Building a Literary Tulsa

by Helen Patterson

Tulsa has always loved culture and books, but as technology enables writers to travel and tour regularly, Midwest cities like Tulsa find new possibilities to actually engage with the writers they love. In the past five years, many writers have visited Tulsa, including Chuck Palahniuk, Colm Toibin, David Sedaris, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King, and Meg Cabot. We also have been graced by less well-known authors, promising new authors, and literary and academic authors writing for niche audiences.

Tempting authors to visit a city is a beginning, not the end: I’ve found myself wondering how a city such as Tulsa becomes a literary city. Not just a place where authors show up and people collect their signed books like collector’s cards, but a place that actively encourages the discussion and exchange of ideas, a place that nurtures and supports writers.

The existence of writing and writers is precarious—cities need a collection of citizens and organizations dedicated to promoting and nurturing the arts. Fortunately for Tulsa, we have many local organizations, including but not limited to the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, Nimrod International Journal, the Tulsa Literary Coalition, and the Tulsa City-County Library.

Traditionally, universities are bastions of learning, but they can be insular and indifferent to the welfare of the cities that host them. The existence of organizations reaching out to the public, supported by the university, help bridge this gap. My alma mater, The University of Tulsa, has Nimrod International Journal and the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities. Founded in 2014, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities draws interdisciplinary discussion by recruiting fellows from varied disciplines and backgrounds to research and explore a particular theme (food is the theme for 2016-2017). Since its inception, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities has held lectures, book discussions, and other events open to the public, as well as the annual Arts and Humanities Festival with faculty and student participants.

Nimrod recruits writers from around the country and the world, highlighting their work and inviting the public to interact with and learn from other writers and readers during its annual Conference. In both cases, young students at TU and from other universities and even high schools make up a large portion of the audience. By building bridges between the community and the university and appealing to the young, Nimrod helps to promote a literary Tulsa by transmitting a love of literature and learning to the rising generation.

As of 2015, Tulsa also hosts the not-for-profit Tulsa Literary Coalition, dedicated to bringing writers into the city, promoting local writers and others through interdisciplinary discussion, and sparking a passion for words in the young and the old. Through Booksmart Tulsa, the coalition invites authors to come to Tulsa, discuss their works and their writing processes, and speak to locals. The Tulsa Literary Coalition is also planning on opening Magic City Books, an independent bookstore which will support the coalition, this year in the Brady Arts District. By exposing ourselves to visiting authors, and visiting authors to us, Tulsa weaves its way into the national literary conversation and encourages its citizens to write, read, and love literature.

If you live in Tulsa county and haven’t visited your local library recently, perhaps the news that Tulsa City-County Library is a finalist for the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service will encourage you to visit. As an employee of TCCL I am biased, but Tulsa is incredibly fortunate to have such a robust and energetic public resource for both adults and children. A few weeks ago, I attended TCCL’s presentation of the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Reader’s Literature to Laurie Halse Anderson (pictured below, left), who is best known for her challenging YA novels. As part of the evening, Anderson presented the awards for Tulsa’s annual Young People’s Creative Writing Contest. Seeing these young writers’ excitement over the formal presentation of the awards and meeting a famous author made it clear Tulsa fosters a love of writing at a young age.

Helen Patterson Laurie Halse Anderson

I’m not a native Tulsan or Okie, but in the seven years I’ve been here I’ve seen the arts scene in Tulsa expand and thrive as Tulsa makes a conscious effort on many fronts to be a literary city. I plan on being a writer in a city that cares about writing—and wants future generations to care, too.  If you live in Tulsa, explore this city and all that it offers. If you don’t, consider applying for the Tulsa Arts Fellowship, designed both to support locals and to appeal to national talent. If that doesn’t tempt you, come for Antoinette’s coconut cream pie: David Sedaris said it was one of the best desserts he had ever eaten.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

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