Friday, June 10, 2011

Reflections on "The Workshop as Phenomenon"

Following last night's keynote address by Marilynne Robinson (pictured below) and this morning's series of panels, the "reunion" marking the Iowa Writers' Workshop's 75th anniversary is now in full swing, and P&PC's Iowa City affiliate has just checked in. Here is one person's take on some of the events of the last 24 hours:

Yesterday evening, following a welcome and introduction by novelist and current Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang, Marilynne Robinson delivered the reunion's keynote address, "The Workshop as Phenomenon," in Iowa City's historic Englert Theater. Although some notable figures were absent—some were off hearing Greg Brown performing at The Mill, one of Iowa City's historic music venues—it was a packed house that heard Robinson praise the Workshop for setting a precedent by which people would be encouraged to write within the auspices of higher education. Anything that gets people to think and write seriously in an age of rage, worry, half-truths and non-truths, she argued, is a good thing; better to have people writing as teachers and students within the relative freedom of higher ed, she continued, than meeting the expectations of a royal patron, succumbing to the market, or "cranking out dime novels under assumed names." Except for the fact that Workshop graduates have cranked out cheap novels under assumed names to pay the bills, there was little to object to in this thematic strand of her speech which sought to praise what creative writing workshops do well.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Robinson's talk centered on the pivotal role of the University and Iowa City in the history of university and college-level workshops and graciously acknowledged the region's literary culture of writing clubs, workshops, and other such meetings that predated the Workshop's official formation in 1936. While she praised the model of exchanging and critiquing work that the Workshop would inherit and develop, though, and while she offered a long catalog of prominent writers who visited Iowa before the formation of the Workshop, Robinson didn't name any of the people who actually lived and wrote in Iowa themselves—people who were cultivating and caring for the literary soil that would ultimately (even unpredictably) support a publicly-funded institutionalized creative writing program in the Midwest: once nationally-known people like poets Jay G. Sigmund (the Cedar Rapids insurance executive who mentored the Workshop's second director Paul Engle), Arthur Davison Ficke, Floyd Dell, and novelist Ruth Suckow whose gravestone is pictured here. Indeed, the literary scene that helped lay the foundation for the Workshop was capacious and inviting—as populist, if we are to believe the historical record, as the Workshop is exclusive. Here, for example, is how Suckow (writing for H.L. Mencken's American Mercury in 1926) described Iowa's literary culture: "It is snatched at by everybody—farmer boys, dentists, telegraph editors in small towns, students, undertakers, insurance agents and nobodies. All have a try at it."

After the keynote, this correspondent attended a soiree hosted by Workshop M.F.A. and now well-off businessman Glenn Schaeffer (who donated the money to build the Dey House's addition and new library). Lan Samantha Chang, T.C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus, and Ethan Canin were in attendance. We then wandered down to Dave's Foxhead, a favorite Workshop watering hole, which was packed to the rafters with alums including 2010 Pulitzer winner Paul Harding. Sightings early the next morning included Philip Levine, Robert Hass, Z.Z. Packer, Francine Prose, and Edward Hirsch. Despite the thrills of such encounters, this correspondent couldn't help thinking about all the nameless people described in Suckow's description of 1926 Iowa, as well as about the writers who went unmentioned in Robinson's talk but who stoked the fires of the state's literary culture in the first part of the 20th century. Indeed, when I dropped the name Arthur Davison Ficke (pictured here in a photo by Carl Van Vechten, an Iowa native) at Schaeffer's place the night before, the published writer with whom I was talking stared at me for a moment and then asked, "Who?" Who indeed.


Amy Charles said...

Yeah, I didn't go, Mike. I was busy with a deadline job, and frankly, while they treated me beautiful for two years, that's enough. If I could find one of those royal patrons Marilynne's talking about, I'd jump, but in the meantime WFH will do, and done right it leaves months at a time for the good stuff. Plus I'm not beholden to some department.

I don't so much object to the proliferation as to the glorification of well-shod writing about not much. That and this pipeline thing that's sprung up wherein the kids decide at age 18 or so that they're going to be writers, fail to bother with anything else, and race into grad school and debt. And come out not fit for much, but carrying serious debt and an asshole packed with sunshine. I see this as a problem. Likewise the MFA overflow moving into editorial. Writing and editing require very different temperaments, and besides too many MFAers get squeamish about writers who just, you know, write, without having bothered with school for it. As if they must not be much good.

It's nice they had the party, and I hope they enjoyed it. But yeah...I think even if I'd been free, I'd have avoided it. Frank was terrific to me, and a good teacher for me, but no, I don't want to sit around talking about what a helluva guy he was in some sanctioned celebration. You know, they'll be handing out beanies next. Well, whatever.

Don Wallace said...

Thanks for this, Mike. It's good to get the word about those who came before -- to get their names, to see their faces or even gravestones.

I came to the reunion with my wife, Mindy Pennybacker, both '77, both Westerners who found the IWW challenging and a bit unfair, to tell the truth. But over time we've seen how few opportunities there are to sort of stumble into a cultural arena like Iowa City's -- in truth, it was more supportive and less structured than what we experienced subsequently in New York City and Palo Alto.

Of course, we had the last of the chaotic, pre-Conroy days. In some respects, the inmates were running the zoo before Frank came in. Can't stop progress, but there's something to be said for the unchurched imagination.

Again, thanks.