Write stuff: The workshop that shapes American literature
The Iowa Writers' Workshop, on its 75th anniversary, offers a window into the state of American letters.
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Li is now living in San Francisco and teaching at the University of California, Davis, but misses Iowa. "When you go out in the world, you don't get 10 or 15 readers to read [a draft] with respect," she says.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Iowa Writers workshop 75th anniversary
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Li has identified one of the great things good writing programs offer: insight not just from teachers but from peers. For many students, Iowa marks the first time they've been surrounded by people who think writing is the most important thing in the world.
There's also a second thing. I heard it most succinctly from another rising star, Alexander Maksik, who has just graduated, sold a novel, and won a coveted fellowship allowing him to teach at Iowa next year. "Absolutely, the gift of time," he says.
Time! The program allows whole days without distraction! You can write at a desk, or on a bench on a downtown street where the city has put up statues of writers and engraved their quotes in graceful curves along the sidewalk ("Words are deeds – Aesop"). Or you can sit on a porch outside town, pecking out stories while mini landspouts glide across rolling fields.
Back in 1965, Tate found that combination exhilarating.
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"Iowa was the cat's pajamas," he says. "I had never known [a poet.] Suddenly, I was surrounded by them. This was heaven. My work took a quantum leap."
Success came faster to Tate than anyone in our class. He impressed his teachers right away. Once Engle passed Tate in the halls, and said, "Hear you're doing well." Engle took two hundred-dollar bills from his wallet and handed them to him.
The major literary prize for young poets in the US is the aptly named Yale Younger Poets award. Young is a relative term; to be eligible you have to be under 40.
Well, why not? At 23, Tate bundled up a manuscript and sent it to Yale, then forgot about it.
One day, he went to the post office to pick up his mail and saw a letter from Yale. He opened it.
"I literally read it seven times," he says. "I stared, and stared. I couldn't believe it. Why did it say, 'you won'?"
I remember how the news raced around the workshop. Tate! Won the Yale Younger Poets! Really!
Tate did readings around the country. The next year the University of California, Berkeley, offered him an assistant professorship. "Pretty outrageous," he says now.
But his audience is far smaller than Casey's. Well-known poets sell 1,000 to 2,000 copies of a book, mostly to libraries. Even after his Pulitzer, Tate had no hope of making a living from books.
That doesn't bother him. Like Casey, teaching provides not just money but fulfillment, and the freedom to be uncompromising in his work.
"I've never been one who said poets should reach 10 million people," he says. "I want to make my poems accessible. I really do. But I'm not going to reach 10 million. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the country. People's lives don't include poetry." He smiles. "Maybe that makes it more special."
* * *
Friday, the first full day of panels. One after another, panelists come onstage in the large, dimly lit student union. Sometimes the seats are full. Sometimes not.
But something turns out to be interesting. People eat lunch fast. Then a lot of them head for the library in Dey House (pronounced die), now the workshop's home. There, behind locked glass doors, they find the long wall of alphabetized shelves that carry the more than 3,500 books Iowa grads have sent into the world.