Fifty years of nurturing talent. Alumni of Iowa Writers' Workshop return to celebrate

``The Iowa Writers' Workshop is one of the two or three most fertile sources of writing talent in the country,'' says C. Michael Curtis, senior editor of the Atlantic, speaking of the nation's oldest graduate program in creative writing. ``In fact, because of the size of it, you might have to say it's the most fertile.'' On Memorial Day weekend, nearly 500 current and former Workshop writers -- some famous, most not -- gathered here to celebrate the writing program's 50th anniversary and to pay homage to Paul Engle, the original driving force behind the program and its director from 1941 to 1966.

Although several celebrated alumni -- John Irving, W. D. Snodgrass, Tracy Kidder -- were unable to attend the ceremonies, many of the Workshop's finest students and teachers returned for the three-day Golden Jubilee. Among them: Frank Conroy, Doris Grumbach, Tess Gallagher, T. C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, and Philip Levine.

``I don't think there's ever been a literary gathering of this magnitude outside of New York,'' says Bob Shacochis, a former student and current teacher at the Workshop, and author of ``Easy In the Islands,'' a collection of stories that won last year's American Book Award.

Why Iowa City? How has this small Midwestern town managed to support what has become perhaps the most prestigious writing community in the country? In 1922, the University of Iowa became one of the first to offer advanced degrees for creative dissertations. A decade later, Mr. Engle submitted as his master's thesis a collection of poems which had already received the Yale Younger Poets award. Four years after that, when Engle returned from a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to begin teaching, the University of Iowa officially offered the first ``Writers' Workshop.''

When Engle became director of the program, it boasted a total of eight students -- ``none of them talented, some of them actively untalented,'' Engle recalls. Over the next 25 years, he raised millions of dollars in contributions from such companies as International Harvester, John Deere, and Quaker Oats. The Workshop began to attract distinguished teachers and visiting writers such as Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Penn Warren.

One of the most talented of the Workshop's early students was Flannery O'Connor, who, Engle recalls, appeared in his office one day, ``so shy she was trembling. She had a terribly thick Southern accent, so thick I couldn't understand a word she was saying. . . . I asked her to write down on a piece of paper what it was she was trying to tell me, and she wrote: `My name is Flannery O'Connor. I am majoring in journalism. I hate it.' ''

By the time Engle resigned, the Workshop had assumed its present form: roughly 100 students, half of them poets and half fiction writers, meeting once a week in groups of approximately 15 students, each led by an established writer. Each week the classes discuss and dissect works submitted by members of the group.

For every student admitted, more than 10 are rejected. ``We're constantly looking for intelligence and a fresh and original perception of the world,'' says John Leggett, novelist and Workshop director since 1970.

Many former students returning for the reunion, like T. C. Boyle -- author of two novels and two collections of short stories -- recall their Workshop days as clearly instrumental in their development as writers, a period when they were able to borrow precious time away from demanding, full-time jobs to launch their writing careers.

According to Mr. Boyle, his years in Iowa City were a personal turning point, during which he was transformed ``from a guy in New York who . . . had published one story, to a guy with an MFA and a PhD, and a published book. And I had gotten to meet almost all my literary heroes, and had studied with some of them.''

Not all alumni have such fond memories of Iowa City. Kurt Vonnegut, Nelson Algren, and Phillip Roth have all written of their distaste for the place. And Raymond Carver, whose most recent collection of stories, ``Cathedral,'' was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, seems fond of Iowa City and the Workshop almost despite his experience: As a young student in the '60s, with a wife and children and no time to write, he had had to leave a year before taking a degree.

``Iowa is no longer the only distinguished writing program in the country, whereas in the '50s and '60s this was the only place to go,'' Mr. Carver says.

According to Leggett, the proliferation of writing programs across the country is, in part, a response to the fact that big publishing houses have gradually taken a less active role in nurturing young writing talent. Universities have begun to take up the slack, offering young writers a refuge in which to develop their talents.

``But writers don't just want to be nurtured,'' says Leggett, a former editor at Harper & Row. ``In the end, writers want to be published, and we can't do that here.''

Yet the Iowa program is doing its best to see that talented graduates are able to do just that. Through a generous gift from novelist James Michener, the Workshop provides the Michener Awards: As many as eight $7,500 grants are awarded annually to graduating students who have submitted promising work. The money helps support them for an additional year, allowing them to complete their manuscripts for publication.

At the anniversary dinner, Leggett announced that the University of Iowa Foundation had committed itself to raising $1 million on behalf of the Workshop to establish two new fellowship awards and to endow a permanent faculty chair. The fellowships and the chair will bear Paul Engle's name -- a tribute to the poet and teacher who for 25 years fostered a community unlike any other in the country.

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