Friday, August 08, 2008

What did I learn in Iowa?

Mark wants to know what I learned in Iowa. Well here is a bullet point:

- For one I found out who a lot of contemporary poets were. A lot of people liked James Tate, Bill Knott, Theresa Cha and Josh Clover for example. I had never heard of these guys. A lot of folks loved Clover's first book. Jorie really pushed him, but mostly I found out about poets from students.

- Most students loved Ashbery and Michael Palmer (I did know them). It was unimaginable to most students that someone wouldn't like Ashbery (it was like a memo was sent out, but I didn't get it). He really was considered an old-school Romantic Genius.

- Other folks that were beloved: Gerard M. Hopkins, Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Dickinson, Keats (I couldn't believe how much people talked about Keats! It was definitely pathological), Susan Howe, Creeley, Berryman (but not Lowell, not Plath), Lyn Hejinian, Mark Strand (ugh!), Stevens (perhaps second only to Ashbery). More or less the Jorie Graham Canon of Poetry. Very trans-historical. "The unofficial reading list" as I called it.

- Nobody read contemporary foreign poetry. Lyn Hejinian was the only person who encouraged me in my translations of Aase Berg (which I had just begun). (Except in the translation program of course, but that was a separate world entirely.)

- Certainly people's knowledge of langpo was narrow: Hejinian, Howe, Palmer and a few others. Bernstein was not in the acceptable canon. He also told me recently he's never been invited to Iowa to read. I think this is of note. For some reason Jorie couldn't recuperate his work for her canon. But she had no trouble with Lyn, even Clark Coolidge fit in (he gave a reading the same day as a Rova concert and a reading by Mark Strand!).

- Only three people showed up for the Alice Notley Q&A. The room was packed when Ashbery and Strand gave theirs.

- But I don't want to sound negative. Perhaps the single most important thing I got from Iowa was the pathological excitement everybody felt for Poetry. It was all anybody talked about. It was all that mattered. People obsessed about each other's poems. People would read the poems from the other workshops (so you'd have strangers walk up to you and say, "your poetry is too visceral" or something like that).

- At its worst this meant back-stabbing, ass-kissing and competitive conflicts - "who's on top" replayed over and over. I think Ben Doyle was most generally considered the best poet in my class (by faculty and students, though the students would of course get their cues from faculty). Sally Keith was considered "hard-working." (Because she was a woman, she couldn't fill the boy-genius role). I was considered "weird" and one of my favorite poets, Mike Savitz was for some reason considered "lazy" even though he wrote more than anybody else. Basically the general opinion was well known, even to someone like me who was an outsiderish member of the community. I heard all these views repeated over and over. I don't know how many times someone asked me, what do you think of Savitz and I would say "I think his poems are brilliant" and the other person would say "yeah, but he's lazy." It was so strange. He could never get away from that label. Joyelle was considered "uppity." (Again, gender mattered.)

- But at its best Iowa was genuinely exciting and inspiring.

- Strange for someone like me coming from New York, but I was reminded of Frank O'Hara. I had lapsed in my O'Hara reading, but I got back on the wagon. In particular I was greatly influenced by a fellow-student O'Hara-phile, Amy Lingafelter. There are some references to her and her poetry in the poems in my first book Quarantine (most prominently "Post Cards" which I wrote in Iowa and which addresses her a few times, she drove a truck and looked like Nathalie Woods). (Both Lingafelter and Savitz are in Jordan's and Sara Manguso's anthology Free Radicals.)

- This led me to read a lot of Ted Berrigan. Together with letters from insane people, my reading of Berrigan was the main influence on Dear Ra, which I began writing as I was leaving Iowa. It may seem strange, but I thought of Dear Ra as my unabashed plagiarism of Bean Spasms. Everybody is always surprised when I tell them I'm a huge Berrigan fan. Maybe he's too American for me.

- Also I got a lot out of knowing James Pate, still the best-read guy I've ever met. He got me into Godard, Lynch and Genet (hard to think about my writing these days at all without those). His favorite move was "The Harder They Come." Great movie. He had a special interest in the Black Panthers.

- However, most people had a very elevated, Romantic idea of poetry. The guiding idea of poetry was that it was elevated language, complex language; the idea that it could be political was for example ridiculous. These folks all loved Clover and Ashbery; and that has undoubtedly colored my perception of Clover and Ashbery.

- Lots of people bantered around the phrase "post-language poet" - as I am a... This means that they - like Jorie - used some of the textures of langpo to recreate high modernism, elegance, high learning - as opposed to Marvin Bell's old-guard poetics of authenticity. "Images" were vulgar and had to be controlled against their natural tendency toward excess; "confessional poetry" was ridiculed; "indeterminacy" was important, but not for reasons of Marxism - but because it was "complex" and thus more "realistic." I remember a debate I got in because someone called something (not mine) "pornographic" because it wasn't complex; I said "but I like pornos."

- In my first workshop (led by Lyn), a lot of the students were furious about my awkward linebreaks because they were disruptive. I kept trying to tell them that I wanted them to be awkward but I couldn't tell them why. Lyn gave me Bernstein's "The artifice of absorption" and this made sense of it for me. Lyn is still the best workshop teacher I've ever had (but strangely I found out later that a lot of the students didn't like the class).

- All in all I was constantly reminded that I was a foreigner. "This sounds like it has been translated" I was often told. "I like what you do, but it's not poetry" I was often told. "Now I'm convinced you're completely insane," cooed Jorie Graham in one workshop (a line frequently repeated when I run into people from that class).

- Economic Class mattered. Lots of ivy-leaguers. Being able to present yourself authoritatively was very important and that's something Ivy leaguers are very good at. Some of them also knew how to write; but some were just fools who knew how to act authoritative.

- It was not by coincidence that my best friends were the few lower class people - Amanda Ash (from the Ozarks, dad was Vietnam vet), James Pate (from the Memphis ghetto, dad was Taco Bell manager) - and Gene Tanta, a Romanian immigrant. None of them knew "how to behave." And were treated accordingly by the powers (ignored, disparaged). Ethan Canin, the fiction teacher, told James he "read too much." In a writing class!

This in short is what I learned in Iowa.


Blogger Kasey Mohammad said...

This is fascinating. Partly just as gossip, but also in how it paints a picture of a climate that's both infuriating and exhilarating. I wouldn't have assumed the latter, but your account gives me a visceral (but not "too visceral"!) sense of the totality of your experience there, the way in which real life and real people are always interesting, even when their conditions of value-sharing and position-adopting are most problematic.

That "Jorie Graham Canon" is a powerful, insidious instrument. It's a precisely calculated blend of the legitimate and the "edgy," the classical and the "innovative," the safe and the not-quite-as-safe. You brought up, I think, a key point in mentioning Bernstein's exclusion: the JG Canon is significant almost more for what it omits than what it includes, since what it includes appeals so smoothly to anyone's reasonable taste. I love Donne, Keats, Dickinson, Ashbery, Hejinian, Clover, et al. too, and there are so many names like this on the list that it has the effect of making it seem petty to object to the occasional Mark Strand. In fact, there are very few names it's impossible to imagine being included on the list in some context: Bruce Andrews or Alan Sondheim, maybe. It probably makes more sense to think in terms of texts rather than individual poets. For example, I could see an obligatory nod towards Bernadette Mayer's sonnets and other short poems (and maybe even a glance at her exercise list), but would be very surprised if anyone even acknowledged the existence of something like Utopia. The inclusions seem largely to be chosen, as you note, for their adaptability to a certain model of romantic lyric, with a dreamy, elevated, poised quality. This is a seductive model, in many ways perhaps an "organic" one, by which I mean it seems based on the sort of "natural" inclinations one would find in the developing curiosity of a serious reader of poetry. It very much resembles my own reading interests in the late eighties and early nineties, for instance (which may even at that time, on the other hand, have been somehow influenced by an emerging JG presence in the world of available poetic printed material).

I think if I had been in this program or one like it, it would have let me depressed and artistically impotent. I'm guessing it would have been somewhat like my experience specializing in Renaissance Lit in the English Ph.D. program at Stanford, where despite the support of wonderful teachers like Stephen Orgel, J. Martin Evans, and David Riggs, and despite the general amiability and intelligence of my fellow students, I became increasingly discouraged by a) the lockstep adherence to one narrow New Historicist critical approach that was implicitly expected, and b) the sometimes suffocating awareness of class difference, a difference it would have been "impolite" and "embarrassing" to draw attention to. I know there were a few other students in my cohort who felt similarly.

I wonder to what extent the class dynamic informs the whole set of antagonistic feelings about this or that canon--how possible is it to separate an "objective" appraisal of authors and texts from say, a general "vibe" one gets from JG's self-presentation and mode of social carriage?

11:43 AM  
Blogger CB said...


Not sure if you’ll remember me--Chad, from your year at Iowa. I think you’ve mostly nailed the workshop atmosphere circa 2000, here, especially re: class (and gender, sexuality, race) inflecting the available forms of self-articulation (not to mention poetic making), and re: the ability to articulate your poetic project being as or even more important than the project itself. The terms in which others would articulate one’s own project were often hilarious and stifling: I remember well Jorie’s response to one of your poems, which involved a comparison of your work to James Tate’s and a distinction between Tate poems that resolved themselves (“good”) and Tate poems that set off “cartoon dynamite” just because they could (“bad”). Ah, Iowa.

Despite the oppressive and constant positioning and demand for a position, though, so many of the poems and poets that emerged out of (or in spite of) the workshop were, to me, invigorating--perhaps mostly those whose inability to take up a side, or evasion of taking sides, served to trouble the workshop's paradigm of side-taking altogether. For instance, are you still in touch with Amanda Ash? I keep an eye out for her poems, but haven’t seen anything, and would love to know what she’s writing. I can still remember her series of “Bunny” poems, full of teenage sentiment (in the best way!) and (affective and physical) violence. I think one poem was titled “Bunny Gets His Ass Kicked,” or something like that, and went on to detail just that—Bunny getting his ass kicked—from an angle both wry and awry.

The poems I most remember from Iowa are Brian Waniewski’s—that whole long Martini Mansion series he was working on for most of our second year, especially. It's baffling to me that that work isn’t in print (I’d love to hear that it is, and I’ve somehow just missed it). His poems seemed to me to get at all sorts of dislocating effects through a devastating formal elegance—they were so ornate as to disturb. Nobody knew what to do with them in workshop (they were elevated and complex and elegant, but too much so). And his intense readings of these poems only heightened their queer effects.

12:48 PM  
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7:00 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I agree with Kasey, Johannes, that this is really interesting stuff. Thanks very much for detailing it. It's amazing to remember/realize (as the case may be) that there is indeed a program that imagines itself as training the new generations of the Poetry Elite.

Just a few thoughts/questions.

My guess is that Charles Bernstein is anathema at Iowa because he aggressively promotes an alternative view of what the most interesting contemporary poetry is. Hejinian, for instance, as much as she's definitely an example of the alternative Bernstein suggests, isn't a vocal critic/promoter around the same set of issues (although she writers very fine criticism).

I wonder what people didn't like about Hejinian's class.

Now, please don't take me as being too serious on this point, but sometimes I find it amusing to point out that I'm the person who invented the term postlanguage poetry in several articles that I wrote in the mid-1990s. I didn't do it with that much determined seriousness, and other people were critical of the term for various reasons, but nonetheless it amuses me to think about the Mark Wallace Influence at Iowa--as if anybody there had ever heard of me at all.

Of course, for me the term was a way to get at the issues being faced by younger writers of that time who were reading the language writers intensely and figuring out how to respond to that and find our own later set of concerns. In other words, a writer can't really be postlanguage unless she or he has been significantly absorbing that poetry and poetics, deciding what to like and what not and where to go next. But if I understand you right, my guess is that some people at Iowa used the term as a way of saying "We don't need to know about that language poetry stuff at all. We're beyond that now."

Regarding the MFA students: although there's no way to know, I suppose, I wonder how many students show up at Iowa already having some idea of what they're going to be taught about poetry. I wonder how many of them, when they get there, say "Oh yes, this is what poetry is" and how many are shocked or at least put off. And I wonder too: are the students chosen because they express interests in the kind of poetry being taught at Iowa. Or do they just have solid backgrounds as undergraduate writers with good grades and then find themselves being trained to become the next Iowa Elite?

By the way, in case you're ever wondering how U.S. MFA programs came to promote the kind of writing that they do, a book called The Elephants Teach (I can't remember the writer's name off the top of my head) that discusses the history of American creative writing programs gives the definitive historical answer, I think. In the 1970s, a total of about 25 Iowa past MFA students went on to found creative writing programs in other schools. In other words, while this might be changing somewhat by now--although not really very much--the bulk of the American MFA industry was created by graduates of the Iowa MFA program.

10:14 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Oh, and I've mentioned this piece on my blog and linked to it. Thanks again.

10:15 AM  
Blogger brian (baj) salchert said...

Thank you for this post. I am here
because I was at Mark Wallace's site. I was at Iowa when James Tate and Peter Klappert were, both Yale Younger Series poets. My situation there though was not conducive to getting to know the other writers outside of class, but I may attempt a similar post on my Rho-- blog. To quote Mr. Mohammad: "This is fascinating."

7:46 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

Each day I feel luckier and luckier...and more foolish for having invested so much time and stress. Fuck it, man.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Talia Reed said...

- Only three people showed up for the Alice Notley Q&A. The room was packed when Ashbery and Strand gave theirs.

I don't understand such things. Certainly Notley would have something to offer any MFA student--even ones from Iowa. Spoilt! That's what that is.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


The other thing about the JG Canon is that it's largely mean to foreclose discussion. You have some langpo, some Mark Strands etc -it's all in there!

But of course the problem is not just who is in the canon but how you read the poems - ie the lyrical expression. If it's one thing that Iowa did wrong during my time there it was that the teachers did not give us the critical tool to move beyond such a "close reading" approach. In fact any criticism beyond the autonomous text was treated with bewilderment.

I remember a Mark Levine seminar when we read "Lycidas" and I said, don't you have to consider the historical context of civil war and cavalier poets etc and a friend of mine freaked out and said that Milton didn't believe in history...

Another problem: no history.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I totally agree with you that there were so many interesing writers. I don't want that to get lost in my post. I was really energized by the experience. And I do think Jorie deserves some of the credit for that. Poetry felt very Important.

I see your point about someone like Amanda. The trouble is that I think Amanda was kind of shut up finally by Iowa. I had a falling out with her a couple of month before we graduated and then I didn't hear from her again until maybe 2004-2005 when I got a terse note of about two sentences. So I don't know what happened to her. But I suspect she felt too alienated by her Iowa experience.

I did see Brian W a few years ago at a conference in NYC and I invited him to read at our Action Books reading that night. His poetry was pretty awesome in a late 19th century kind of way. He had a poem about an "algae monster" living in a canal beneath his house. The audience looked bewildered.

He actually sent me his new manuscript last year around the time my daughter was born and I regretfully sort of lost it in all the hoopla. I think he's one of these "trend gurus." He used to work for someone named "Popcorn".

Where are you these days?

12:21 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


The reason I think people didn't like Lyn's class was that she was too nice. She didn't criticize enough.

Yes, you're right about the postlanguage thing. There were people there who came out of that tradition (Jen Hofer for example), but the people who used phrase were definitely people who had not and did not want to engage with langpo.

I think the first time I read that term was somehow in connection with that journal Apex of the M back in the early 90s when I was in college.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

Iowa. I would see the Iowa Writers Workshop in so many bios. It seemed like the center of American poetry. Going there was being anointed, it looked like. You will meet (& become!) the Poetry Elite if you Iowa-ize.

One classmate from UCBerkeley went on to Iowa. She just got poems in The Paris Review.

Another acquaintance from the Northern Cal scene (north of SF) went to Iowa and has taught at Harvard, among other places, and blogs for Poetry Magazine.

Perhaps they both would have had their worldly success (not claiming either is getting rich!) had they not gone to Iowa. They went to Iowa, I believe, because they were ambitious as well as dedicated to poetry.

I would take workshop classes in college because I got to be in a group of people who valued the thing I was putting so much heart into (but which most people seem indifferent to). I got academic credit for what I'd be doing anyway plus some peers.

Having always been more depressive and resistant to groups (& authorities) than ambitious I never chose to push on toward Iowa. I appreciated reading your account, though. It sounds like I would have loved it sometimes. I don't know though. Wasn't it cold there?

10:05 PM  
Blogger Steven Fama said...

Where'd Rimbaud go to school?

7:00 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


7:47 AM  
Blogger Antoine said...

Michael Savitz is one of my favorite poets, too, Johannes, and I could never figure out why his work wasn't more, um, celebrated among the class. I never heard the "lazy" tag, but hey I'm just a fiction writer.

Cheers, A

2:33 PM  
Blogger John Gallaher said...

I would have loved to have been at the Alice Notley Q&A. That would have been a very nice number for a conversation. Was the faculty furious at the lack of interest? I can't believe they would go to the trouble to bring her, and then not push students to participate.

That said, I went to a Q&A with Jorie Graham once and there were, I think, five of us. She talked about Bishop and Keats.

Ashbery and Palmer are wonderful writers. I can't imagine how I would read them, though, if they had been forced upon me. I tend to not like things forced upon me. Except, of course, the pornos.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

enjoyed reading your observations on class, wish you'd fleshed that out a bit more.

9:01 AM  

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