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The City and the Writer: In Norman with Daniel Simon

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series / Oklahoma 2014

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Norman as you feel/see it?

After an exceptionally harsh winter—we experienced freezing rain, sleet, snow, thunder, and lightning all in one day—the mood was one of exuberance over the arrival of spring, then summer, and people are out in abundance enjoying the many cultural happenings going on in Norman. On this particular weekend of April 11–13, locals could choose from the Centennial Powwow, Haydn’s The Seasons (choreographed as a ballet), and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, all on the University of Oklahoma campus; the launch of the StART Norman project, a month-long series of art exhibits, performance events, readings, and installations downtown devoted to the idea of “placemaking” and community; and the '89er Day Parade and a performance of Pawnee Bill’s Original Wild West Show being held in conjunction with The Big Read devoted to Charles Portis’s True Grit. Earlier in that week, a beloved public sculpture at the Firehouse Art Center called Samo Ducky disappeared, but he was found that Friday, so folks around town were quite relieved.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Since my wife and I moved here from Nebraska in 2000, we’ve rescued a number of abandoned or stray dogs and adopted four of them. The day after 9/11, not knowing what else to do, we went to the Norman Animal Shelter and adopted a yellow labrador puppy and named her Maggie; the week before last, we had to put her to sleep, and we’ve lost two of our other dogs to chronic diseases in the past four years. Our three daughters have grown up side by side with all our dogs; unfortunately, what Elizabeth Bishop calls the “art of losing” is never easy to master when it comes to your own—and your children’s—grief.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

At the south entrance to Bizzell Memorial Library, built in 1929 on the university campus, the steps are worn so smooth that you actually kind of slip downward as you open the doors. Inside the entrance are two large-scale paintings by a former professor, Patricio Gimeno, reproductions of Mihály Munkácsy’s The Blind Milton Dictating “Paradise Lost” to His Daughters and Henry Holiday’s Dante and Beatrice. Walking up the steps to the Great Reading Room, I always stop to look at my favorite painting on campus, Santa Ana, by Miguel Martinez. In Time Regained, Proust’s narrator stumbles over an uneven paving stone in the courtyard of the Prince and Princess of Guermantes and is flooded by memories of the uneven floor in the baptistery at St. Mark’s in Venice. Every time I go into the library, that dip on the threshold gives me a similar sensation. How many faculty and students have worn down that step over the years?

What writers from here should we read?

I like to trace the city’s literary genealogy through a series of anthologies: a publication called The University Anthology, edited by a classics professor named Joseph Francis Paxton, that appeared three times in the 1920s; the Folk-Say miscellanies (1929–32), edited by B. A. Botkin; the Point Riders Great Plains Poetry Anthology (1982), edited by Arn Henderson and Frank Parman; Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: New Oklahoma Writing (2010), edited by Jeanetta Calhoun Mish; and the brand-new Oklahoma Poems . . . and Their Poets (2014), edited by the state’s current poet laureate, Nathan Brown. All were published in Norman, and each provides a snapshot of the evolving literary character of the state and, in particular, the many writers who have called Norman home—“by birth, by raising, by family, by residence, or by choice,” in the words of Jeanetta Calhoun Mish.

Paxton’s anthologies include much conventional verse, but Louisa Brooke’s “Brick Dust” stands out as a surprisingly modern poem, worthy of Emily Dickinson: “It’s just a heap of ruin, / A drunken brick carouse— / This thing my spirit grew in / That once was called a house. // An attic where I scribld / Thru baking summer days, / While street-pianos nibbld / At the patient Marseillaise. // The spider-landlord squatted / In a web of dinner-smells, / And people slowly rotted / In little gossip-hells. // I hated all I learned there— / And yet I could have cried / For a little oil I burnd there, / A little dream that died.” The poem first appeared in Poetry magazine in February 1920 and was reprinted in the 1921 University Anthology. All we know of Brooke, who had degrees from the College of the Sisters of Bethany, in Topeka, Kansas, and Vassar, was that she was “a sometime Adviser of Women and on the English teaching staff” at the university from 1909 to 1914, at which time she took an unpaid leave of absence. To my knowledge, no literary trace of her after 1921 remains.

In Paxton’s 1924 anthology, “Rhythm of Rain,” by the young Cherokee poet and playwright Lynn Riggs (a student at the University of Oklahoma from 1920 to 1923), is a remarkable landscape poem, as is B. A. Botkin’s “April Elegy.” Botkin was a professor of English on campus and, with other legendary faculty like Paxton, Vernon Parrington, and Walter S. Campbell, inspired a coterie of student poets during and just after World War I who gained national attention, including John McClure, Muna Lee, Riggs, and others.

For more about writers from the state, the best place to start is at the Oklahoma Center for the Book’s website. And if you’re in the city (Oklahoma City, that is), the best place to browse the bookshelves for Oklahoma authors is at Full Circle Bookstore.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Like many Oklahoma writers before me, the landscape is the place I turn to most often, more so than any cityscape. As Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday writes in The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969): “Loneliness is an aspect of the land . . .. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.” Momaday’s beloved Wichita Mountains are less than two hours southwest of Norman, and many of the other remarkable ecoregions of the state are also within easy driving distance.

A writer I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is Zoe (Stratton) Tilghman (1880–1964). At the age of sixteen, she enrolled in the preparatory school at the University of Oklahoma as a protégée of David Ross Boyd, the university’s very first president, and served as literary editor (1902–03) of its student magazine, The Umpire. As a young editor, she was so determined to get a poem for the Christmas issue that she waded through the mud to hitch up a horse and buggy (surely not a surrey with fringe on top) and drove to a farm five miles east of Norman to retrieve it. And after the main building of the university burned down in 1903, she recalled Professor Paxton holding class in the Adkins building downtown, where they sat on soapboxes and translated Homer (see Mary Jo Turner, “Horse-and-Buggy Poet,” Sooner Magazine, 1941).

In 1903 Miss Stratton married the famous frontier marshal Bill Tilghman (who reportedly slept with a loaded .45 under his pillow), worked as a schoolteacher in six counties around the state, then served as literary editor of Oklahoma City’s Harlow’s Weekly for ten years after her husband was shot and killed by a man in the boomtown of Cromwell. She went on to serve as assistant director for the troubled Federal Writers’ Project in Oklahoma during the Depression and as editor in chief of the first State Anthology of Poetry (1936), was a charter member of the Oklahoma Writers’ Club, and helped found the Poetry Society of Oklahoma. Tilghman’s dedication to what she called promoting the “intellectual leaven” of the new state was shared by many writers who followed in her pioneering footsteps, including, more recently, the poets Maggie Culver Fry, Carol Hamilton, and Francine Ringold.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Unfortunately, no such singular literary place in Norman exists, although William Butler Yeats gave a reading at historic Holmberg Hall on campus in 1920 (three years before winning the Nobel Prize). And, since 1968, fourteen subsequent Nobel laureates have visited the university in conjunction with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (as jurors to select the prizewinner or as laureates) and the Puterbaugh Festival of International Literature & Culture, both of which are sponsored by the university’s award-winning magazine, World Literature Today.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The most notably hidden city in Norman existed more than a decade before statehood, when the main building of the closed High Gate College for young women was sold to the Oklahoma Sanitarium Company in 1895 and became an institution for the “violent insane,” according to a sign at the front gate. (Woody Guthrie’s mother was brought to the sanitarium and confined there in the 1920s.) It became known as the Central State Hospital for the Insane in 1915, and on April 13, 1918, a fire that started in a linen closet in Ward 14 claimed forty victims, mostly boys between the ages of ten and fifteen, along with some of their adult attendants. Thirty-eight of the bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in Norman’s IOOF Cemetery. For years the location of the grave was unknown, but just last month the site was rediscovered and marked out with stakes, although it still hasn’t been given a proper memorial. Nearby, rows of headstones and allées bordered by ragged elms and cedars mark out a grid that attempts to cordon off grief from the surrounding city. Our cemeteries, like our cities, impose a surface order over what cannot, ultimately, be known or controlled.

Where does passion live here?

In terms of the literary life of the city, passion arises from the combination of deep roots that local writers put down here along with a cosmopolitan international purview. The French-born literary scholar Henri Peyre once wrote that “Norman, Oklahoma, sounded to many a European ear as Persepolis or Samarkand once may have done to Marlowe or to Keats” (Books Abroad, Autumn 1976). Most people who visit Norman, especially if they arrive on I-35, don’t realize the hidden treasures to be found in what Peyre called this “remote, half fairy-like city.” If you can’t come in on the Heartland Flyer and get off at the historic Santa Fe depot, it’s best to approach the city obliquely: try Highway 9 from the southeast, Sooner Road from the northeast, or 48th Street from the northwest, which will sweep you in past the horse farms along the Ten-Mile Flats. (Only gamblers and tornadoes come into town from the southwest, so unless you want to take your chances, it’s better to avoid that route.) When I first encountered Norman in 1987, I was only passing through on the interstate, on a trip from Nebraska to Texas. Then in August 2000, when my wife and I moved here with our fifteen-month-old daughter and our dog, we drove in on Highway 9 past a bank thermometer that read 109°. We almost turned around and headed back to Nebraska. Now, fourteen years later, it’s the longest we’ve ever lived in any one city in our lives. Peyre later wrote that “Norman has gained the fame of an intellectual Mecca for those who care for the life of the mind (World Literature Today, Autumn 1985). For seekers of the literary life, there is an astonishing amount of vitality—and passion—to be found in Norman, to be sure.

What is the title of one of your works about Norman and what inspired it exactly?

My short poem “Eight-Legged Shadow,” which appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Prairie Schooner, isn’t about Norman per se, but it combines, I think, the particular quality of midwinter sunlight on the Southern Plains and the movement of walking with two of our dogs around the lake close to our home: “Not arachnid / but double quadruped // Stilt-like two-footed / biped in pursuit // Magic-lantern striding / perpetual-motion gaited // Ratamacue of footfall – / luminescence, syncopated.” The visual source of the poem (the sun from the west casting our “syncopated” shadows onto the grass) and the rhythm of walking, combined with playing the drums when I was younger, all coalesced into a sonority that flowed onto the page.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Norman does an outside exist?”

Norman can only be understood in the broader sweep of Oklahoma history. And if you want to understand Oklahoma history, you should start by reading Rilla Askew’s “Most American,” a brilliant essay that first appeared in Nimrod and was later reprinted in Voices from the Heartland, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2007. She writes about Oklahoma as “the viscera, the underbelly, the very gut of the nation” and, in a series of novels set in the state, makes a strong claim as one of Oklahoma’s—and the country’s—very best contemporary novelists. After you’ve read Rilla’s essay, go back and read Angie Debo’s restored essay on Oklahoma history in The WPA Guide to 1930s Oklahoma (1986), which was bowdlerized when the guide was first published in 1941.

In the new Oklahoma Poems anthology, I’d like to single out five remarkable poems by some of Louisa Brooke’s free-verse heirs who have a Norman or University of Oklahoma connection: Joy Harjo, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Joey Brown, Lauren Zuniga, and Kelli Simpson. Joy served as a juror for the 2008 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and championed the winning candidate, New Zealand’s Patricia Grace. Lauren was the 2012 activist-in-residence at the university’s Center for Social Justice. Jeanetta and Joey both received their PhDs here, and Kelli currently lives in Norman.

Among the state’s celebrated male writers, John Rollin Ridge, Alex Posey, Marquis James, John Joseph Mathews, Melvin Tolson, Lynn Riggs, Harold Keith, Jim Thompson, Tony Hillerman, and N. Scott Momaday are all worthy of note. In 2014 alone, we’re celebrating the centenary of three of the state’s most celebrated authors: Ralph Ellison, John Berryman, and R. A. Lafferty.

Last but not least, the ultimate book of “outside” lit, The Outsiders, was written by Tulsa’s very own S. E. Hinton.


Daniel Simon is assistant director and editor in chief of World Literature Today magazine at the University of Oklahoma, where he also teaches for the Department of English. He graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with a BA in French and English and received a doctorate in comparative literature from Indiana University, Bloomington, with an emphasis in translation studies. He is also a poet, with recent or forthcoming poems in the Adirondack Review, Prairie Schooner, das Gedicht, Levure Littéraire, Poetry International, and other journals; and has translated a number of French and francophone authors for WLT, including Assia Djebar, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Christine Montalbetti, Jacques Roubaud, Boualem Sansal, and Abdellah Taïa. His professional memberships include PEN American Center, the National Book Critics Circle, and the American Society of Magazine Editors. A Nebraska native, Daniel lives in Norman with his wife and three daughters. 

Published Aug 29, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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