A Community of Writers (2008)



on the banks of the Iowa River next to the Student Union and across the water from the art building there was a series of Quonset huts the University of Iowa used the metal buildings during and after World War two for classrooms and student housing cold in the winter sweltering in the summer the Quonset s– were utilitarian and plain not an expected backdrop for literary greatness yet some of the greatest writers of the 20th century stepped through the wooden doors of the Constance Robert Frost Flannery O'Connor Robert Lowell John Cheever Dylan Thomas and John Barrowman to name a few why did such enormous talent come to an out-of-the-way place far from the publishing centers of the East Coast how did I uh become a literary crucible the answer has to do with eccentric personalities academic trends and a dose of luck all of which flowed through Iowa City as surely as the river verse making was offered at the University of Iowa from its earliest days the unconventional George cram cook taught writing in a room mined with silk tapestries by a crackling fire he offered students rum spiked tea and rode his horse across the pentacrest at night only the classics were taught literature courses so students who wanted to read and write contemporary work joined literary clubs by the 1920s and 30s these had grown into town gown organizations that brought well-known speakers to Iowa City the longest-running of these was the times club led by artist Grant Wood the club Central Committee met above Smith's diner site of the present-day Prairie Lights bookstore in a room decorated to resemble of Victorian parlor guests like Stephen Vincent Benet and Thomas Hart Benton word photographed wearing false beards and mustaches the club nearly got Gertrude Stein to Iowa City in 1934 but her plane was grounded by a snowstorm in Wisconsin the 30s were the beginning of a very rich period in the arts at Iowa as a result of the university's decision to recognize creative work as equal in importance and rigor to critical work under the leadership of the Dean of the Graduate School Carl C short Iowa was the first institution of higher learning in the country to offer a Master of Fine Arts degree John Dewey's learning by doing philosophy which was already revolutionising K through 12 school was finally impacting colleges and universities and Iowa was in the vanguard EC Maeby's theater department routinely premiered new plays which then made their way to Broadway Grant Wood was leaving a regionalist imprint on the art department and a young Argentine named Maurice Eolas on Skee went about creating one of the country's top printmaking programs creative writing began to percolate in the 30s too when Edward Ford Piper and Wilbur Schramm taught small writing classes in which students read each other's work and provided critical feedback the classes gradually grew into a program taking the industrial inspired title the Writers Workshop Schramm was its first director but when he left to serve in World War two Paul Engle a young poet and recent University of Iowa graduate took the helm angle grew up in Cedar Rapids the son of a horse trader he worked at a soda fountain in high school where he read the latest poetry publications during downtime with the academic advice and financial help of a high school English teacher angle was able to attend Coe College and then went to the UI where his collection of poems worn earth was awarded one of the English departments first MFA s soon after he won the Yale younger poets award was reviewed favorably on the front page of the New York Times Book Review and studied at Oxford via a Fulbright scholarship Engle possessed a fierce entrepreneurial spirit and was banned on making Iowa the best writing program in the world he recruited like a football scout and hounded the money trail long before most universities had any fundraising arm editors in New York and friends like Wallace Stegner recommended promising talent to him working late in the hen house that he'd fashioned into a writing studio behind his house angle wrote encouraging letters to aspiring writers come to Iowa we'll find you money he kept a scale on his desk so that he could meet her his own mail and then walk it to the railway station in time for the last train this time of year is it's right now it's mid-january and we've just received this year's batch of applications for admission to the workshop there are fiction manuscripts and poetry manuscripts and since I'm a fiction writer I'm responsible for reading all of the fiction work and choosing finalists which are then read by and voted upon by the faculty there are 830 manuscripts this year that's a jump of about 90 from last year so I'm not entirely sure about this year's numbers last year I calculated when we had 740 applicants that around 3 percent of them were admitted to the program that's a lower percentage of admission than there is at Harvard Medical School in law school so it's extremely difficult to get into the program in the workshops early years the application process was a simple interview with mr. Engle in 1946 a young woman approached him for a place in the workshop her Southern drawl was so thick that angle asked her to write down her request after looking at a few of her stories he immediately gave her a coveted space Flannery O'Connor became one of the workshops early successes although she was shy and a rarity as a female in the largely male classes her talent was readily apparent a classmate recalled today when she read a short story allowed after Flannery finished we sat there until the instructor gave meaning to our silence by saying workshop was over for the day for once there was not going to be any critical dissecting I suppose it was the most memorable Monday the workshop has had before or since angles efforts to make his workshop top-notch got a boost from the end of the war in the GI Bill a glut of veterans and their families crowded the Iowa campus living in Quonset huts near present-day hancher auditorium and behind Kinnick Stadium it was the height of the baby boom so the quad suits were packed with children it was a lively familial scene without parallel on contemporary American University campuses angle didn't care about the pedigree of a would-be student's education only his or her writing he routinely accepted students who didn't have an undergraduate degree hillbillies fresh off in navy submarine or Western Cowboys who'd seen Normandy but not New York his antenna proved to be excellent to work from these post-war students quickly attracted attention in 1952 the leading poetry magazine in the nation poetry devoted half of a special issue to UI students in 1960 WD Snodgrass became the first workshop alumnus to win a Pulitzer Prize the tree had taken full route and by the late 1960s and early 70s branches began to sprout angle himself was responsible for the first spinoff from the workshop the International writing program during the Cold War he'd begun inviting international writers to the workshop people whose voices have been silenced in their home countries one of them quali nia from Taiwan suggested he start a program like the workshop but just for international writers angle initially found the idea absurd but quickly warm to it following a dispute with the English department which remains shrouded in mystery angle left the workshop and through his considerable fundraising and recruiting skills into the International writing program he co-directed the program with Nia for several decades 1976 the couple who had married were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for creating an artist diplomatic program for whatever reasons Paul Engle retired from the Writers Workshop but does seem like the natural evolution to have created the model of the workshop for largely for an American speaking audience and then to expand it to the world way and add to that the fact that he had fallen in love with the Chinese novelist Nia while Ling and they came up with this idea of an International writing program and that seems to be the the next step in the process we do what we do well here on our local ground and then we reach out to the world another angle brainchild was the translation work shop wanting foreign-born writers work to be translated in a manner that reflected their author's original intent he invited fiction writer and translator Edmund Keeley to teach translation Healy paired foreign writers with native speakers calling it the tandem method although translation was a little-known art the class proved popular and an MFA in translation the first-in-the-nation emerged across the river play writing a close relative of the workshop had long thrived under ici maybe Tennessee Williams had come to Iowa in the late 30s to study with maybe and others and it was not uncommon for workshop students to take classes in theatres the playwrights workshop was not officially formed until 1971 but it was based on the same principles of collaborative and creative processes emphasized by maybe recent graduates of the playwrights workshop have found success in every medium of dramatic writing another program with the long history is the center for the book it grew out of the typography laboratory which started in the mid 40s as a way for students to learn the history of printing and its technical aspects a former workshop student and printer kim Mercker launched wind / press in 1967 the first letterpress associated with the University two decades later the center for the book was established staffed by scholar artists and bookbinding book history conservation paper making and the Griffith the most recent addition to the Iowa literary family is the nonfiction writing program it grew from the English departments master's in English with emphasis on expository writing the first graduate program in the nation to focus on nonfiction writing current students in the three-year MFA program are producing radio documentaries graphic memoirs and ecological travelogues the ongoing success of the Writers Workshop in forming some of the best authors of our generation and the growing success of other members of the Iowa literary family brings many successful authors to Iowa City each year including alumni like Jane smiley John Irving Michael Cunningham and Robert Bly as well as international greats such as Nobel Prize winners Seamus Haney Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky many nights of the week readings are given on campus or at Prairie lights bookstore opened in 1978 by Jim Harris prairie lights continues in the independent spirit of former Iowa City bookstores Epstein's and the paper place these literary oases as well as taverns like Dave's Fox Head where Frank Conroy played pool the mill where John Cheever held port or Kenny's which kept a dictionary at the bar have been as central to the Iowa City writing scene as university classrooms yet there is no bronze plaque to commemorate the two weeks that Dylan Thomas spent on a barstool at Joe's place nor is there any sign indicating the inspiration Denis Johnson took from the vine an important setting for his novel Jesus's son walk down to the Iowa River and watch the rowing team glide across its muddy waters and he'll find no trace of the Quonset huts where a young Flannery O'Connor once mesmerised her classmates and Robert Frost lectured Iowa City is now a much larger and worldly er place than it was when the workshop took root but its commitment to writers and writing is just as a parent Paul Ingles long ago words remain vivid and true I have been in many countries London Paris Berlin Calcutta Oxford Beijing but I prefer the corner of Clinton and Washington streets in Iowa City why because along the tree-lined Street and past the old red brick buildings walked some of the best writers and artists in the USA they are still walking they're taking mail for the Writers Workshop in my own poems to the late Rock Island train each night I could see lights in little apartments above the stores and know that some damn good writing was filling up a lot of paper you

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