My Time at Iowa, Part 1

In 1996, when we moved to Iowa, we had three kids in tow. Michelle and I had both resigned from decent paying jobs as community organizers in the South, to move north, where I, unemployed, would study poetry for two years. About ten minutes after we drove into Iowa City, Michelle gave birth to our fourth, Ben, who now towers over me. He was, let us say, a surprise; I hadn’t quite worked a sixth McPeek-Villatoro into the budget. So, when I walked into the first workshop that fall, I was a bit of a wreck.

But jeez—I’d been accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop! All the years in Central America, I’d been writing novels and poetry, set in Latino worlds both there and in the U.S. I hoped for publication. And with four kids, I hoped, really hard, for a college teaching gig after graduation. Job security, retirement, health benefits—those things are scarce in the grassroots nonprofit world.

I was thirty-six, a good fourteen years older than most of the poetry students, but I was as nervous as a gasoline-wet hen in a Matchbox warehouse going into the classroom. My classmates were too, well, most; a few wore the workshop as though it had been built just for them. Mostly I remember a group of young, hard-working, earnest, full-of-doubt-full-of-glory individuals who took the Workshop seriously. They knew rhyme schemes, old and new forms, had read all the European and white-American poets, and knew the workshop “language.” Many had been schooled in poetry and writing in undergraduate studies; some had trained in high school. I learned a lot from them.

The shock of being accepted into Iowa is a head trip in itself; the jolt of diving into a world of privilege overnight is pure magical realism on crack. But it was the privilege I craved—after so many years of writing alone, and no writers to kick back with and talk about the deep lit stuff, I needed another community, one outside of organizing—a community of writers.

And mostly, the one thing I needed so desperately to live: Iowa gave us all two full years of writing full-time. They offered us seminars conducted by some of the best minds in contemporary poetry. We had the—yes—privilege of sitting, every week, with poets whose work had been stitched into the twentieth century literary canvas. I wrote eight hours a day, and finished two novels and a collection of poetry there. The writing needed a lot of work, but I left Iowa with three solid drafts in hand.

It could be a little weird, the ambiente of the place. It was, well. . .nervous a lot of the time. Basic workshop anxiety, just in Iowa, the place where one of our mentors said, on the first day of class, “Folks, check your emotions at the door.” I near shit my pants the afternoon my first poem came up for critique. Funny, I don’t remember many of my workshops. Yeah, I don’t remember any. It’s like I blacked out each time.

There were other tensions. It’s a competitive place. Sometimes the workshops got a little rough. There’s good rough and there’s bad. We all know the difference. One expects the best out of you; the other means to burn you to the ground. And there were turf wars. I recall two schools of poetic thought getting into the ring, the. . .“regular” ?—Sorry, I can’t think of any other word—poets who wrote in free verse or form or whatever made us not the other: The L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets. It got testy. And I learned a lot from that literary jousting, even when it sometimes seemed a little ridiculous. But, it made you think about writing, and all the work that goes into it.

After a while, the inevitable American Truth showed its face. There were parts of the literary scene that made me feel squishy inside. I started to see the signs. The competition was one I had never in my life experienced. It seemed cruelty was essential to win the aesthetic, intellectual battle (and why a battle?). Not all. Many good souls were there, as they are everywhere; and a good number of them felt beaten down.

This culture I now enjoyed–and it was, truly, a culture, of access and privilege–was so, so far from what one fellow, in ironic jest, said, a man who came from “my background” (a reference to my Salvadoran-Appalachian heritages). Besides weirdly wannabe ironic jokes like that gem, it was a smart place and I profited from that.

But when it came to an understanding of race issues and culture–having lived in the one culture (white) it was as dumb as a post about race matters and multicultural understanding, and thus, I believe, felt a little threatened by the subject. A few individuals who ran some workshops got irked whenever terms like multiculturalism came up, as though the mere discussion regarding the opportunity to mine the literary genius found in all cultures, would bring down the aesthetic rigor of the place.

Twenty years ago, there wasn’t much color in the Dey House (home to the workshop). It was, at its American heart, a place of white literary dominance; it was Iowa, the pinnacle of Aesthetic Supremacy, the arbiter of literary art. Which meant the legacy of American racial violence leaked into conversations. That’s when racism, well-shaped by the structure, becomes personal. Table talk: that’s where you’ll find out how people really think, when they are with their own, when they let their hair down and don’t have to watch their words. They reveal themselves.

More next post.


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