Monday, December 23, 2013

What the brochures don't tell you: my time at the International Writing Program

Writers reflected, 'Cloud Gate', Chicago

I spent nearly four months in the U.S., most of it in Iowa City participating in the International Writing Program (IWP). I managed to write a couple of short stories, one of which will appear in the Griffith Review next year (it was originally going to be the upcoming NZ-themed issue, but they reckon it fits better thematically with their ‘Cultural Solutions’ issue…), so that aspect of my writing residency was worthwhile and successful.

(I also continued to write my fortnightly column for the Dom Post while I was away, covering Iowa fashions, what to say (and what not) when asked what you think of Iowa, the Tri-State rodeo, New Orleans, Halloween, being a working parent (even if “work” = being a writer in residence) and Washington DC. I also co-wrote an article on New Orleans for a website dedicated to, uh, New Orleans.)

But the IWP is unlike other residencies in its focus and scale, its history and ulterior motives. Writing – the act of getting new work down on paper or as pixels – was rarely mentioned as there was so much else going on.

I didn’t blog about the IWP at the time because:
a) I was writing short stories and columns like a good boy
b) there were heaps of other events to eat up my time
c) I was squeezing familymanhood into the slivers of residency downtime, and
d) it was a confusing time that I figured would be easier to dissect once I was out of the frying pan.

So, here’s my take on the IWP and Iowa City.

Writers arriving at Shambaugh House, home of the IWP, for the first time.

Busy busy

The IWP is a pick-a-path residency. If you don’t have fun, you only have yourself (and your decisions) to blame.

From August to November there were 35 writers from 31 countries in Iowa City. The 10-week program (I’m going to stick to US spelling for the p-word, since that’s how they roll) organised two 1-hour readings per week featuring IWP writers, as well as a bunch of other panels and one-off events.

My reading at Shambaugh House

The IWP also offered participants trips to a rodeo, an organic farm with remnant patch of prairie, Burial Mounds National Park, a pot luck barn dance, the Kalona fall festival and a big community dinner at another farm. We also got to go to either New Orleans or San Francisco for five-days midway through the residency and almost all of us went to Chicago, Washington DC and New York City at the end of the program.

In addition to this, the writers also organised their own weekly salon and fiction writers held weekly meetings to talk about their craft, as did poets. Then there were the impromptu chats in the Iowa House common room (the hotel where most of us stayed) and the dinners for various cultures and ethnic groups (the Chinese contingent was in particularly high demand for these).

Apart from giving one public reading, appearing on one panel discussion and talking to one undergrad class (and all the tedious administration stuff that occupies most of the first week of the program), all other activities were optional. If you wanted to lock yourself away and break the back of your novel in 10 weeks, you could. If you wanted to experience everything outside your hotel room that was on offer, you could.

Writers wade through the prairie

Early on I made the decision to err on the side of doing too much away from my desk. I figured there’ll be plenty of time to write over the next 45 years (retirement age of 75 for a writer sounds about right, I reckon) but being in Iowa for the Fall semester and being with those 34 other writers was likely to be a once in a lifetime deal.

And I don’t regret that decision. Was every reading great? No. Were all the trips worth the effort? Probably not (but they all had redeeming features). Was every night I spent drinking with other writers critical to my development as a writer and a human being? Of course it was!

So, if you’re reading this and think you might one day end up as an IWP participant, focus on these things above. For all the qualms I may have had, if you don’t make your time in Iowa worthwhile, you only have yourself to blame.

International Riding Program contingent at the Tri-State Rodeo

Uncle Sam wants you!

I was an outlier on the program, in that Creative NZ (our arts funding body) paid for my participation, rather than the US Department of State or an embassy.

The logic of the State Department shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring farflung writers to the wholesome midwest runs something like this: Writers play an important role in shaping public discourse. If a writer gets to experience US culture firsthand, they may be more predisposed to favourable opinions about the US and its actions that may be disseminated in their home country.

(Also, if they really like the US, they’ll stay and enrich the US stock of creative talent.)

The wizards behind the curtain know that this scheming will only pay dividends in a handful of cases. But one or two US advocates out of 35 writers a year must seem like money well spent (the program has run since the 1967).

Of course, some of those 35 writers come from unproblematic countries like New Zealand and Finland. At times it felt like we were there as camouflage. Pawns in the pursuit of plausible deniability.

Hiking up the bluff, Burial Mounds National Park

I should add that several of the writers on the program suffered from mental illness (a number openly spoke about their struggles with depression, paranoia and panic attacks, and the various drugs they did and didn’t take in order to function), making the IWP a hotbed for conspiracy theories and persecution complexes. But out of the frying pan and back in New Zealand, the cynical underpinning of the program remains apparent.

Of course, the program sells itself in a rather different light, as “a unique conduit for the world’s literatures, connecting well-established writers from around the globe, bringing international literature into classrooms…” (IWP website). It also talks up the way it gives Americans (mostly Iowa City residents) a taste of other cultures and literatures. This side of the program also privileges the exotic (in an often icky, post-colonial / imperial way). Writers who speak and write in languages other than English are prized above garden variety anglophones.

The myth-making of the IWP was most painfully clear whenever the director, Christopher Merrill spoke. He’d introduce people by their country over their art, and became especially animated whenever a writer was the first from their country to take part in the program (ie Burundi, Kuwait, Bahrain). The only exception was when he learnt some snippet about a writer that tickled him (the fact one writer was a bank manager back home; one writer had 49 published books). Never did he penetrate into the question of whether producing 49 books was a good thing in terms of quality (let alone the messages contained within those books).

The art of inequality in the arts

Now, as a white, middle class, male anglophone writer from a country with a decent relationship with the US, being paid for by my own country's arts funding body, I was always going to be on the periphery of such a program. I was offered the bare minimum in terms of opportunities to present my work: one 20-minute reading (mandatory), one session at the Iowa City Book Festival (mandatory), one appearance at the International Literature Today class for Iowa undergrads (mandatory), talking to a class of high school kids in New Orleans (5 writers per class, featuring all writers who went to New Orleans) and a 45 minute talk I gave to a bunch of retirees at the Senior College.

Kurt Vonnegut session at Iowa City Book Festival

Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad, but remember we’re talking 10 weeks, and the fact there were readings at parties, dinners, receptions, schools, and other reading series around Iowa City…

I wasn’t the only writer who felt like they were being overlooked and under-utilised on the program (I’d say 50-60% of the writers complained about it at some point; 10% complained often and at length). It wasn’t just about exoticism. Some of those writers who were well-utilised were three or more of the following: white, male, middle class and wrote in English.

Some people inside the IWP even commented, toward the end of the 10 weeks, about the inequitable opportunities being offered. “X is always reading. Y hasn't even read yet,” etc etc. The observation is completely true, but I don’t agree that every writer should be given equal airtime. I don’t.

Even though the bar is set high-ish by the fact you have to be selected to attend the IWP’s fall residency, there will always be a huge variation in the talent within any collection of 35 writers. Some were only one or two books into their careers (a couple not even that far). Others were five or six or 49 books in. Many had won prizes and been on residencies in foreign countries before. Some were invited by universities on either coast to give talks while they were in the US.

There were no out and out rock stars, but some were well on that path.

Poets reading at Poet's House, NYC

My objection is that the inequitable distribution of opportunities didn’t always align with talent. There was favouritism for poets over prosers and the exotic over the anglophone. The people who got to pick and choose who read when didn’t sufficiently engage with all the writers’ work (I’m talking not reading our 10 page writing samples… I don’t expect them to have read all our books) and were happy to base their selections on hunches and dehumanising factors.

In saying all this, I'm thinking mostly about New Zealand writers who might apply for this residency in the future. Forewarned is forearmed and all that. And of course I'm a bit biased. I was miffed because I wanted more of the spotlight than I got. And, really, it means very little in the scheme of things. There were never any book sales tables at events (most, like me, didn’t have US publishers, so there was little impetus to move stock). And most of the time writers were being paraded as anthropological specimens rather than writers. My career is in no worse shape for having done 5 things instead of 15. My ego was hurt and that’s all.

I believed (and still do) that I was one of the better writers on the program. That given 5 or 50 minutes to read from my work, I’d entertain a crowd. This may read as arrogance, but it’s an important part of what gets me up at 5am every morning. The voice that says: I’m good at this. I have things to say and I’m going to work my butt off until this page sings.

Being on the periphery of the IWP reminded me of this. It hurt to feel like a neglected manque rock star. The only way to avoid this again is to fucking write a rock star book.

Sometimes a bruise or two to your ego is just what the doctor ordered.

Octagonal barn, decked out for a barn dance and pot-luck dinner

The Iowa City Vortex

Since returning to NZ and my day-job (from which I took leave without pay to bugger off to Iowa), I’ve been asked dozens of times: “Was it worthwhile?”

I start by saying what I said at the beginning of this post: I got to write, I got to meet interesting people and talk about interesting things, and a got to travel around.

Then I say: But 10 weeks was long enough on the program, and four months was long enough to be in the States.

As a group, the IWP writers got on really well. There were simmering tensions, of course. Some of which, if I summarised here, might sound reductive and dehumanising (national/cultural/religious stuff). Other tensions were much more human (‘Are they…*cough*?’ ‘Are they?’ ‘I don’t know, I was just asking…’). Nothing boiled over until the final week, though another week or two and all bets would be off.

Then there’s the fact that Iowa City is not the real world. There are writers’ bars (George’s, The Foxhead) where everyone is a writing student or a writer. The attractive undergrads in their skimpy clothes smoking outside are talking about the way John Berryman breaks a line. Suddenly, a knowledge of poetry is a help not a hindrance if you’re wanting to ‘make friends’. That kind of sudden reversal can do a writer’s head in.

University of Iowa President's Block Party, first week of the fall semester.

After two weeks, we’d walk around town and it’d be impossible to avoid seeing people we knew, either writers, student, academics, people who ran a speaking agency for writers or hosted writers for dinner or liked to attend every reading on offer (for some it seemed a useful sleeping aid).

At the end of the residency, a handful of writers elected to stay in Iowa City for the 30 days their J-1 visas allowed them to linger in the States. From their Facebook posts (“What am I still doing here?”) it seems they spent much of that time chasing their own tails – living the life of a writer without the extended network of the IWP, and hemmed in by the onset of winter.

Staying in Iowa City long term, you’d inevitably become an insular, important-to-a-select-few-Iowa-City-residents-who’ve-secretly-lost-the-joy-of-reading writer, still chasing your own tail.

Hell is getting too much of what you want. Time to write, a community of writers, bars exclusively for writers… Sounds great, right.

I’m not joking when I say that it was nice to come back to Wellington, get up at 5am and cram in 1.5 hours writing (my daughter wakes at 6.30am these days, and I’ve yet to convince myself 4:30am starts are necessary) then go to work as an (Acting) Chief Policy Analyst. To have friends who couldn’t give a fuck about Anthony Marras. To edge into another summer in time for Christmas parties and fishing trips, and know that I’m going to keep carving out time to write, and that the internal combustion engine that powers “the work” (a phrase popular in Iowa City and among IWP-ers that I promise not to use again) isn’t dependent on external validation or the encouragement of the person in the hotel room next door.

Declining comment

There’s more I could write about my time away. Life in the Midwest. Travel during the residency. My roadtrip down the Mississippi. But I fear a lot of it will be tinged with the same jaundiced tint.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Or even as if I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. I’ll come back to this experience again and again, in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve filled the tank, as Joss Whedon would say.

America is so much about image and myth, that of course the most interesting parts are where the reality diverges most violently from message.

Killing time at New Orleans airport

When I got home the lemon tree I planted last spring looked as if it hadn’t enjoyed the winter frosts or spring winds. It had two leaves left, but on closer inspection its spindly branches all terminated in buds. Within two days, the tree was in full blossom, giving its all for one last stab at life and procreation.

Being in the US during the government shutdown and the bankruptcy of Detroit, and driving through innumerable boarded-up towns and finding the only commerce in chain stores and restaurants on the arterial routes leading out of the withered heart, it’s hard not to think of it as an ailing country, a terminal culture. And perhaps those places of activity and light, like Iowa City, are attempts to stave off this decline. Perhaps it’s all in vain. Perhaps not. But it is interesting.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tennessee and Mississippi - A Musical in Pictures

I'm in Vicksburg, Mississippi, tonight - a city notable for its surrender at a critical point during the Civil War and thus destined to have military museums and themed-diners. But prior to this, the last few days have been all about the music.


It's a shame Beale Street has been reduced (elevated?) to a kind of poor man's Bourbon Street, but if you want real, authentic Blues tourism, you need a time machine.

Failing that, there are plenty of museums and petrified studios to visit.

Sun Studios was pretty cool.

I got to see a first pressing of "the first rock'n'roll song", 'Rocket 88' by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, recorded in that very building.

And I got to step inside the recording studio and stare up at the original ceiling tiles installed by Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker, based on a design they'd seen in American Scientist magazine...

And stand on the original tiles that Elvis stood on (see the black x) when he recorded 'That's alright Mama'.

 The Memphis Rock & Soul Museum was also worth a visit. Coolest thing was watching my 11 month old daughter dance to the snippets of Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam and Dave and Al Green songs during the 12 minute intro video (kids under 5 weren't allowed on the Sun Studios tour, but I reckon she'd have loved a bit of Howlin' Wolf).

Second coolest thing: seeing the original handwritten lyrics (and the organ the song was written on) for 'Suspicious Minds'.

And no visit to Memphis is complete without a visit to Graceland. That Elvis sure knew how to decorate.

TV room, with TCB lightning bolt, mirrored ceiling and three tvs.
Jungle room, with shag-pile on ceiling (and floor)
Racquetball room, repurposed as another trophy room.
The road

Leaving Memphis, we drove down Highway 61. Actually, we'd been on 61 at other points in our journey down the Mississippi from Iowa, but only now did it become "The Blues Highway".

Back in 2008 I wrote a longish poem about America that featured Robert Johnson. Here's a bit of it...


Ike Zinnerman learnt to play guitar at midnight,
sitting on tombstones, so they say,
and later influenced young Robert Johnson—
though no one is willing to make the leap
from Zinnerman to ‘Sin of Man’
and have him tune Robert’s guitar at the crossroads…

(“The Crossroads” in Clarksdale, Mississippi is now—

of course, of course—a tourist attraction.)


So, of course, of course, I had to pay a visit to said Crossroads.

The actual crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to be a masterful guitar player is disputed. Rosedale, a bit further south, claims it happened there, though their marker is less photogenic...

And the actual intersection this sign faces is even less appealing...

And the shops down the street are about to fall down...

And the actual intersection of today's highways 1 and 8 (where Son House reckons RJ did the deed) looks like this...

But I'd say that's all about perfect for Robert Johnson (except maybe that last photo).

Anyway, it's Vicksburg to Natchez tomorrow, then on to Baton Rouge and New Orleans...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Chester, Illinois, "The Home of Popeye"

Despite the town's branding, Chester was actually only the hometown of Elzie Segar, the creator of Popeye. But still, that's something to crow about.

Here are some (not all) of my Popeye-related photos from Chester...

The Affordable Care Act Eagles?
Chester's choice: Mental health center or penitentiary

Olive Oyl,  Swee' Pea and Jeep
Cole Oyl outside the library (his books: AC Doyle, Longfellow, Shakespeare)


I'm A-OK
This last one isn't Popeye-themed. It's just a bit out of season. Or maybe they know I'm going back to New Zealand in less than two weeks...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hannibal, Missouri

So I'm done with Iowa. At some point I want to write about my time as part of the International Writing Program and post some more pictures, but right now I'm going to stick to the present day. I'm travelling down the Mississippi River (actually, beside it) with my wife and daughter. We've got two weeks to make it to New Orleans.

Here are some pics from our first night's stop: Hannibal, Missouri, "Mark Twain's Hometown".

Homemade (bottomless) root beer float at Mark Twain Dinette
Hannibal Inn
(That's our rental car, a Chevy Impala, if only it looked like an Impala of old...)
Not a scene out of the Shining
The indoor pool/games area at the Hannibal Inn 

A stone wall signifies antiquity, achieves nothing.
Mark Twain's boyhood home and (somehow) a fence from his fiction.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Images of America: Antiquing Edition

Finally, an antique store owned (or menaced) by someone who finds antique stores as painfully sad as I do.