City of Literature (2012)

The following program was produced
by The University of Iowa with
support from State Historical
Society, Inc., Humanities Iowa and the National
Endowment for the Humanities and
the Iowa Arts Council. I thought, Iowa City, I’m not
going to drive out there.
That is the wild. It just seemed a little desolate
to me compared to New York.
I worried that I would feel very
lonely. There was an almost folkloric
concern of producing a
literature that was native to
the Midwest. There weren’t that many people
who wanted to come to such a
It was vaguely disreputable. There was a heavy political
scene and a heavy literary scene
and they blended perfectly.
It was replicating itself all across the country
One by one people check out of
the gamble.
I don’t like quiet places. Adverbs are toxic.
A writer is somebody who writes
Every reader is a writer
You couldn’t stop Paul, Paul is a steamroller
All writers from the world ought
to come to Iowa City
They want to be told what they can do to move to the next level
and that can be hard to hear.
We take literacy and literature
Seriously We are dealing with artists
whose form is language Iowa City was once the state
capital of Iowa in the mid 19th
century, though it soon lost
that distinction to Des Moines miles west
Today Iowa City is home to a
major research university
But, for more than a century, it has been a haven for writers
The Iowa Writers Workshop is the
oldest creative writing program
in America The International Writing
Program has brought foreign
writers to Iowa for more than
four decades Alumni and faculty from the
University of Iowa have been
awarded over 40 Pulitzer Prizes
and Iowa City was recently named an international city of
How did Iowa become a literacy
crucible? In the mid-1800s, creative writing wasn’t worthy of
academic study
Loren Glass: When the University
of Iowa was founded in 1847, writing was not taught and
indeed the very idea that you
would cultivate self expression
as part of a college education was really not instituted.
The University was formed in
order to enhance the economy of
the state and in order to provide lawyers, doctors,
engineers, a professional class
for a, what was at that point a
frontier state. So, the degree to which English
was studied, it was studied
philologically, linguistically,
scientifically and the idea of creative self-expression sort of
emerged against that scientific
research ideal.
Mary Bennett: During the frontier period of Iowa there
were really people who were
self-made men and women.
They taught themselves by reading.
There were a lot of home
libraries that gave them entre
to the classics of literature. Of course, a lot of people
brought their Bibles with them
but they were also reading
Shakespeare but they were also being introduced to American
For example, in Iowa City in
1867 Mark Twain came to town and gave a lecture.
So they were really celebrating
what was unique about the
frontier experience, about living in the Midwest.
That started very, very early in
this town.
Students were responsible for the first writing opportunities
on Iowa’s campus.
Literary societies were formed
to gain cultural enrichment. The groups met at the Old
Capitol where they recited
classical and popular poetry.
Over time, the groups became writing clubs where members
would discuss the craft of
writing and share their own
work Mary Bennett: The trend for
literary societies had already
been established on East Coast
universities including Harvard and Yale but it took a different
slant here in Iowa, partly
because we’re on the frontier
and it’s a more egalitarian environment.
We have men and women in a
co-educational environment for
really the first time that is happening west of the
Mississippi in that era.
So those literary societies were
really a proving ground for young men and women to practice
writing short stories, poetry,
share it with others and get
some feedback and criticism from their fellow classmates It wasn’t long before
imaginative writing classes
appeared in the university
catalog Verse-making was taught in
spring 1897 by George Cram Cook
an Iowa native educated at
Harvard. Cook and his colleagues
participated in the writing
Loren Glass: There were many local writing clubs in Iowa City
and many of these actually were
encouraged by and participated
in by early faculty Not only were these writing
clubs important in terms of
trying to elevate the Midwest as
a literary center, they also were early models for the
workshop form, in other words,
the idea that you could develop
your writing in small groups as opposed to individually
The important thing about the
clubs is their regionalist
focus So there was an almost folkloric
concern of producing a
literature that was native tot
he Midwest So there was a real resistance
to the dominance of Boston and
New York and the East Coast in a
sense that the Midwest could produce its own indigenous
No one believed this more than
John Frederick, a native Iowan and
University of Iowa professor who
founded the Midland Magazine in 1915
Mary Bennett: I think the reason
that regionalism developed in
this town was partly because of people like John T.
Frederick or Benjamin Shambaugh
who have had opportunities to
make their name on the East Coast or at much more
prestigious old guard Ivy League
schools but instead turned their
attention to Iowa, a place they were proud to be from
They knew there were many
unexplored avenues for telling
stories, being very authentic about the people and characters
around them, the experiences
that they witnessed.
And so those proponents, both Frederick and Shambaugh, were
key to developing this idea of
regionalist writing in Iowa.
For two decades the Midland published stories and poetry of
regional authors, establishing
Iowa City as a literary hub and
paving the way for a new academic discipline Psychologist Carl Seashore,
known for his work measuring
musical and scholastic aptitude,
was head of the graduate college when, in 1922, Iowa became the
first major university to accept
creative work for advanced
degrees In this environment the arts
would flourish
E.C. Mabie’s theatre program gained national prominence
Grant Wood made a regionalist
imprint on Iowa’s art school
And Iowa’s graduate students produced compositions, paintings
and poetry collections
Among them were writers Wallace
Stegner and Paul Engle Engle’s collection of poems
would be the first University of
Iowa graduate thesis to be
Published But while creative writing was
taking root, the university’s
English curriculum still
emphasized scholarship John Frederick expressed his
concern in a letter to the
university president.
I know that you are fully aware of the many evidences of a
rapidly awakening literary
consciousness in Iowa.
In recent years, however, the tendency in our English
department has been toward
increased emphasis upon
philological investigation. It dominates our graduate work
to the almost complete exclusion
of creative effort.
Within a few years by the continuation of this process our
leadership in creative effort in
our region will be lost.
Fortunately, Norman Foerster shared Frederick’s belief in the
academic merit of creative
Loren Glass: He had trained with Irving Babbitt at Harvard and,
in fact, many of the initial
innovators here were native
Midwesterners who had gone to Harvard.
And he very much felt that
creative and critical writing
should be integrated. So he was the one who put in
place the vision that Seashore
shared with him, which is to
make academic credentialing more friendly to artistic production
to creative writing.
By the 1930s, literary groups
like the Times Club brought prominent writers to Iowa City
to read for enthusiastic
And the university would continue this tradition.
Though the program in creative
writing was formalized in 1936,
it was not until 1939 that it had a director.
Harvard graduate Wilbur Schramm
came to Iowa for a Ph.D.
in English literature. But Schramm was a talented
He had published stories in
popular magazines and as an assistant professor he led small
writing classes that were
intimate and lively.
The course was given an industrial inspired nickname,
the Writer’s Workshop.
Loren Glass: The term workshop
clearly has a craft orientation and the logic behind it I think
is at least partly to justify to
university administrators that
actually writing can be taught. This question constantly dogs
creative writing programs, which
is that if talent is what you
need in order to write well, then what can actually be taught
like you might teach a craft or
a science?
So the workshop form, it was talent can be cultivated, it can
be discovered.
It can’t be taught but you can
teach craft, right, you can teach form, you can teach the
mechanics of creative writing.
Despite his writing talent,
Schramm was more interested in the new field of mass
communication and in 1942 went
to work for the war effort in
D.C. The English department turned to one of its own to lead
the creative writing program.
Loren Glass: Paul Engle was born
and raised in Cedar Rapids. He was a small town kid.
His father bought and sold
He was educated first at Coe College and then wrote one of
the first creative theses at the
University of Iowa in the 30s
and the collection of poems that was his thesis, he renamed it
One Earth” and it won the Yale
Younger Poets Prize and his next
book, American Song, was reviewed on the front page of
the New York Times book review.
There is a spirit in us that has
Sprung. From the nostalgic memory of the
The feel of certain words under
the tongue The infinite features of the
human face.
Remembrance of wind cruel cold
in the bone, The songs of men and all their wailful crying,
the strange thoughts of a child
left all alone, A long eternity
of birth and dying. Loren Glass: So, in the late 30s
it would have appeared that Paul
Engle was a promising young
Poet. In the end he would become
instrumental, if not necessarily
well-known, as a person of
somewhat rarer talents is he would become an academic
Alison Bechdel: My office where
I work, where I spend most of my life is in the basement of my
I’m so happy to be able to work
in my home. Bob Shacochis: 24/7 is my cabin
off the grid, 8000 feet up in
the mountains in northern New
Mexico and the high road between Santa Fe and Dallas.
The only thing that would make
it noisy is if I pull out some
firearms. Robert Pinsky: I don’t like
quiet places.
If I’m in a cabin in the woods
and I can hear a bird’s song, maybe a dog walk click across
the hardwood floor and
everything is quiet and
peaceful, I got ape****, I don’t like it.
I wonder what is on TV and who
can I call on the telephone.
Mary Morris: I work best in motion.
I work really well on the New
York City subway.
I work really well on places but always with earplugs, I have to
have earplugs on.
I have my earplugs and a pen and
that is how I get through the world and a journal.
Joseph O’Connor: I find, I
suppose, like most writers that
writing never really stops. You’re working all the time.
You carry your characters around
with you.
You see things in the street and conversations and overheard bits
of dialogue on the train or the
Simon Van Booy: I usually write in bed.
The good thing about writing in
bed is not because I’m very,
very lazy. I was once in nicer years but it
is because I can fall asleep and
drift away into dreams and then
wake up and immediately write and I find writing immediately
after I’ve woken up is the best
In 1942, Iowa was known for agriculture, not creative
writing, when 34 year old Paul
Engle took over as director of
the Writer’s Workshop. Engle earned one of the
university’s first graduate
degrees for creative work.
He would then study at Columbia and later Oxford as a Rhodes
He traveled throughout Europe
and upon returning to the U.S. was hired onto the workshop
Loren Glass: The first important
thing I think to know about him is that he was a native
Midwesterner and he always
maintained very much a sense of
him of a middle westerner from the middle of the country.
His reputation was, in many
ways, very middle brow and he
was proud of that middleness. He, from very early on, was a
champion of the Middle West and
like many of his compatriots he
was someone who had been educated on the East Coast and
wanted to bring some of that
cultural status and some of that
level of literary education to the Midwest.
Paul Engle: I was the first
person in my family, as far back
as we know, ever to go to college and my mother was the
first person ever to finish
MY father did not. Why I wanted to go so
desperately I don’t know, but I
And I have a very interesting childhood.
We were terribly poor people.
I was a newsboy, I sold
newspapers on the streets. I bought them for one penny and
sold them for two pennies.
And I worked in a drugstore, I
went to school from 7:30 in the morning until 3:30 in the
afternoon and then I worked from
4:00 until midnight seven days a
week. But I had a very nice boss in
this drugstore and he let me
have a little desk in the back
of the store and when I was not selling magazines or ice cream
or Castor oil I could write
poetry there.
Loren Glass: Once Engle took over the workshop in 1942 he
promoted it with enormous
He ran the workshop as an autonomous program funded by
local businesses.
He was incredibly effective at
fundraising and he had no qualms about cultivating a relationship
between business and literature.
So he would bring his graduate
students to the Amana refrigeration company, to other
local businesses to raise money
and he actually initially funded
scholarships by himself. So you had to have Engle’s
loyalties to be part of the
Not content to select his students from applications,
Engle recruited like a football
He had an eye for talent and worked hard to bring promising
writers to Iowa City.
A literary networker, Engle
persuaded acclaimed writers like Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and
Robert Lowell to come to Iowa to
lecture and teach.
The heart of the writing program was the workshop itself where
small groups of students met
with an instructor to discuss
submitted works. Workshop classes met in barracks
buildings constructed as
temporary classrooms to
accommodate the influx of students after the war.
As a result of the GI bill the
students were predominantly male
but the star pupil of the time was Flannery O’Connor.
The 1950s would see the Writer’s
Workshop develop a national
Reputation. Poetry Magazine featured the
work of Iowa students.
Graduates published frequently.
And Engle was a skilled promoter.
He held literary conferences at
Iowa in the late 1950s bringing
major writers to campus and getting national attention in
Time, Newsweek and Life. By 1960 when a workshop graduate
won the Pulitzer Prize in
poetry, Iowa City was becoming a
literary Mecca. Marvin Bell: I had a Henry James
professor at the University of
We used to talk bout the rural place he came from, a place so
rural that the pigs came right
up to the porch.
And that was Iowa City. So I thought, Iowa City, I’m not
going to drive out there.
That’s the wilds.
So I took the bus. Marvin Bell: Paul Engle was
running the workshop and Donald
Justice was the only poetry
Teacher. Admission, even then, was on the
basis of manuscript.
I don’t think the manuscript I
presented would have gotten me into the workshop say ten years
But there weren’t that many
people who wanted to come to such a program.
It was vaguely disreputable.
It was totally informal.
Those were the Bohemian days to be sure.
The only reason the Writer’s
Workshop existed at the
University of Iowa, so far as I can tell, is that nobody could
stop Paul Engle.
Mary Bennett: Paul Engle brought
all the sensitivities one needed to this.
He was definitely committed to
seeing that the word on the page
got printed in books so that readers could read it.
He didn’t leave it to just
writing in a room without echoes
and never sharing it with others.
So he is a driving force.
He brought fame to the Writer’s
Workshop, he brought authors to the Writer’s Workshop, he was
really the person who made it
Loren Glass: Paul Engle was not only an enormously effective
academic and cultural
entrepreneur, he came on the
scene at a period when resources were being massively injected
into the American university
system to finance and enable its
growth during the era of the GI bill.
Like John T.
Frederick and the Midland, Engle
viewed the workshop’s success as a personal mission as evidenced
by the literary greats he
brought to Iowa.
Allan Gurganus: Adverbs are toxic.
Adverbs are the monosodium
glutamate of speech.
Paul Harding: One bad preposition construction that I
always have to cut is, in my
first draft I always write off
of and really you’re just supposed to write off.
That’s not very interesting is
Simon Van Booy: Shoes and cakes and the word tiny.
I know because a reader wrote to
me and made a list.
Eduardo Halfon: I would say that I usually cut more than I add.
Since I’m a short story writer I
will usually blot out most of
the story Bob Schacochis: I don’t cut
That would be the editor’s job
and I get cut a lot because I write too much.
In the 1940s and 50s, Paul Engle
shepherded the Iowa Writer’s
Workshop to national prominence. The 1960s would be a tumultuous
Engle’s network grew
increasingly international bringing more foreign writers to
the workshop and establishing a
poetry translation program.
Unlike the regionalists before him, Engle saw Iowa City not as
a center for Midwest culture but
a hub for writers from around
the globe. To the University of Iowa have
come poets from all the world’s
areas to prove that neither the
harsh frontiers of nations, nor the hard barriers of language
can keep poetry, that radiant
language of the heart, from
speaking. By translations made with a deep
love, both for the original
language and for our English
speech, they have tried to prove that all poetry speaks with a
single voice.
But not everyone shared Engle’s
Vision. Loren Glass: There was lots of
resentment against Engle by the
other professors in the English
department because of Engle’s single-minded emphasis on the
An English department is a
relatively stayed bureaucratic structure and it doesn’t have a
lot of space for the kind of
entrepreneurial energies that
Engle was exercising, although I think other people might have
used less friendly terms.
No matter what I’m doing, eating
or washing or walking or teaching, always think about
And always about poetry, Chinese
poetry, Japanese poetry, any poetry.
Marvin Bell: You couldn’t stop
Paul was a steamroller and Paul could talk to any kind of group.
He could raise money from the
utility company.
He would often get up to answer the phone in the back room and
then he would come back and
announce something like the
natural gas fellowship and it would all be true.
Loren Glass: In fact, by this
time Engle was frequently
absent, he was part of the Kennedy administration’s
cultural program and he was
frequently in D.C. and New York
at the same time as the workshop was growing to a size where it
needed actually more as opposed
to less attention.
There was a confrontation which involved all of the other
members of the English
There was lots of academic gossip and dissention and talk
about it and essentially Engle
had put himself in opposition to
the entrenched, tenured power structure of the department.
The conflict between Engle and
the English faculty came to a
head in 1965. Engle resigned as director of
the workshop.
But the groundwork had been laid
for a new literary experiment. By 1965 Paul Engle had turned a small writing course nicknamed,
The Writer’s Workshop, into the
nation’s top writing program.
But his time as director was not without conflict.
By the time he stepped down,
though, Engle had new plans.
Since the late 50s, Engle had brought foreign writers to Iowa
City and started a workshop to
translate work of foreign poets.
So when the Chinese novelist, Hualing Nia, suggested a program
for international writers, Engle
imagined a new literary venture,
the International Writing Program, established in 1967
would bring prominent writers
from around the world to Iowa
City, providing them time to write and experience American
Loren Glass: Engle, to a certain
degree, realized that there was an opportunity internationally
analogous to the opportunity he
had noticed two decades before
nationally which is that there was an absence of institutions
to house and organize the
international writing scene.
For 25 years I brought young American poets to Iowa City.
This little town surrounded the
cornfields with pastures full of
cattle, a state raising so much food, suddenly had more poets
per capita than any of the great
cities of the world.
It was a crazy idea to bring poets to this little place and
yet I felt it is imagination
that brings all men together, it
isn’t politics or economics or history.
It is the imagination.
So all writers from the world
ought to come to Iowa City. So the International Writer’s
Program has begun.
This was an even crazier idea.
But the poets came from Latin America — Paul Ingram: I got
to Iowa City in 1967 and there
were two scenes going on here.
There was the heavy political scene and a heavy literary scene
and they blended perfectly,
The year before I came Allen
Ginsberg had come and all of my friends made it absolutely clear
to me that I was nothing because
>I hadn’t seen that and too bad
you missed it all. But the first year I was here
there was stuff going on that I
had never dreamed of and if I
hadn’t been sold on Iowa City for a sort of a thrilling
literary ride, nothing was going
to make me feel that good. With trademark zeal, Engle,
along with Hualing, put his
considerable fundraising and
recruiting skills into the international writing program.
In 1971 he married Hualing and
with the support of the State
Department and private corporations, the International
Writing Program would bring
hundreds of foreign writers to
Iowa City. For their efforts in connecting
writers worldwide, Paul and
Hualing Engle will be nominated
for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.
We are dealing with older and
established writers who are here
not as students, not as tourists, not as guests but as
artists whose form is language.
IT seems to me therefore that
this ought to be a symbol to the world in which people who are
imaginative know and trust
people who are imaginative.
After all, if you are reading poetry to each other, you are
not fighting each other.
The Writer’s Workshop moved on
without Paul Engle. But its reputation was
The success of the program had
impact outside of Iowa as well. Loren Glass: What Engle did was
put a system in place that once
he left, not only could it run
of its own energies in Iowa, it was replicating itself all
across the country which meant
that people that started
programs in other universities would want to send their
undergrads here to Iowa.
And it was branded as an Iowa
invention by the time Engle left.
Bo Caldwell: A writer isn’t
someone who is published, a
writer is somebody who writes. And it’s really important to me
— I’m not great about working
everyday but I try to and even
if I’m writing just kind of some long hand stuff I’m using my
writing muscles.
So, to me a writer is somebody
who writes consistently. Bob Schacochis: Well, every kid
in kindergarten is a writer and
a painter and a dancer and all
those things are there. One by one people check out of
the gamble.
They think it’s crazy.
And I guess it is. Robert Pinsky: I’d like to think
less about Robert the writer
than Robert trying to make a
work of art. How can you make something more
And writing is one way to do
That. Joseph O’Connor: Every reader is
a writer, for a start.
What the reader does is to take
these little black ink stains on a page, that’s all they are, and
turn them into a story.
The Writer’s Workshop today is an institution with elegant
facilities, funding and highly
selective admissions.
But the program is much like it was in the days of Engle, still
divided into poetry and fiction,
still turning out successful
writers and teachers of writing. Lan Samantha Chang: People come
from all over the country to the
program because they want
feedback on their work. And they don’t simply want to be
told that the work is
outstanding and gorgeous.
They want to be told what they can do to move to the next level
and that can be hard to hear.
But I think most students end up
being glad that they heard it Lan Samantha Chang: So, instead
of me being the person who
pronounces on the work, I think
it’s more that we look for the work to speak to us and then we
try to figure out a way to make
it a stronger version of what it
wants to be. So we spend a lot of time
talking about what the story is,
in its essence, and what it
would be if it were as good as it could possibly be, how to
move the writer up to the next
Lan Samantha Chang: We are three and a half hours from Chicago,
four hours from Omaha, five
hours from Minneapolis and
Kansas City and six hours from St. Louis and so we really have
a thriving culture because
everybody who is here has a
stake in being here. Nobody can just flee. I also think that our isolation
The writers who come here, there
is less for them to be distracted by.
Winter is good.
It makes people hole up and work
really hard. I think that Paul Engle had a
great role in bringing amazing
writers to this campus and
making this campus a destination for writers and that that
tradition is still true.
Ethan Canin: When you teach
fiction writing you have such an intimate look into people’s
There’s really nothing quite
like it. I think it stimulates me here
because so much of what I read
is so good.
I think if you read bad stuff it can discourage you as a writer.
But I read six or seven stories
a semester that I don’t think I
could have written myself and that is wonderful.
Another thing is you realize
after a certain point you
realize that everything you’re saying to your students you’re
actually saying to yourself.
The thing about writing is that
— fiction writing at least — is that you need, I think you
need two things, two sort of
large personality traits to get
it done. One is a kind of sense of manic
invention to be able to throw
yourself into manic stage, to be
inventive, to be confident enough to do something original,
to be wild enough to type 500
pages out of your own head.
And the same person also has to be sort of logical and rigorous
and have sort of a pretty severe
editorial function so that you
don’t publish junk. So I’ll spend a couple of months
building up a few, a couple
hundred pages and then I’ll
spend a couple of months organizing it and I always make
storyboards, which is what
screenwriters do, and I use all
kinds of techniques. I use different colors for
different plots.
I have one right here where each
plot is a different color and that is the only way you can
look at something, I can look at
something I’m making and sort of
understand what the reader’s experience of it might be at
that moment.
So I teach that way and I try to
think about fiction that way as made up of pieces.
And then you try to read the
damn thing and you try to read
it as though you didn’t know you wrote it, which is very, very
I often find that if I read my
student’s work before or read something else, read a good
piece of student work or
something else I really like I
can kind of get myself into that mood where fiction seems real.
Laurel Fantauzzo: I am ____ and I moved here from New York and I
grew up in southern California.
All of my writer friends who
knew I had gotten into Iowa, they all said, Iowa, oh my God
and then all of my other friends
said, Iowa?
It just seemed a little desolate to me compared to New York.
It just felt very, very small
and I worried that I would feel
very lonely. Laurel Fantauzzo: Workshop is a funny organism.
I think people have a lot of
different, I guess, experiences
and feelings about it. We always start out positive
with something nice.
You need to be not so much about
ego and competition but more about supporting and enriching
what your classmate is trying to
do because otherwise it is just
competition. I actually do not enjoy writing
and I know that is probably a
crazy thing to say being at Iowa
but it’s so lonely and you really have to fight with
Coming here I stayed really
skeptical until about the last minute about whether or not this
was going to work for me.
And I think it will.
Farhad Khoyratty: When I take a cab here, the cab driver will
say, so are you a writer?
I don’t think this happens in
many parts of the world really and not necessarily in many
parts of the U.S.
Albana Shala: In the vastness of
America, what seems to work is the community, the small
community, the small town life
and I think apart from being a
literary hub it is a university campus full of students and
scientific and literature
production going on but on the
other hand, what I felt here is that small community that gets
together and gets things done.
Farhad Khoyratty: What I’ll get
of Iowa City is the sense that there is a community of writers
out there.
I’ve never been to anywhere
where there were so many writers in one place, where being a
writer was seen as something so
ordinary and wonderful at the
same time where you could actually be yourself.
It’s like this is a fish that
has gone back to water having
spent ages in little ponds. Yann Martel: Oh absolutely,
David Shields: I don’t know.
I dance around that a bit. Tom Grimes: I wouldn’t define it
as spiritual in a going to
church sense of things.
Robert Pinsky: I like blasphemy. Allan Gurganus: I wouldn’t do it
if I didn’t think there was a
tremendous spiritual benefit not
only to the reader but to the writer.
Connie Mutel: Well, it certainly
is meditative.
I mean, you have to go into another world when you’re
writing, a world apart.
David Shields: I take it quite
seriously as a philosophical investigation but spiritual –
Robert Pinsky: For me there’s a
lot of spiritual force in taking
God’s name in vain. Yann Martel: In writing words
that try to capture experience,
that try to remember lost time
it inherently becomes spiritual activity of trying to understand
the inner core of something.
So I think it is entirely
Spiritual. Tom Grimes: If I connect with
other people as a writer and I
connect with readers then there
is something spiritual about it that I just think can’t really
be named, which is good, it is
ineffable which I think is what
it has to be, Bob Shacochis: I don’t know,
it’s profound, I know it’s
profound and I know it can rock
my world. Maybe I don’t know quite how to
talk about it.
Joseph O’Connor: You know, Yates
says that all poetry comes from the foul ragoned bone sharp of
the heart and I think all
fiction comes from there too.
But the foul ragoned bone sharp of the heart can be a very
homely place. In the wake of the Writer’s
Workshop, literary arts thrive
in Iowa City. When Wilbur Schramm returned to
Iowa after the war to lead the
school of journalism, he took
another innovative step, establishing a typographic
laboratory at the university.
This concentration of expertise
in book making would later give rise to a fine press movement in
Iowa City.
Mary Bennett: These were small
one to two person shops where people would lay out books by
hand using old fashioned
printing techniques.
Poetry and short stories got published that way.
And, again, very finely crafted
with such a careful hand.
They were just absolutely beautiful objects and, again,
expressed that love that people
have for books in this
community. The typographic laboratory is
now the Center for the Book,
integrating expert craftsmanship
with the study of the book in society.
Timothy Barrett: You would
think, gosh, why should any
university have a program in paper making or books and paper?
Aren’t they passé?
Isn’t this the digital age?
But you’ve got to remember that for eighteen centuries every
piece of paper in the world was
made by hand and after 1800 when
the paper machine was invented a tremendous amount of paper was
produced by a machine and there
is a tremendous history of
transmission of literature, ideas via books and paper.
The digital revolution that
we’re in the midst of, the idea
that the book may in fact be disappearing in many forms has
made people suddenly more aware
of the book and of paper.
And if you think about it the book has been a very, very
functional user friendly device
for centuries.
And I think whoever invents what comes next digitally needs to
really understand why that Codex
book structure has been so
effective. Books and paper give words a
place to lie down, according to
a poet friend of mine. Each June and July festivals and
workshops bring writers and
readers to Iowa City.
Danny Khalastchi: The Summer Writing Festival brings hundreds
of people through here, people
that live in California, that
live in the Dakotas, that live in Carolina and they come here
being doctors, lawyers,
insurance salesmen, whatever and
for a week for the Summer Writing Festival they are
writers because their teachers
say they are and because they
let themselves be that and the city responds to that.
I think everyone is a writer if
you put in the time and let
yourself do it. Danny Khalastchi: The writer’s
studio is a very selective
You get hundreds and hundreds of applications of kids that just
want to be here and you can’t
take all of them.
So the people we have here are the best of the best.
I mean, I’m frightened by the
talent these students have.
And, again, as a writer myself if I spend an afternoon or an
evening working with a student
on their work it makes me want
to go home and also write and that is what you get in the
graduate workshop and it is what
you get in any good community.
This city and this university care so much about letting
people express themselves on the
page that every summer I choose
to come back here to be around it.
Jesus, you walk down the street
and there’s words carved into
the street and you’re literally walking on language and I think
that’s something that if you
can’t be energized b y that
maybe you’re not a writer. But I think everyone can be a
This community of writers is now
branding itself. In 2008, the United Nations
Educational Scientific and
Cultural Organization approved
Iowa City as the world’s third city of literature.
Loren Glass: The fact that it is
UNESCO is significant in terms
of the heightened importance of what we might call cultural
diplomacy in the post-war world.
UNESCO was basically set up
under the premise that cultural exchange could enhance world
peace and world political amity.
So the designation of Iowa is a
recognition of Engle’s success in instituting that vision that
Iowa City is not just a literary
center, but that Iowa City
represents and element in a worldwide effort at cultural
diplomacy and cultural
I kind of wish it had been termed the city of writers but I
understand why it’s city of
Literature is a big sounding word, isn’t it?
It’s not the kind of place that
I would go around saying, hey
did you hear? We’re city of literature. First, it just sounds like it
would be in poor taste and
second, I believe that a lot of
cities can be cities of literature if people will pay
attention to what is there, to
the beauty of literature.
Edward Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra and King
George with Queen Mary, below
them on the table stood a
stuffed loon, shot and stuffed by Uncle Arthur, Arthur’s
Since Uncle Arthur fired a
bullet into him, he hadn’t said a word.
He kept his own council on his
white frozen lake, the marble
top table. His breast was deep and white,
cold and carressble.
His eyes were red glass, much to
be desired. Literature will take you places
that they’re no chance you’re
ever going on your own.
Christopher Merrill: In the pattern of imagery and idea, in
the cadence of verses, in the
plots and the characters who
take on lives of their own in a literary work, we find ways to
understand ourselves, we broaden
our powers of empathy, we engage
in that most intimate of acts. We are with ourselves in
dialogue with some imagined
That is a wonderful antidote to the speeded up lives that we now
It has always been an important
part of the human condition to have ways to tell stories to
ourselves and ways to tell the
stories of the places where we
live and in literature that is what we do. He shook hands, he made it clear
that he loved literature, was
buying books for his children.
In a way it was more wonderful when he mentioned Prairie Lights
and the whole audience cheered.
So, let me talk to you about
what this means for a business like your own Prairie Lights
Bookstore downtown.
You know, that matters.
It made me feel like the town loves its bookstore.
Nicholas Meyer: And thank you
also for that exceedingly kind
and generous introduction. This place is sort of my
spiritual home, Iowa City, so I
come here every chance I get.
Born in New York, filmmaker Nicholas Meyer, came to the
University of Iowa in the mid
60s to study film and theater.
Nicholas Meyer: The funny part that sealed the deal was I
looked at a bulletin board and
it said that there were still
tickets available to the Budapest String Quartet and any
worries I had about Iowa City
were put to rest.
I just though, Christ, I can’t get tickets to the Budapest
String Quartet in New York.
I’ll be better off here.
I just fell in love with it. I’ve never seen anything like
this in my life and it spoke to
And particularly out of the theater department I was taught
by real masters, I was taught by
Howard Stein, I was taught by
Peter Arnott. These were people who really
broke down what drama was and
how it worked.
Nicholas Meyer: This led to something very important for me.
I said, I am never again reading
a Shakespeare play until I’ve
seen it. So when I was here as an
undergraduate, I saw my own
theater’s department’s
production of King Lear and I was the only person in the
audience who didn’t know what
was going to happen next and it
remains the single greatest theatrical experience of my
life. Even all these years now I can
scarcely speak of it.
Nicholas Meyer: It’s like coming
Home. This is the first place I was
This is the place that gave me a
chance to sort of start over. It was very meaningful to me and
I come back every chance I get
because I got so much from this
place. I owe them big time. In 2011, the Writer’s Workshop
celebrated its 75th anniversary.
Poets and Writers currently
rates Iowa the number one graduate program in creative
The International Writing
Program has brought the world to Iowa for nearly 45 years. Iowa City celebrates this
heritage, but there are few
reminders of the people who long
ago forged a community of writers in the heart of America.
Mary Bennett: I don’t think
we’re every going to know all of
the cast of characters. This was a huge community of
people over many generations
that contributed to what
eventually has become what we call the City of Literature.
There were people who never will
be known in our imagination or
our minds but they were key people to what transpired in
this town.
George Cram Cook, who taught
Iowa’s first creative writing class in 1897, headed east to
form the Provincetown Players
Theater Group. John Frederick, whose Midland
made Iowa City a hub for
writers, folded his magazine
during the Depression. Wilbur Schram, who founded the
Writer’s Workshop, and later the
Iowa Typography Lab, made an
even larger impact in the field of communication studies Paul Engle retired from the
International Writing Program in
1978 and Hualing stayed on as
director. Engle died in 1991 at O’Hare
airport on his way to Europe to
receive an award from the
government of Poland. When you are so eager, as
Hualing and I are, to do new
things, then you don’t get old.
You keep always new and in that way when we look ahead we are
not looking back, we think oh,
five years from now what writers
will be here from Yugoslavia, from Japan, from the new African
And of course this makes us feel
Hopeful. We believe, you see.
Loren Glass: Engle’s plan was to
route all of American writing
and much of European and Asian writing through Iowa City and
few plans have been more
effectively realized.
In my essay on Engle I call him a vanishing mediator.
This is a term from Max Weber’s
Sociological Theory.
A vanishing mediator is someone who brings a change into being
but once the change comes into
being his or her significance
vanishes and they frequently are forgotten.
Engle is not entirely forgotten.
We have a Paul Engle day here
and Chris Merrill, in fact, has been instrumental in sort of
reminding people who Engle was.
But because Engle was not
recognized, ironically, for his creative work, his historical
mark on this city is relatively
thin and light.
We don’t have a scholarship named after him, we don’t have a
street named after him, we don’t
have a building named after him.
I promise you that at least half of the students in the workshop
probably have never even heard
of him and certainly have never
read his poetry. A seventy beat up jailed up for
the crime of beating horror,
beauty, into rhyme.
I walked a blacked out cell block of my brain.
Sure, I am made.
But sure that I am sane.
A cornfield kid crazy for English words.
Old scarecrow lonesome for the
screaming birds.
I think it was good that for so long the director of the
workshop was a poet.
You don’t make money writing
poetry and you don’t have a big audience writing poetry so you
must be doing it because you
need to and because you’re
getting something out of it you wouldn’t get otherwise and
because it is a new way of
thinking, a different way of
thinking, because it uses words to get beyond words, because it
finds words for emotions which,
of course, themselves have no
words. Words are words and emotions are
But all art is about what life
feels like finally.

5 Replies to “City of Literature (2012)

  1. I live in Georgia and my dad thinks I'm crazy because i want to go all the way to Iowa for a Creative Writing clas

  2. Seems like people still have issues with Engle. Maybe they're jealous. They ought to give the man more attention for what he did for the university, for the city, and for creative writing. Maybe Loren Glass ought to put his own ego aside and give Engle a little credit.

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