is quoted as saying, that poets are observers. She was an observer, and a part of that observation is seeing with understanding that we see with more than our eyes. Right? We see with our hearts; we see with our minds; we see with our fingertips. I'm interested in helping these participants engage in more expansive ways of seeing, which will inform not only their work, but the way they approach life.

For more on the 2021 Oklahoma Fall Arts Institute workshops for adult artists and educators, click here.

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