"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Doing Time at Iowa

or: My Iowa Isolated Freedom (1965-67) - I was 24 going in, having been delayed two years by an errant yet necessary venture in a Jesuit facility in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota. During my junior and senior undergraduate years I was the lead editor of Pursuit, a dying literary and arts journal. Thankfully, after my departure, Professor Richard Lyons changed its focus, and renamed it Wisconsin Review. In June of 1965 I married the woman I was most attracted to when we were in grade school. Subsequently, by means of a ruse, I initiated employment for her at the university, but we were not able to find living quarters in Iowa City. In Solon, about ten miles north, we found an upstairs apartment in a large house. All in all, though it kept me away from other students in the MFA program, it was/ a pleasant place. Solitude appealed to me. My first year my mentor was George Starbuck. For reasons I do not recall/ I decided to write Onefor, an epic with a torturous rhyme scheme. I did manage to complete a draft of Book I. However, it was not acceptable, and the efforts needed to make it acceptable would have been Herculean. I was not faring all that well with the hill courses either. Starbuck could have sent me packing, but an intuition he had, plain and worn as it was, led him to tell me to: write about something you are familiar with. Already nearing the end of year one, and knowing I had not written enough good short poems, on a return to my hometown, I walked through important parts of it. Thus, Fond du Lac, a loose blank verse long poem, a lyric narrative, speckled with others its protagonist encounters/imagines. Compared to the epic, it is like a happening. By the time the first lines of it appeared on a worksheet/ Marvin Bell was my mentor; but Starbuck's intuition, pressuring me as it did, had freed me. The change was palpable. Alas, it perturbed one student so/ he walked to the front, and--sitting in a chair behind a table--began reciting from memory a composition of his he was certain was superior--which indeed it was--but was made comical by the juxtaposition of a deeply felt personal truth. Laughter erupted. I, though I may have smiled, was sad. That student rushed out; and to this day I wish I had had the strength to convince him to stay; but childhood traumas prevented me from helping him heal the trauma/ he was experiencing. - [ Note: My memory is fallible, but I am relating all here as my memory has retained that all. ] - Afterwards, out in the hall, James Tate (god that he was) asked me: "How do you write those long poems?" Stunned is the word. First off, if he actually did use "those long poems"/ it didn't register. Had it, I would have questioned it/ as I didn't think anyone knew about the epic. Perhaps it's neither here nor there since I was stunned. Not having a clue how to respond, I asked him: "How do you write your short ones?" At that point the word became silence. Had I known then what I know now: that he was into jazz, I would have mentioned that and then told him I prefer symphonies. I did have brief conversations with two or three other students while I was at Iowa. Here are names of those I remember, whether or not I ever spoke to them: Phil Hey, Michael Dennis Browne, Peter Klappert, Harold Bond, Peter Cooley, Steve Orlen, Jon Anderson, David Lunde, Julia Vinograd, Richard Geller, Eric Nightingale. Some side notes: - During the summer of 1966 I worked in a pallet factory in Coralville, Iowa. - When I was a child, my parents learned I had allergies the day I went with my father to help him pick corn on the land where he was a child. It was less than four blocks from our house, but by the time we got back to there/ my eyes were pasted shut. One day in Iowa City when I stopped to get my wife, she told me my face was all white, scaly white, that I looked like a ghost. - Julia Vinograd has written over 50/ books of poems. kh00003


poetorlen said...

Hi Brian, I remember you well at Iowa, and remember that around the time you came in free verse took over the world, and you were "stuck" writing in form... As you may have heard, Jon Anderson died several months ago. The University of Arizona Poetry Center has some of the talks his friends and former students gave as a memorial.

Best, Orlen

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