This is a printer-friendly version of this article. Click here to return to Rain Taxi.
WHY IOWA? BECAUSE . . .
An Essay on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop
75th Anniversary Reunion
by Shawn Patrick Doyle
In popular culture terms, Iowa seems like a state in need of a publicist. For screenwriters, it’s a fallback hometown for any character who is just a bit too earnest or naïve for her own good. Iowans don’t seem to mind. In fact, they seem to invite it. They walk around with t-shirts with the word “native” printed inside an outline of the state. They take that line from Field of Dreams, “Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa,” discard the irony, and print it on bumper stickers.
And yet, in creative writing circles, Iowa could not be more prestigious. Writers who have studied or taught at Iowa link themselves to the 75 years of tradition of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In doing so, they pencil their names at the bottom of a list of illustrious names like Kurt Vonnegut, John Cheever, Rita Dove, and Flannery O’Connor. The Workshop receives 1600 applications yearly for roughly 30 spots, and continues to produce Pulitzer winners and attract big names. Marilynne Robinson continues to hold seminars each semester where members of the entire university community come together to read the great works like the Bible, Ulysses, or Moby Dick. The University of Iowa continues to reap the benefits of the foresight they had when they began to accept creative dissertations for graduate work and to invite great writers of the day out to the edge of the prairie to talk about their work.
So when presented with the opportunity to get press credentials and kibitz on the Writer’s Workshop reunion, I was both thrilled and terrified—eager for the opportunity to eavesdrop on the affair, but at the same time feeling like a crasher at a party I should have long since had no desire to attend.
Scanning the promotional materials for the conference online, it was tough to get a feel for what type of party that would be. Officially, it billed itself as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop 75th Anniversary Reunion. Many events (two dinners, a dance, an alumni open mic, and a Poets vs. Fiction Writers softball game) seemed to facilitate the kind of collective reminiscence that go with such reunions. Yet there were also two public talks, Robinson’s keynote address “The Workshop as Phenomenon” and a panel on “The Writer as Public Figure” featuring Ethan Canin, Michael Cunningham, Jane Smiley, and Abraham Verghese, bookending the weekend. The rest of the schedule was filled with an array of attendee-only panel discussions to which I’d have access as a member of the press.
When I agreed to attend, I assumed that these panels were created to celebrate the Workshop and would present the kind of congratulatory speeches one might hear at a retirement party, congratulations and humorous reminisces of the older days. However, while the titles of some of the panels addressed the history of the Workshop, the majority did not. Instead, they advertised a collection of panels on topics of concern to writers, focusing mostly on the profession of a writer and the place of literature in society. Showing up to Robinson’s keynote address, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a conference, a birthday party, or an event for alumni to meet and catch up.
The festive mood before the keynote suggested the celebratory tenor. As current director Lan Samantha Chang stepped to the microphone to introduce Robinson, a rousing cheer went up through the crowd. In her introduction, she called Robinson’s move to Iowa from Massachusetts a “phenomenal stroke of good fortune” for the Workshop. Robinson would later repay that compliment by noting that Chang’s hiring as Director of the Workshop in 2005 was a similarly fortunate event.
The rest of Robinson’s talk sought to strike the tone for the rest of the weekend. In it she humbly outlined the principles on which the Workshop was founded and to which it still holds true. At the same time, she persistently defended the place of literature and of programs that train practitioners of literature. She opened her talk by noting the prevalence of MFA programs that resemble Iowa’s and offered that this influence is “owed to the fact that it is at base a very good idea,” which she summarized as providing a place to engage in a good faith collaborative, to criticize work, and to have one’s own criticized by others. This idea, she claimed, is at the heart of a liberal arts education before moving on to define the Workshop’s place against other graduate English programs. In doing so, she emphasized a common defense of workshops, the value of practice in concert with critique.
In elaborating on such a model, Robinson offered answers to two persistent questions that pop up around the Workshop, namely, “Can writing be taught?” and “Why is Iowa the Workshop in Iowa the state?” Addressing the first question, she echoed what seems to be the party line for the Workshop, that writing can’t necessarily be taught, but writers can be nurtured by providing writers, as Chang put it in her opening comments, “support to focus on idiosyncratic work.”
In responding to the “Why Iowa?” question, she offered simply, “because the Workshop expresses the place” before going on to elaborate on her affection for the “the unpretentious urbanity” of the “quietly mythic little town” and the earnest politeness that some of her students take some time to get used to. This expression of the place and its welcoming atmosphere became more important later in the talk when she discussed how competitiveness and divisiveness can poison the well and ruin the collaborative environment. In essence, Robinson argued that the Workshop is in Iowa because Iowa is uniquely suited to the collegiality of the Workshop.
To her celebration of the project of the Workshop, Robinson added a discussion of the Workshop’s place in the present and future educational environment where cultural institutions seem to be under such a broad attack. She remarked that she is often asked if she feels that the Workshop simply creates “auto mechanics for a world with no autos.” She juxtaposed those external concerns with the internal worries she hears from those who wonder if the proliferation of MFA programs and the linking of writing workshops to universities creates a monotony of voices that seeks to suit the academic critics who read and promote their work. In response, she took an approach that redirected these questions. Rather than defending the practice of linking workshops to universities, she observed that writers and universities have been linked for much longer than the seventy-five years that creative writing workshops have been in existence, yet original voices have continued to emerge. She then favorably compared this model to those of the past where writers lived in poverty or were supported by patronage from the government or ruling party, quipping, “What could possibly go wrong with that?”
Robinson certainly made the Workshop the star of the show, however, as time passed, I found myself questioning whether that was really her goal. She expressed fondness for the Workshop and Iowa City, but this was no eulogy. There was no ending or closing of a circle. Even the 75th anniversary, she noted, was an arbitrary measurement reflecting only the first year when degrees for creative work were handed out. Such arbitrary measurements hid the years spent prior by literary clubs in the city who invited famous writers out to Iowa to read and talk about their works.
Still, Robinson’s keynote established the themes that would continue to be revisited throughout the weekend. In lieu of putting forth a straightforward commemoration of what the Workshop accomplished, the weekend’s panels located the Workshop within the larger contexts of literature and the profession of writing and examined those within the wider context of what they mean to society. Many of the presenters wove nostalgia and enthusiasm for their time in Iowa into their speeches, but almost always, their reminisces were smaller parts of speeches that focused on an issue of importance to writers and readers at large.
As I arrived to the Friday sessions, I was curious how Robinson’s tone would carry over to the private panel discussions, but more immediately, I was anxious about being exposed as a fraud when I asked for my press credentials. The Thursday evening talk with Robinson had been open to anyone who wished to attend, but starting with the Friday morning talks, I’d need a pass. The last time I’d needed to secure credentials to anything was a school trip to the White House during the Clinton administration. I feared this time around those giving out the credentials would be more suspicious, despite a round of phone calls to establish that my intentions were bona fide.
I had to go through a few people to find the appropriate contact. All were nice and friendly, but as far as I could tell I was one of only a few outsiders at the event. Finally, a man came up and introduced himself to me, verified I was meant to be there, and had the volunteer at the desk write my name and Rain Taxi underneath on a black bordered name tag. Alumni of the Workshop had a blue-bordered nametag that listed their full name and their preferred first name. I imagined that quite a few were wishing to be like those more prominent alumni who were recognizable enough to walk around without a nametag at all.
The press contact told me that I should feel free to stop and talk to anyone I liked. I thanked him, but I knew this wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t a reporter by training or trade nor was I outgoing enough to stop anyone at their reunion and attempt an interview. Besides, I’d already spotted several authors whose work I’d read and loved over the years, and anyone who I admire intimidates me. So I counted myself as fortunate to hide in the large crowd, which showed up for the first session. The size of the crowd surprised me. I suspected that some of Thursday evening’s cheer might thin out the numbers, at least throughout the first few sessions. Yet despite what I’m told was a rather large crowd at Dave’s Foxhead Tavern the night before, the hundred-plus chairs in the IMU ballroom were mostly filled with alumni, many of whom had brought along partners or children for the event.
Continuing in the family theme, the day’s session was called to order not by Chang but by her pre-school age daughter, who spoke a tentative “Hello” into the microphone before placing her stuffed penguin next to the microphone so that the audience might hear its recorded chirping sound. Chang then handed things over to the master of ceremonies for the conference who gave an overview of the weekend’s events and invited alumni to stop by an audio booth that would be operating throughout the weekend to record favorite stories from Workshop. It was here where I found out that I’d caught an additional break. All of the sessions would run in the same room, so instead of having to mill about and select which sessions to go to, I’d be able simply to sit as the schedule cycled through.
In the first panel, “What we learned from Frank Conroy,” the reason for the attendance at the morning session became clear. Conroy, who passed away in 2005, was one of the most beloved faculty members of the Workshop, and as director from 1987-2005, he shaped a lot of what the Workshop has done over the past few decades. Three presenters—Charles D’Ambrosio, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Abraham Verghese—relayed their favorite tales about the man whom Sittenfeld described as “funny, candid, and unflappable.” With each speaker, the affection and appreciation for their mentor was apparent. All three shared bits of wisdom they’d gleaned from Conroy on how to read, write, teach, and live. D’Ambrosio spoke of how Conroy’s influence on him extended beyond his writing, admitting “I didn’t have a model for thinking differently about my life until I met Frank.” Verghese noted that Conroy’s class gave him as close to dogma of writing as he found anywhere else: “The writer exists as a collaborative venture between writer and reader.”
The format of the panel, bouncing stories back and forth, worked for the topic, and picked up and reinterpreted the themes that Robinson had established in her keynote. Following this session, the agenda for the conference became clearer to me. This was certainly a time to remember times spent in Iowa, but more importantly, it was a time to reflect on the practice of reading and writing and to discuss those reflections.
However, accomplishing that agenda through the format of the conference would be a challenge. Following the Conroy panel was a string of panels that had a hard time getting their legs. Each seemed to get bogged down by the lack of a clear definition of what level of formality the format called for. Some prepared formal papers while others apologized for their lack of preparation and spoke off the cuff. The confusion did not hurt the depth of insight presented on the topics; these presenters were, after all, master readers. However, the panel discussion format seemed to stifle some of the back and forth that showed up in the first panel. It felt the entire time like eavesdropping on a conversation where the participants know they are being monitored and thus their responses feel censored and contrived.
The ambition of some of the panel topics might have played a role in creating the artificial feel. For example, from “What we learned from Frank Conroy,” the conference transitioned into a panel entitled, “What makes literature immortal?” That question might have worked on a twelfth-grade theme in the 1950s, but to expect someone to come up with an adequate answer in the forty-five minutes allotted for the session seems like setting oneself up for failure. The first two presenters, Deborah Eisenberg and James Galvin, refused to take the bait. Each unintentionally (or so they say) misinterpreted the title of the session to say, “What makes literature immoral? (I was certain that at least one latent-Freudian in the room enjoyed psychoanalyzing that one, and I scanned the crowd for telltale smirks.) Despite the confusion, both went on to present a fairly coherent argument that defended literature and its practitioners from claims of immorality: Eisenberg focused mostly on the literary reader’s ability to interpret and compose complex, nuanced positions in the face of a corporate totalitarianism, and Galvin put forth an argument that “if you look for the wildness evidenced in the world, you will find it in literature.” In other words, literature represents the world, and as the world is sometimes immoral, so is literature.
As the two finished, Allan Gurganus took his turn in the order. Attired in a suit and hat that made everyone else in the building look simultaneously underdressed and uptight, his speech outlined a much more straightforward and unapologetic aesthetic argument for what makes literature immortal. Delivering an impassioned performance, Gurganus marched through a string of logic that began with how we can tell the mortal from the immortal in 1930s film. Essentially, he argued that we sorted the eternal from the ephemeral by watching which films have died away as hackneyed regurgitations of clichés and tropes and which have survived. The same is true for literature: some literature has survived because readers have voted that it ought to be by reading and writing about it time after time. Immortal literature is, in Gurganus’s words, that which “always earns out,” and to illustrate his point and the value of the power of representation and invention, he cited Tolstoy and how no servants in his novel have walk-on parts; rather, every character that appears on the page in a novel like Anna Karenina appears fully fleshed out.
All of that represents about one percent of what Gurganus actually said, but getting that down was overwhelming. As he was speaking, I wished I’d taken shorthand at some point in my life, yet even a complete transcription could never capture the impassioned affectations and points of inflection put in throughout.
After only two panels, I feared I was already failing to capture the spirit of the moment. I felt the liability of my atrophied powers of observation all the more acutely for the skill of the others in the room. In my notes, I jotted down that Gurganus was wearing a linen suit before second-guessing myself. I searched my memory for other fabrics it might be, thinking it might be “seersucker” before realizing that I have no idea what “seersucker” is. Panic set in and for a short while, my notes on what it was like to be at the 75th birthday party for the Workshop turned into a meditation on lightweight fabrics.
For the presenters at least, none of the day’s remaining panels were quite as ambitious. Half of them, “The Writer as Outsider,” “The Urgency of First Books,” and “The Necessity of Estrangement,” focused on questions pertaining to the state of the writer in the world, a position for which the presenters had a more immediate analog.
In the first of these panels, Paul Harding presented an elegant version of the common argument that the writer must be an outsider because such a move is the only way to step outside the present and “build it up from zero to see again.” In conjunction to this building, he added that the writer must adopt the role of the outsider in order to “resist the temptation to come up with the current aesthetic.” The other two presenters Edward Hirsch and Francine Prose, presented an argument that agreed with and were aware of this position, yet both were careful to step back and question it. Hirsch examined the argument’s status as a literary trope, tracing it back to Horace, and then warned about the potential for writers who step outside of society and then use that position to assume a mandate to attempt to turn their observations of the world into prescriptions for reality. As an example, he offered the modernist poets, Eliot, Pound, and Yeats, who celebrated and admired authoritarian politics. Prose then followed with a talk that teased out some of the tension of the outsider position, noting that she frequently felt the burden of being “eclectic and misunderstood.” Writers have a responsibility, she felt, “to raise their hands and say the emperor has no clothes,” yet making such a statement is difficult, because no one really wants to be an outsider.
The “Writer as an Outsider” panel was one of the few that generated a natural conversation after the initial remarks. Each of the three writers explored the implications of the other’s argument. Prose provided Hirsch with the perfect example of his point that writers craft an outsider position for literary reasons by chiming in that she did not think Eat, Pray, Love was particularly subversive because it tells a tale of a writer who flees from a culture only to reproduce the narcissism of that culture. (She did not offer that Eat, Pray, Love has sold more copies than many of the authors’ books at the conference, but this fact shows the predilection readers, especially American readers, have for the outsider in literature.)
The day’s remaining writer-centric panels exhibited similarly thoughtful meditations on the profession of the writer. In each, the panelists interrogated the stereotypical experience of the writer to consider what it is like actually to be a writer in this social context. “The Necessity of Estrangement,” Scott Spenser, Z. Z. Packer, Elizabeth McCracken, and Philip Levine echoed a lot of what was said in the outsider panel. However, each found a way to connect their experience of estrangement directly to their experience with the Workshop.
Spenser began the session by remarking on how he felt it easy for an author to feel estrangement in a world of corporate-controlled culture. Such a culture creates an environment where finding entertainment is easy but developing as a writer is hard, because there are so few readers willing to give the time. This environment creates the space for the Workshop, a place where others have the patience to read the work of beginning writers. Packer continued this discussion, describing her experience of being challenged to imagine the type of estrangement Flannery O’Connor creates in Wise Blood. Like Spenser, she saw the Workshop as a place for her and her classmates “to estrange ourselves from what has been predetermined” and to resist putting forth the “official story.” McCracken then spoke about how teaching workshops taught her how hard it was to desire estrangement; she wanted too much for students to love her. This desire, she noted, is at odds with being a writer, and so one of the challenges of becoming a writer is to negotiate the desire to be engaged with the necessity of being estranged.
On the heels of these three meditations on estrangement, Levine then leaned toward the microphone with a mock reluctance that must be well practiced, and delivered one of the most enjoyable talks of the entire conference. He began by telling his story of coming to the Workshop, eschewing the theme of the necessity of estrangement in favor of the other necessities he found more immediately pressing. In doing so, he artfully wove a story that mimicked the movement of many of his poems. In humorous and seemingly innocuous anecdotes, he told of the need for shelter, of living in Iowa City with a view of an alley and a set of garbage cans, which he filled with other people’s whiskey bottles to annoy his landlady. He spoke of other, less pressing needs, such as his desire for a Triumph motorcycle. He spoke about the need for a mentor, reflecting that he learned very early on he wasn’t a genius and he needed someone who would be direct and honest but not cruel. He spoke with a self-deprecating modesty about the necessity of remaining humble, noting that John Berryman once told him he had a head start on this as he was “fortunate to be not all that great looking.” At the same time, Levine noted a need to balance such humility with the egotism a writer must have to believe he has things to say that others want to hear—a position he humorously mocked in the Q&A to this session when he noted how his first book was delayed for four months because the typesetter had run out of capital I’s. Throughout his talk, he casually built to the main theme, which he had seemingly dismissed at the outset. In his concluding remarks, he proposed, “Where does estrangement fit? I suspect it is either right before or behind, I couldn’t make up my mind, the need for an MFA.”
As the day wore on, I found my already poor journalism skills deteriorating. When I scan back over my notes, I find tiny nuggets that I feel hesitant to leave out and yet unable fully to explain. On “The Urgency of First Books,” Kathryn Harrison, Curtis Sittenfeld, Mark Levine, and Robert Hass presented their experiences with their own first books and with those they’d seen coming from their students; the reoccurring theme was that the experience of writing and releasing the first book is one unlike any other, filled with an urgency to finish it and a nostalgia for the whole experience once it was finished, an experience Harrison compared to looking back on a first love and feeling affection for it even though the subsequent relationships are much better. For “How Realistic is Realism,” Anna North, Justin Cronin, and Michelle Huneven spoke on the lack of realism in most fiction, presenting reinterpretations and examples of the old adage that fiction is the lie that tells the truth. For “How Does Humor Speak the Unspeakable?” Kate Christensen, Benjamin Hale, and Matthew Rohrer uncomfortably quipped about the expectation to be funny that their panel title placed on them, and offered examples of how humor can, as Rohrer put it, “shock us into recognition of what we forgot.” For “On the Future of the Short Story” T. C. Boyle spoke for only twelve of his slotted fifteen minutes, noting the irony of his presence after having spoken at the fiftieth anniversary reunion on the renaissance of the short story before going on to offer a fittingly brief defense of the short form.
If anything revealed the awkwardness of the form that the conference set up, it was the “Great Moments in Workshop History” panel with Glenn Schaeffer, Robyn Schiff, and Salvatore Scibona. Schiff told a story about encountering Jorie Graham while shopping for a dress and Graham offering two pieces of advice: “have a baby and collect your frequent flyer miles.” Scibona followed with a more earnest approach and spoke about learning in Workshop that writing was really just about “learning how to use words to mean what they say.” Schaeffer then followed telling a story of his attempt to set up a boxing match between himself and Norman Mailer, a fight he was advised he could not win. Schaeffer reflected that he “wanted to take the fight for existential reasons.” He envisioned turning it into a book with the subtitle, “How I Overcame My Anxiety of Influence.” As funny as these stories were, they felt stifled and at points contrived. The inside jokes received polite laughter from some or fell flat. As a whole the stories failed to add a sense of gravity to the occasion. In fact, they seemed to flee it. I don’t think this speaks to lack of skill in the storytellers, but to the impossibility of the task before them. After seventy-five years, the Workshop has accumulated a plethora of stories. Each group has their own that seem meaningful, tragic, hilarious, and poignant to them, and when shared over drinks or at a dinner party, I’m sure they’d bring the house down. But told under the title of “Great Moments in Workshop History,” they highlight how miniscule one’s own individual experience is in the collective.
Walking back to the parking ramp after the session ended, I left the first full day of panel talks jealous of the rest of the attendees (and not simply because their registration packet contained a validation for parking.) That evening, while the Workshop alumni attended a dinner and open mic, I sat and studied my envy. Sitting in the audience at conferences is usually fatiguing; following complex arguments delving in and out of secondary criticism takes a lot of mental energy, and if I don’t have a familiarity with the work, I can count on losing the train of the argument five minutes into most talks. I don’t recall that happening once the entire time. I leafed through my notes. In total, I filled thirty pages and felt like I hadn’t caught half of the interesting parts. I read a sloppily scrawled quote from Garganus’s talk which simply said “state capitol out of human nougat,” and it infuriated me that I have no idea of the context.
Returning the next day, my goal was to find a source for what I was feeling, and with those eyes, it didn’t take long to figure things out. Listening to the first panel of the day, “How Can Literature Imagine New Futures,” I determined it wasn’t that I lacked appropriate scrutiny; it was still there. But the scrutiny did not shut down my enjoyment of listening in to these discussions with respect and admiration. As Matthea Harvey opened the panel, I found myself unconvinced by her notion that the answer to the title question had much to do with a project encoding a poem into human DNA, but I appreciated it in the format of her talk, which optimistically imagined a new future where poetry was more prevalent. Kevin Brockmeier then spoke on the difficulty of writing about the past and present accurately and how this compounds the difficulty of writing about the future; I agreed with his pronouncement that the practical way to write about the future is for an author to follow the iceberg metaphor and “show little,” yet I questioned his offering Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I found to be an oversimplified projection of the current language of crisis revolving around energy, use of natural resources, and literacy, as an example of a cleverly imagined future. At the same time, I took his point that such a risk, writing about the very near future, meant that “for the next two decades her book will remain teetering between naturalism and fantasy.”
I wished I could have the panel’s other two presenters, Margo Livesey and Susan Wheeler, as teachers. Wheeler’s lyrical imagining of a future in literature as haunted by the possibilities of the wide open path felt true and overwhelming; the longer she spoke, the more sloppy and disjointed my notes got, as I desperately tried to scratch down key words and phrases. Livesey’s talk also had a flair of the virtuosic. Speaking for fewer than fifteen minutes, she drew on references from poetry and prose, from works from England, Italy, America, and Russia, from the 16th century all the way up until the present, and quoted Deborah Eisenberg and George Orwell while providing in depth readings of Orlando Furioso, Anna Karenina, and Middlemarch. As ballast, she tied these readings together by concluding that as a writer and reader she was always looking for “a new emotional equation on the page which will be something I instantly recognize and will point the way.” That singular phrase struck such a chord with me that I’ve already used it four or five times since the conference, each time probably butchering the meaning in the process.
From this point forward, my notes thinned out, which I take as a sign of my growing recognition of the uniqueness of this conference. That uniqueness became fairly clear in the second panel of the day, “Can Literature Fight Hatred?” In it, Stuart Dybeck, Nathan Englander, Yiyun Li, and Robert Hass all gave generally the same answer: “Yes, but it’s difficult.” The entertainment of the panel lay in the breadth of their approaches. Dybek linked literature’s capacity for empathy to a writer’s capacities to invent new worlds. In doing so, he identified writers as “the custodians of humanity,” and went on to cite Zbigniew Herbert’s “Five Men” as a poem that forces us to recognize humanity in the most inhumane circumstances and to mourn what is lost in such circumstances. Englander picked up on these themes; he opened his talk by dismissing the primary question as obvious. It is, he said, like asking, “How can broccoli be better for you?” Yiyum Li took a different tack, insisting that she didn’t understand why literature had to fight anything. She related her desire when she first came to Iowa to feel more educated, which led her to take Latin and reading Winnie the Pooh in that language, which inspired her to read about the life of the translator, Alexander Lenard, after being told his translation was “not very elegant.” Several points of Lenard’s life—escaping from Austria at the time of the Anschluss with Germany, losing a brother to a Nazi labor camp, and treating the local population as a doctor in Brazil—offered “a lot of opportunities . . . for him to hate or to fight hatred,” but he also translated Winnie the Pooh, which Li suggests somehow did more. Hass concluded the session by presenting remarks that began in cynicism before confirming his experiences of encountering empathy in literature and eventually rephrasing the question of whether literature should fight hatred—to which he offered an answer of “yes.” In Dante’s Inferno, he noted, it is not hatred at the center of Hell but indifference. At the same time, he acknowledged that as artists, “we don’t know how [to fight hatred] but we have to act as if we can, and having said that, all we can do in our own lives is to exhaust our own imaginations.”
In hearing Hass’s call to arms—my inelegant label which I imagined he’d resist—it struck me that the difference of this conference from others was how unselfconscious all of these panels were in their ambition and scope. It’d be impossible get topics such as “Can Literature Fight Hatred?” or “How Does Humor Speak the Unspeakable?” on the program at the MLA Conference. For the past forty years or so, literary criticism seems more about specialization in one time period or genre. In the wake of modernism and fascism and the uneasy celebration of the exceptional that both pushed forward, reining in one’s own faith in the intrinsic value of literary scholarship seems like a good thing, yet that move has not come without a sacrifice for both writers and readers.
These tensions seemed to play themselves out in one of the day’s later panels, “What is the New Avant Garde?” In it, the presenters illustrated the stakes of the debate of sequestering workshops in English Department. Two of the younger presenters, Cathy Park Hong and Jonathan Thirkield, did so unintentionally. Both looked at the conditions and context for the creation of the previous avant garde through a lens that was heavily influenced by identity theory and postmodernism, to arrive (if tentatively) at what amounted to the same assumption, which was that a new avant garde would probably have some influence on technology but they were not entirely sure yet what it would be. Both had bright and intriguing insights about the types of societal repressions that a new avant garde might resist.
While Hong and Thirkield spoke, D.A. Powell, the panel’s third speaker, appeared to take notes and rewrite parts of his talk. When his turn came, Powell began by expressing his discomfort with the title of the talk, noting that he found the idea of the new avant garde “quaint, redundant, and capitalist,” before quipping “Why ‘not new and improved?’” He went on to talk more earnestly about his admiration for the Workshop, which he felt an affection for because of its willingness to take him in despite a less conventional undergraduate experience. He remarked that he always saw the Workshop as a “correcting balance,” because in it “criticism comes from practitioners and not from cataloguers or spectators.” He then went on to present one of the only arguments all weekend that seemed to take seriously many critics’ suspicions of the proliferation of MFA programs and the housing of such programs in universities. He worried what might be lost if things continue as they are. “What poetry has given us,” he said, “is newness,” citing an array of poets who wrote and existed outside of the university structure. He wondered what the place for these poets would be in an academic system.
The remainder of the day’s panels, “Resistance to Poetry,” featuring Eavan Boland, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Carl Phillips, “The Writer’s Voice and First Person Point of View,” featuring Marilyn Chin, Tom Grimes, Robin Hemley, James Tate, and Dara Weir, and “The Writer as Public Figure,” with Ethan Canin, Michael Cunningham, Jane Smiley, and Abraham Verghese, all seemed to recreate the same kinds of discussions expressed above. Each contained quotable moments, many of which I failed to copy down adequately; each expressed a willingness to talk in public in an unselfconscious way about issues that most of us have a hard time finding in other places, and sometimes long for.
Following the panel discussions, the conference held a public reception at the Museum of Natural History, which I skipped on the notion that attempting to schmooze as an outsider who spent the whole weekend longing to be an insider was just a bit too much social anxiety for me to handle. Following the reception were private speeches and a dinner/dance for alumni, and the conference wrapped up on Sunday morning with a softball game featuring Poets vs. Fiction Writers, for which I didn’t even get a score. Simply put, none of these events works as well for a thematic bookend to the weekend as Powell’s talk. The tone he struck was both dissonant and harmonic to that set by Robinson at the opening of the conference. Whereas Robinson saw the place of the Workshop in the university as better than the alternatives of government patronage, Powell saw all that such alignment might preclude. Yet both celebrated and characterized the place and the mission of the Workshop.
Writing, or art of any kind, is a constant negotiation of the tension that Levine noted in his talk between egotism and humility—believing that you have things to say and doubting whether anyone wants to hear them. For many, that tension is so great that they turn to chemical means to suppress one side or the other. What the Workshop seems to have created is a space where young authors can go and feel supported in their attempts. It is a place whose mission seems to be deliberately and adamantly conscientious about being unselfconscious. For someone who aspires to write, that’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011