Behind the scenes at Iowa’s cultural cold war weapon

Iowa deserves a more prominent place on the US cultural map thanks to two programmes for writers that ignore borders and backgrounds and help make impossible conversations happen

 

There’s a lot of idle chatter about writers and their terror of the blank page, but for many of us the real enemy is too much clutter.

How can you focus on filling those blank pages when your day is jammed up with things you do just to stay alive: bartending, writing a grant application, teaching a class, chasing payments, badgering publishers, whatever? Most of a writer’s life is about finding time to write at all.

That is why an invention such as the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa is such a blessing. I’ll never forget the rush of release (and just a little beware-of-what-you-wish-for panic) when, out of the blue, I received a call from Iowa City one night in July 2003. The IWP was offering me three full months, all paid for, to write, and only to write, in a place I had never heard of, and where I knew nobody.

William B Quarton, a local philanthropist I had also never heard of and never met, paid for my fellowship. Chris Merrill, the IWP’s mercurial director, had charmed an annual scholarship out of him over dinner the previous year. Merrill is a fine poet, non-fiction author, editor and formidable cultural diplomat, who has befriended and mentored more writers from more cultures than most of us have read books. He is also a skilful fundraiser.

 

I’ve arrived

My arrival in Iowa City was not entirely auspicious. I was jetlagged, and was nearly smothered by the administrator’s huge and over-amorous dog en route from the airport. The corridors of the Iowa House Hotel late at night seemed dull, almost institutional. But when I reached the third floor, something vivid caught my eye: a pair of exquisite red silk shoes outside one of the doors.

This was my first introduction to my fellow writers, and companions, for the next three months. The shoes belonged to Hoang Ly, a Vietnamese poet whose dramatic performances transcended linguistic barriers.

We turned out to be a cosmopolitan crew, as diverse in worldviews as in ethnic origins: there were poets and a philosopher from several parts of eastern Europe, and novelists from Latin America. There was a poet-shaman from Mongolia, who had also been a presidential candidate in his country’s first democratic election; three South Koreans, each of whom reflected very different strands in their country’s complex cultural life; a poet from Botswana; and a highly successful screenwriter from China. There was a young Israeli poet who was deeply critical of his government’s policies, though shaken by the violence of the Second Intifada, and a Hungarian writer who espoused traditional Zionism rather more warmly. And there was a Bosnian who, if I recall correctly, never arrived at all.

This apparently combustible mix produced some interesting arguments but no conflagrations. Mention the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, for example, and the eastern Europeans would fume in recollection at his notorious Ode to Stalin, whereas at least one of the Latin Americans revered him as a world-class poet of the senses, and a beloved prophet of liberation for impoverished workers and indigenous peoples.

As Merrill observed on his recent visit to Dublin, conversations regularly take place in Iowa City that might be impossible elsewhere, especially between Israelis and Palestinians. Nobody’s core beliefs may shift very much, but perhaps the civility and mutual respect engendered by distance from home may expand empathy and mutual understanding.

 

Pleasant place

On my first morning I woke to a glorious view across green parkland to the Iowa River. The campus and old capital area proved to be more hilly, greener and more full of birds than you might expect either for the state of Iowa or for a city. It was a very pleasing place to wander around; but it was neither so beautiful nor so stimulating as to provide a legitimate excuse to avoid writing for very long.

Merrill and his staff organised many fascinating events and excursions, but again, not so many that we were too distracted from our core activity. They were all optional anyway, as was any teaching we chose to do. It was on one such excursion, an exploration of prairie restoration with the great US writer Peter Matthiessen, that the young English novelist, Gregory Norminton, gifted me with the theme for my current book, a study of ecological restoration as a global environmental strategy. It took almost another 10 years to research and write, but it’s hard for me to imagine a happier outcome from a literary programme for a writer.

But why has the University of Iowa become home to this annual gathering of writers? In many people’s minds, Iowa is a “flyover state”, famous only for its infinitely boring industrial cornfields and, once every four years, its presidential primaries. The modest pleasures of Iowa City are a well-kept secret, and it is not the native home of any historic literary figure.

It is, however, the home of another literary phenomenon, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing course to award degrees in the US. It was founded in 1936 and now includes 17 Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni. When its most influential director, the poet Paul Engle, was retiring in 1966, his wife, the novelist Hualing Nieh, suggested he should launch an international equivalent to the writer’s workshop.

“He said it was the craziest idea he had ever heard of,” says Merrill, “and then they went and did it.”

The IWP was born in the cold war, and the state department soon saw it as an ideal vehicle for cultural diplomacy. To those of us with a certain political complexion that may sound slightly sinister, but in fact the agenda seems relatively innocent: bring artists from countries with a troubled relationship with the US to the midwestern heartland, and overwhelm them with decent human hospitality.

In fact, I was struck by how much fervent criticism of US foreign policy I heard while in Iowa City, to the point where I once asked half-seriously whether the IWP could find us some lively local neocons so we could have a decent argument. None were found.

But I was taken aback by the official response one day when I mentioned casually to the administrator that I was hiring a car. “You’ll have to call us every two hours,” she said firmly, “and report your location.” Foolishly ignoring the iron US law against irony, I assured her that I would report in every hour, if she liked, and tape all my conversations with Osama bin Laden.

It turned out that this rule didn’t apply to me anyway, as I was not a guest of the state department. And things were a little bit jumpy, so soon after 9/11.

Irish participation in the IWP is now celebrated in a beautifully made anthology, Town Stitched by River, published by Dublin and Iowa City as Unesco Cities of Literature and by the IWP, featuring writers ranging from John Banville to Eavan Boland and Martin Dyar. It was launched at a reading in the US ambassador's residence last month, and is available now in Dublin libraries.

The IWP operates separately from the writers’ workshop, but we did joint readings with its students most weeks in the marvellous Prairie Lights bookshop. Most of us soon developed a slight antipathy to some of the workshop authors, who seemed too cool for school, certainly too cool to bother communicating with the public. Perhaps they felt they had already got their Pulitzers.

Norminton summed up our feelings in a haiku that went around the college like lightning:

 

Mumbles, like Brando;

Slouches, like the beast in Yeats:

The Workshop poet.

 

Who knows what the workshop kids made of us older folk, writing in different languages from different universes, but somehow communicating with each other extraordinarily well. If the UN worked like the IWP, the world would be a significantly better place.

 

IRISH WRITERS IN IOWA: VIEWS ON THE CITY AND THE INTERNATIONAL WRITING PROGRAMME

  • John Banville (IWP 1980): “Poor, bruised America makes many mistakes, but it is endlessly generous: witness the International Writing Programme. Most Europeans think the US is two thin strips of coastline with a blank in between. How little they know.” 
  • Eavan Boland (IWP 1979): “It was my introduction to the fact that the conversation on poetry, on literature, was happening everywhere, not just in Ireland, and that in itself opened a new world for me.”
  • Seamus Heaney On receiving the Truman Capote non-fiction award in Iowa City in 2003: “Iowa City is a nexus of friendship and a nexus of excellence.”
  • Nell Regan (IWP 2011): “It has made me braver and perversely made the world feel smaller as I have IWP friends and colleagues on every continent; ‘a crash course in the world’ sums it up.” 
  • Siobhán Ní Shítigh (IWP 2009): “Friendship, hospitality, the 24-hour library, the Bluebird Cafe, Roberta singing Sunday Morning Coming Down, the inclusion of my work in an English-language anthology, Town Stitched by River.”
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