My Time in Iowa, Part 2: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Memory is a tricky thing, so I’m really glad I’ve kept journals for forty years. I’m a detailed chronicler—forty-five tomes, about 1, 480 pages of details on my life and the lives of others. Granted, a journal is one person’s point of view, thus already “slanted.” And when you take into consideration the journals of a manic depressive, you might wonder about the veracity of his writing. But, I like reading Virginia Woolf’s journals.

All the journals
The Journals began in 1978. I continue to write in a journal; they are wonderful for writers, a constant practicing. Also, they’re the closest thing to proof of one’s memories, and everyone in them.

She may have suffered madness, but damned if she couldn’t keep a detailed record of her world and those who inhabited it.

I’ve read through the journals of the two years Michelle, our four little kids and I lived in Iowa, when I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Simply recalling memories was doing me no good; a recollection is sweeping while, in the pages of the journals, they are detailed, imagistic; I quoted people, both professors and fellow students. The journals are not proof, but they sure as fuck are testimony.

I’m going to quote a few pretties from the journal regarding the racism in the Workshop. It’s not good news. I was crotchety a lot of days, and culturally lonely (most of the Latinos in Iowa were, and still are, working the corn, not attending classes). But, I had an advantage: I was thirty-six; most of my classmates were in their early twenties. I had a family to go home to, four kids under six years old, Michelle (exhausted; she couldn’t have given one hot damn about my workshop-sledgehammered poems, not with four people under three feet tall running her ragged), suppers, diapers, baths, sleep deprivation—all this was a daily reality check on what was really important in life. But, even with all that protecting me, in the workshop classroom, there were many a prick and their stings.

Some will think I’m writing this out of spite, especially if they read the journal entries below. Nope. Oh, I’m pissed all right–little has changed in the creating writing world when it comes to cultures. I think about my students today, most of them Latinas. Carmen, for instance. She’s from Watts. Working class family, Spanish spoken at home. She’s lived all her life in a Latino-American world, where she’s been nourished in her own Mexican-American culture. She’s a good poet, really good. Yeah, Iowa-worthy. So I tell her this, and strongly suggest she apply to Iowa and to the other highly-ranked programs (they’re always changing; but Iowa keeps its number-one foothold).

Then I feel guilty, or rather, worried. Carmen has lived in a Latino culture all her life. She’s not been around white people much. I want to warn her, It’s going to be rough. So, I do warn her. If she goes to Iowa, today, in 2017, she will walk into a room that will look very much like my classroom of 1996. Not much has changed. Maybe the ethnic percentages have shifted, but, the way the U.S. is more race-locked than ever, I doubt it’s moved much.

I worry because Carmen, strong in her Mexican-Americanness, will go into a white world where her culture is not valued. She will be alone. She’ll make friends. Maybe she’ll gravitate to any other Raza that might be in the room. But even that’s dangerous; because in the white world of higher education, we who “make it,” can turn on our own in order to keep our place at the table of privilege, knowing that the table won’t allow for many more like us. I have testimony of that in my journals, as much as I do the details of the intellectually-sounding, white racist words said aloud, sometimes proudly, during a workshop class.

I will worry about Carmen because she will not have her Raza around her. She will be in a nearly all-white world; and she will learn that that world, in all its eloquence, its intellectualism, is a vicious one. She will have no family there, no one to bitch and moan with about the gringos hijos de la gran chingada que son racistas hasta el tuétano, which will mean she’ll suffocate in a monolingual world that has no patience for a language that they have deemed unworthy of poetry.

I’ll steer Carmen to the works of Sandra Cisneros, a fellow Iowa Workshop graduate, who has been as clear as a bell about her time at Iowa as a Mexican-American (also, Junot Diaz recently ripped another asshole into the creative writing world, laying out the obvious, nay, ostentatious racism that governs the programs). When Carmen gets to Iowa and wishes she were home, I’ll strongly suggest for her to stay and to keep writing: Write poems out of the morass of cultural insecurity that no white person has felt or will ever feel. I will tell her that she will triumph. I will say the old saw: Success is the greatest revenge.

Below are a few snippets from my journals written during our time in Iowa. But let’s get this straight: Iowa’s not alone, at all. Every single top-five, or top-ten, or maybe even top-thirty MFA creative writing program in this country is systemically racist. Look at the structure: white people in charge, with mostly white students. Doesn’t that seem boring? Yeah, and it’s also dangerous. People get hurt, badly, all in the name of “writing great literature.”

Here are some ditties from my journals. I have kept true to them, writing them out as they are, with no redactions. I have also used initials for some people. The journals date from August, 1996 to June, 1998.

26 November (first semester),

            It is bound to creep up on us. I can feel it in the Workshop—it is inevitable, whenever this sort of mix (or lack of) happens. It’s not a mix: it’s a cream-filled doughnut, sprinkled with a pinch of colorful candies.

            How to say it. First, with a disclaimer: I am thoroughly enjoying the Workshop. It’s a grand place, and yes, I feel privileged to be here. I am being challenged in literary ways that I would probably not dream of having elsewhere. I don’t know if my poetry is getting any better (whatever that means; was it sick?), but that depends upon my own responses to the stimulation around me.

            Now the cavil: to begin with the facts: the Workshop is composed mostly of people of European descent who have spent most of their lives living with people of European descent. It’s also run by people of that same background. This simple fact is going to influence the Workshop’s entire existence—i.e., administration, form of class discussions, etc.

            And its poetry. B. once told me that much of poetry’s influence today (poetry in the higher echelons) has French philosophy/poetry/language as its influence. Fine. So, if everyone’s on the same page with that, then Jorie Graham or T.S. Eliot can quote French in their poems without any need to translate it. But bring in an English poem with one line of Spanish in it, and the outcry is “Translate it!”

            Or write a poem on a particular Latino cultural event (say, a piñata), and you’ve got to write the poem so that the explanation (cultural) is inside it; or you’ve got to footnote it; but you gotta do something, “because we don’t get it.”

            The Workshop. Wonderful, wonderful place. I prefer to be nowhere else for the moment. Just delightful. Intrinsically racist.

December 1

            There’s another Raza in the workshop, though you wouldn’t know it, how she complains about Latino “Chicano” art & poetry. “Stick a Spanish word in your poem, and everybody will hail it as great Latino art.” I can appreciate her cavil for a full ten seconds. Then she goes on to disparage fellow Latino writers for not “writing up” to the demands of poetry such as that which comes out of the Workshop.

18 March

            I am once again reminded that the Workshop is not a place for friendship. Once again I am shaken slightly by the meanness that individuals can have against one another. It is insidious. I find my mind drifting to those certain individuals whenever it is not busy with some other thought. One in particular is W (a student). That is one woman who will not allow kindness to stand in the way of critiquing a poem. The other is B, the teacher, whose social skills are those of a hyena. My poem was up, and they left it in ribbons, snapping at anybody who dared try to defend it.

            I walked away from the class disgusted. It makes me mistrust poetry, my own as well as anybody else’s. I almost despise the idea of sitting down with a book of poems, if it means that I join a circle of readers such as these.

            This, perhaps, is the crux. The picture of the poetry world that I’m getting is not a lovely one. Women and men who have their favors, who gather in cliques & push away others with their shoulders. The elitism is truly remarkable.

17 February (second year)

            B (teacher) showed some true colors yesterday during Workshop. He referred to the American canon and its variety of voices. “Now when I say canon, I don’t mean a big Bessie that’s aimed at all women and ethnic groups.” Then he went on to praise how the canon that he referred to (i.e., white male U.S. writers) has such variety, such genius of voice.

6 March

            (Michelle and I) stayed up late last night. After I attended the Ethan Canin reading and after a long talk with (my non-white friend and classmate) S. on the racism of the Workshop. It’s getting to a number of us. Then I wake to an NPR report on the proliferation of hate groups throughout the country (400) and their growing presence on the internet (163 web pages). White groups that wish to make this, once again, a “White Man’s Nation.” Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Muslims are all targeted as the problem, while multiculturalism is the Trojan Horse of America.

10 March

            It will be good to get out of here. Out of Iowa. I agree with S—this is one of the most racist states I’ve lived in. . .it’s moments like this that piss off my blood. I need to get out of here before it starts to affect me more than it already has. I’m already writing poems that appeal to the white intellect, or that pretend to be worthy of the Workshop’s attention. Instead, the poems just come out a broken hunk of vagueness, a sense of standing nowhere, stretched wide over the fault line.

23 March

            (After a disturbing dream) All, I believe, stemming from an article I read in AWP last night, written by a prick named Pablo Medina. He went after ethnic labels. Though I agreed with much of what he said, he got to his conclusion by cracking open a few innocent skulls. “Ethnic writing. . .most of which is bad.” He also makes sweeping statements regarding N. Am. & Latin Am. literatures—the former is democratic, the latter oligarchic. He doesn’t want ethnic (esp. Latino) voices to undermine N. Am. Lit, but rather enrich it. Fear of a shake down, I suppose.

            Pablo Medina is a fuckhead coconut elitist who wishes to keep the ‘canon’ clean and pure—as long as he’s inside it. Don’t undermine, but enrich. Do not shake things up. Be interesting—even intriguing. But don’t take my leather chair away.

            This time in Iowa gives me reason to pause. But it’s mostly the time, not Iowa, that offers fruit. Perhaps that is not all true. I wonder if this is a good setting for me to write. I am a bit angry, yet have a difficult time expressing why. Perhaps it’s because we’re heading to L.A., a place where possibilities could be endless, where several communities exist, ones that I’ll feel more at home in. They’re certainly not here. Ever since we were kicked out of the house (reader: I’ll address this in a following essay), I’ve not felt comfortable here. I’ve been mistrustful of many white people here, and have found laces of racism in their words, ones they do not recognize. Yes, of course, there are good folks here—Marvin Bell, Eddie, Janie & Greg—folks who transcend (God, I fucking hate that word—Medina uses that in his essay, ‘to transcend one’s ethnicity,’ as if it’s a human dung that we must spiritually escape from).

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