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Writing the Heartland

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish on the poetry of home

Oklahoma State Poet Laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish will participate in Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers at the University of Tulsa.

Gay Pasely

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is the current Oklahoma State Poet Laureate, a two-year position she assumed in 2017. The author of three collections of poetry and one book of essays, Mish currently travels the state teaching writing workshops and speaking about her craft. On Saturday, Oct. 19, she will participate in the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers on campus at the University of Tulsa. 

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Mason Whitehorn Powell: As Oklahoma’s Poet Laureate, could you talk about representing the state both as an individual and in your poems?

Jeanetta Calhoun Mish: My family has been in Oklahoma, both sides of my family, since before statehood—both Native and non-Native. … For all its good and sometimes not-so-good, it’s still deeply my home. I breathe it. It runs in my blood. That’s the personal part. And as a poet, one of the things I really like to let people know is how rich our literary heritage is. I have a long ongoing research project into Oklahoma literary history, and now I’m partnering with a couple of people down at OU and we have a presentation, it’s called ‘Red Dust Poets.’ The first poem I found that was written about Oklahoma and written in the territories was back in the 1800s, so we’ve been doing this for a long time. People don’t associate Oklahoma with literature, and we have so much.

Powell: Can you tell me about your poetic inspiration?

Mish: Most of my work is place-based. I grew up in Wewoka and spent the majority of my time at my grandparents’ farm out in the country, walking in the pasture with my grandpa, and so land and space and place and the culture and history—I’m not sure I could write without it. I told myself with my last book I was going to stop writing about Oklahoma and my family; that did not happen. [Laughs.] There’s just so many stories to tell. 

Powell: Maybe you can help me settle a debate, or at least give your personal opinion: Is Oklahoma Midwestern, Southern, or Southwest?

Mish: Oh! Oklahoma is actually its own thing, but it’s definitely not Midwestern. Maybe in some of the wheat farming communities of northwestern Oklahoma, their culture seems to be a little more Midwestern. Where I’m from they used to call ‘Little Dixie.’ Down east of I-35 and south of I-40, that’s very much southern culture: southern food ways, mixes of southern people, Scots-Irish, African American, southern Natives. Of course, up here in the northeast a lot of the tribes originally were slaveholders—so there’s that part of southern culture—and fought for the confederacy. But my people’s language and food ways is definitely southern. I would say we’re our own thing, because people came from so many places. 

Things are kind of smoothing out because the older language is being lost, the idiomatic language that I grew up with. People listen to TV now—I’m not going to make a judgment about that—although, I love the idiomatic language for my poetry. It’s intrinsically metaphorical. 

Powell: I was struck by your poem “That Summer…” How did that come about?

Mish: It took me—I was 12—46 years to write that poem. It’s about the Girl Scout Murders, which I’m sure you’re aware of. I was at Campfire Camp and the backside of our camp at Fort Gibson butted up against the Girl Scout Camp. They just brought the busses in and took everybody home. And there wasn’t cellphones or internet or anything, so we didn’t know what had happened until we got home. It was also a presente poem, like [Latinx communities] do for people who have passed. It’s to remind people these three girls were alive at some point. 

I also think that event, those murders and the murders at Sirloin Stockade in the Summer of ‘78, I think those caused a very uncomfortable shift in the way Oklahoma thought about itself. It’s not like we never had crimes. It’s not like there weren’t murders. It’s not like there weren’t bad people, but those seemingly random acts of violence shoved us uncomfortably into a newer century and a newer understanding of what danger was. I think they were really important to the Oklahoma psyche. 

Powell: Tell me about your teaching and speaking engagements.

Mish: I love it. For one thing, I don’t take the highways. I roll my windows down and take the backroads and I catch poems all over the place. Everywhere I go, I’m so generously welcomed. I was in Hulbert yesterday, which is a tiny town due west of Tahlequah. And I saw every single student from 7th grade to 12th grade, and we wrote poems together and they were fantastic, and every kid was engaged. … I am choosing schools that are number one, rural, because that almost always means underserved; and number two, that have high poverty levels. I am going to be in schools next week that have poverty levels at 100 percent, and that’s what I chose, that’s what I want to do. … I’m hoping that poetry gives them a way when things are really bad—as it did for me—to put their feelings and thoughts in a way that helps them be resilient. 

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