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.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Iowa Writers' Workshop & Popular Culture

From Thursday through Sunday (June 9-12) of this week, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop—the oldest creative writing M.F.A. program in the U.S. (founded in 1936)—is celebrating its 75th Anniversary with a "reunion" featuring talks, panels, lectures, receptions, parties, a softball game, an open mic, box lunches, and even a dance in Iowa City. Fifty writers, including eight Pulitzer Prize winners, will be on hand to pontificate—er, discuss the nuances of their craft and their identity and careers as writers. Hundreds of alums are reportedly headed to Iowa City—the UNESCO-designated World City of Literature that is also home to the International Writing Program, the University of Iowa Center for the Book, the University of Iowa Press, ACT, the Iowa Testing Programs, a Translation Workshop, a Ph.D. in English, and much much more. The Huffington Post will be on hand. The Paris Review and Martha Stewart's Wholeliving will have reporters on site. So what else could P&PC do? We passed the hat and sent a correspondent of our own—a fact that's been reported on in a recent UI press release.

So what, you might be asking yourself, does P&PC have to find out by attending panels with, um, uh—how shall we say it?—quaintly 1950s-retro titles like "What Makes Literature Immortal?" and "The Writer as Outsider"? And what in the world might hobnobbing with prize winners and other high-art practitioners and standard-bearers have to offer a blog with a mission to study and document "good bad poetry, not-so-good poetry, commercial poetries, ordinary readers, puns, newspaper poetries" and so on? Good questions. Really good questions. It's like we asked them ourselves. So here's something in the way of a provisional answer.

For years, Iowa's program has been held up as the gold standard for M.F.A. programs, employing and educating Pulitzer winners and other beacons of high poetic art from the 1950s on. Robert Lowell? Check. John Berryman? Check. Robert Penn Warren? Check. Donald Justice, Mark Strand, Philip Levine, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Charles Wright, James Tate, W.D. Snodgrass, Philip Schultz, Karl Shapiro? Check, check, check and double check.

Yet, at the same time that this history's gone down, there's a story that's gone untold—and that one has to do with the Workshop's ongoing and pretty much unacknowledged engagement with popular literature. Take, for example, longtime Workshop Director Paul Engle (pictured here), who not only won the 1932 Yale Series of Younger Poets award for his first book of poetry (Worn Earth) but went on to shepherd the program to national prominence in the 1940s and 50s by hiring Lowell, Berryman, Vonnegut, and Warren and by mentoring the likes of Flannery O'Connor, Donald Justice, and Philip Levine. At the same time that he was doing so, though, Engle was also partnering with Hallmark, Inc. That's right, the greeting card people. He wrote the libretto for a 1960 Hallmark Hall of Fame production Golden Child: A Christmas Opera. He and an Iowa student assistant did the work compiling poems for Hallmark's 1960 anthology Poetry for Pleasure: The Hallmark Book of Poetry. And in the late 1950s, you could have found Engle writing verse for Hallmark greeting cards as well as Poetry magazine. P&PC has seen 17 different Engle-authored greeting cards, and our sources inside Hallmark suggest that some of these sold as many as 30,000 copies.

That history of Iowa-trained writers penning their way to a paycheck via popular culture does not end there. It's a well-known but never-studied fact, for example, that fiction graduates have long supported themselves by writing romance novels. For years, the Iowa Book Doctors has been outsourcing work to M.F.A graduates who have ghost-written thrillers including the Jack Kevorkian bio and soon-to-be movie Between the Dying and the Dead. Famous sci-fi writer Joe Haldeman attended Iowa (later writing two Star Trek novels). Faculty member Chris Offutt has written for Weeds and True Blood as well as comic books. As we reported here about a year and a half ago, poet Lewis Turco got his career started by publishing sci-fi poetry in Fantasy and Science Fiction. More recently, M.F.A. graduate Lucas Bernhardt was elected the poet laureate of the Portland Trail Blazers' premiere fan site, Blazer's Edge.

So you can see where we're going with these examples, can't you? It's the opinion of P&PC that while some Workshop graduates have gone on to win prizes and accolades from the world of refined literary culture, there's another side to the story: Workshop poets and fiction writers have also been feeding the maw of popular culture for years now, and with all the rhetoric of gold-standards and Pulitzers and World City of Literature designations, that fact has been lost. Put another and less decorous way, the Workshop has not only been training writers to succeed at the highest levels of their craft, but it's also been training writers to masterfully and successfully sell out.

You're not going to find that sort of language on the official or pro- motional web sites, of course—nor is it on this weekend's program sandwiched in between "What Makes Literature Immortal?" and "The Writer as Outsider." But our affiliate on location in Iowa City is out to see if the alums have anything to say for themselves about this. Maybe they do, and maybe they don't. But if there's anything to be heard or a scoop to be had, you can be sure that you'll find it here first.