When a small university holds a regional conference featuring a nationally recognized speaker, big things happen.
In the first weekend of October, Oklahoma Christian is holding the Southwest Regional Conference for Christianity and Literature, featuring poet Dana Gioia as the keynote speaker.
“The speaker I really, really wanted was Dana Gioia because he’s a poet, a wonderful lecturer, a literary critic, a terrific musician and was also the chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts under the Bush administration, so he’s a very well-known person,” Merle Gatewood, associate professor of English and French and the conference organizer, said. “He’s also been honored by the national Conference on Christianity and Literature, which gave him a lifetime achievement award. So he’s an absolutely spectacular person to come.”
This year’s SWCCL corresponds with the sixth annual McBride Lecture, filling the weekend with scholarship and discussion.
“You need to decide a couple of years in advance whether you want to host this because you have to start preparing,” Gatewood said. “So we’ve been doing this for three years, planning for it to be here because we wanted to piggyback it on the McBride Lecture.”
The Southwest region of the CCL includes Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas, and the conference rotates through the three states each year.
The conference opens Thursday, Sept. 30, with a performance by the Oklahoma Christian chorale of some of Gioia’s libretto of “Nosferatu,” conducted by Professor of Music Ken Adams.
“Some of our singers are going to come in and actually sing some of the arias from it, and Gioia’s going to talk about them,” Gatewood said. “That’s going to be very exciting.”
Following the performance is a poetry reading by five poets from the Southwest region, as well as Gioia.
“Gioia said, originally, that the way poetry should be read is to read your own poetry, but also poetry of other poets you like,” Gatewood said. “A poetry reading shouldn’t be a presentation of one person’s ego, but that it should be something pleasant and enjoyable, not stiff and formal. A group of our poets decided to do that sort of thing.”
Concurrent poetry panels are expected to read each hour in the Williams-Branch Center on campus that Friday.
Juniors Cady Haas and Claudia Brazle, senior Wil Norton and recent graduate Ben Rawlins, are among the panels reading during the conference.
“Our panel should be pretty interesting since we all speak on early English literature dating from the Medieval Period up to the Early Modern Period, a time when all art really strove to point to God in some fashion,” Norton said. “I think we will provide a very nuanced view of some of the building blocks for our own faith lenses that we put on every time we read the Bible or think about God.”
Norton said his paper, “The Body as Rhetoric: Milton’s Satan in ‘Paradise Lost,’” has clear faith-related applications dealing with God’s omniscience and the paper “felt like a natural fit to attempt to speak at the conference.”
Gatewood said she is proud of the Oklahoma Christian students participating in the panel.
“Our students really shine, and I think the other papers will be worthwhile, but we’re going to feel very good about the sessions we have students in,” Gatewood said.
Norton said all students should experience opportunities like this.
“Everyone should have to learn how to speak in front of a crowd, and we should have to propose our beliefs with the vulnerability to have our thoughts challenged or at least put into discussion,” Norton said. “When we allow ourselves to be in this position, I think everyone can grow in that experience.”
Gatewood anticipates approximately 500 attendees for the keynote presentation of the two conferences on Friday evening.
“Everyone kind of figures this will be a real high point in the regional conference,” Gatewood said. “We’re glad to be doing this on our campus. Going to hear Dana Gioia is going to be very, very worthwhile. All students are welcome to the public lecture, and I certainly would encourage that. You don’t get a national-level thinker like that all of the time.”
All conference attendees are invited to the presentation entitled “The Literary Ministry of Ralph C. Wood” Saturday morning. This specific conference offers five of Wood’s former Baylor University students discussing how his work contributed to contemporary Christian literary scholarship.
“It’s a very positive thing because it fosters Christian fellowship,” Gatewood said. “One of the things the CCL wants to do is foster Christian scholarship. Its main focus is to look at literature from a Christian perspective, so people do have the academic relationship. And of course, the Christian element makes it that much better.”
The conference schedule and further information can be found at www.oc.edu/swccl.