Growing up in Texas, in those small-time, small-town grocery stores that dotted the barren landscape, there would always be a spinning rack of postcards and greeting cards with usually grotesque paintings of an old-timer using the outhouse while a donkey peeks his head in, often filled with cowboy poetry about horse manure, sleepy Injuns and nagging wives with rolling pins.
I’m pretty sure that’s the type of cowboy poetry Gov. Kevin Stitt likes and what he thought he was getting when he recently named cowboy poet Joe Russell Kreger as Oklahoma’s latest poet laureate. From governor.ok.gov:
“It is an honor to appoint Joe Russell Kreger as the 2021-2022 Oklahoma State Poet Laureate,” said Governor Stitt. “Joe’s journey to creative writing shows that it is never too late for new ventures and I look forward to this rancher turned ‘cowboy poet’ carrying on our Oklahoma tradition and promoting his work across the state.”
Kreger’s second time as Oklahoma’s poet-in-charge, the Tonkawa resident probably has many home-on-the-range musings that I’m sure your doddering grandparents—or even your parents, these days—might enjoy. But in a growing culture where even Trump’s glaringly white cabinet named Tulsa-born and Muscogee (Creek) citizen Joy Harjo as the National Poet Laureate, you have to ask yourself the question: wasn’t there someone—anyone—better?
Growing up, I was never a fan of poetry—we’re not counting song lyrics, right?—mostly due to the pretentiousness of many poets I encountered in high school. But Harjo and her appointment made me stand up and take notice, purchasing An American Sunrise when I found myself at Commonplace Books not too long ago. I fell in love with her words of Indigenous blessings and Native hopes for any and everyone.
Meanwhile, Kreger has two books: Lookin’ at Life and, of course, Still Lookin’, I’m sure found on the toilet tanks of many Oklahomans.
As good as poems like “Cows Don’t Know It’s Christmas”, “Calvin’ Time” and “Food” might be, Oklahoma has reached a brand new day—especially in our art scene—where writers and poets actually have something important to say and, honestly Gov. Stitt, those poets might be Black, Latino, Indigenous and so on. Nothing against the man, but to cast Kreger in this role is literally a defiantly close-minded return to yesterday.
Whether done out of brash anger, imbecilic laughs or, sadly, an attempt to stay in Trump’s appallingly low erectile flow, it’s hard to look at any decisions that Stitt makes and not see the intense dislike for non-white races in Oklahoma—something that he’s proven time and again. Kreger is a problematic choice that seems more like a stilted frat-boy tearing up a writer’s work before class than anything else.
Kreger just isn’t what Oklahoma’s about anymore, no matter how hard people in power try to keep it like that.
But if there’s a poet that actually speaks to the people of this state and reflects the troubled times and constant hopes of who we all are—and not just the imagined pleasantries of cattle-drives long dead—then that’s who should truly be our laureate. If they can do it in Washington D.C, then they sure as Hell can do it in Oklahoma.