A Community of Writers

A Community of Writers

Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop
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1999
308 pages, 10 photos, 5 3/4 x 9 1/4
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$24.00
0877456682
9780877456681

“A collection of essays by 30 of the leading authors who participated in the early years of America's foremost literary breeding ground, the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Edited by poet and Iowa graduate Dana (Against the Grain, 1986), this is a tribute to the workshop's founder, Paul Engle. In the 50s, Engle brought Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and other teacher-writers to the program, when it was little more than a few steel barracks on a remote campus. A Rhodes scholar and acclaimed poet, Engle practically invented the writing workshop. Poet Donald Justice, who studied and taught at Iowa, writes of how Engle lured him to that 'Midwestern wasteland' and Berryman broke his arm when he fell in a rickety apartment there. Although other Iowa students disagree, Justice insists that Lowell did not seem able to summon up much interest in student work. Poet Constance Urdang describes what it was like to be one of the few women in the program in the 50s; even then, most of the fiction teachers were female but poetry classes were dominated by the likes of Robert Bly, Philip Levine, and foreign writers. Bly notes the competition in class, where he'd release a snake from a sack when the criticism got too cruel. Visiting lecturers included William Carlos Williams (I write in American, not in English!), Flannery O'Connor (who shocked a student with her Roman Catholic belief in damnation), and Dylan Thomas, whose penchant for beer, women, and melodious oratory shook up Iowa City. Engle bristled at the term 'cornfield poets' and had his writers fire off critical essays against rival schools like the Beats. The numerous awards won by the Iowa writers belie the notion that writing can't be improved in the classroom. All the contributors are grateful to Engle, as American literature itself should be, for creating for creativity what Dana calls a 'model brave and new.'”—Kirkus Reviews

“Legions of imitator workshops mark the impact of Engle's endeavor. But his fondest hope was that his workshop would be a 'community.' These poetic memoirs confirm his success.”—Publishers Weekly

"We do not pretend to have produced the writers included in this book. Their talent was inevitably shaped by the genes rattling in ancestral closets. We did give them a community in which to try out the quality of their gift."

With these words, written long before his Iowa Writers' Workshop became world famous, much imitated, and academically rich, Paul Engle captured the spirit behind his beloved workshop. Now, in this collection of essays by and about those writers who shared the energetic early years, Robert Dana presents a dynamic, informative tribute to Engle and his world.

The book's three sections mingle myth and history with style and grace and no small amount of humor. The beginning essays are given over to memories of Paul Engle in his heyday. The second group focuses particularly on those teachers—Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Kurt Vonnegut, for example—who made the workshop hum on a day-to-day basis. Finally, the third section is devoted to storytelling: tall tales, vignettes, surprises, sober and not-so-sober moments. Engle's own essay, "The Writer and the Place," describes his "simple, and yet how reckless" conviction that "the creative imagination in all of the arts is as important, as congenial, and as necessary, as the historical study of all the arts."

Today, of course, there are hundreds of writers' workshops, many of them founded and directed by graduates of the original Iowa workshop. But when Paul Engle arrived in Iowa there were exactly two. His indomitable nature and great persuasive powers, combined with his distinguished reputation as a poet, loomed large behind the enhancement of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. This volume of fine and witty essays reveals the enthusiasm and drive and sheer pleasure that went into Iowa's renowned workshop.

Table of contents: 

Preface
The Writer and the Place, Paul Engle

Paul Engle, Impresario
Recollections of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, James B. Hall
Paul at Stone City, R. V. Cassil
A Miranda's World, Donald Justice
My Time, Constance Urdang
When Literary Life Was Still Piled Up in a Few Places, Robert Bly
A Crisis of Sorts, Curtis Harnack
Dear Hualing, Vance Bourjaily
"I'll Make Your Career," Kiyohiro Miura
Engle's Workshop, Lewis Turco
He Made It Possible, Marvin Bell
Every Shut-Eye Ain't Asleep, Michael S. Harper
A Tale of Two Fathers, Bharati Mukherjee
The Fellowship, Phillip F. O'Connor
Thank You, Paul, Wai-lim Yip
"Next Year You Can See for Yourself," Michael Dennis Browne
New World Symphony, Kurt Vonnegut

Mentors, Fomentors, an Tormentors
Mentors, Fomentors, an Tormentors, W.D. Snodgrass
Far from the Ocean: Robert Lowell at Iowa, Robert Dana
Mine Own John Berryman, Philip Levine
Improvisations on Donald Justice, Charles Wright
R. V. Cassill, Jean Wylder
Ray B. West, Jr., Richard Stern
Marguerite Young: Trying on a Style, Wiliam Cotter Murray
Vance Bourjaily, Eugene Garber
Kurt Vonnegut: Waltzing with the Black Crayon, Gail Godwin

Myths and Texts
The Emergence of the Writers' Workshop, John C. Gerber
Flannery O'Connor in the Writers' Workshop, Jean Wylder
Chicken a la King, Oakley Hall
Snapshots of Paul, Kay Cassill
Dylan Thomas at Iowa, Ray B. West, Jr.
So Began the Happiest Years of My Life, Henri Coulette
Fair Days and Fowl, Steven D. Salinger

Afterword
Notes on Contributors
Acknowledgments

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