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Out of Iowa: A Life of Lessons Learned and Lost at Workshop

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The author as a young poet in Iowa

By Dina Elenbogen

A place does not wait for the weary traveler to return. Life continues and it is the houses that alter from storms and the passage of time. I can’t remember which doors I walked through to get home, although the hills I climbed to get there have long ago toughened my legs. I can’t remember the number of my house on Summit Street, only which window my desk sat in front of, but I think the poems came from darker corners. And on Burlington, my first apartment in Iowa City, where did I place my typewriter? I remember the park bench on Governor that I collapsed on once, on my way home from class, and those who walked through my unmarked doors and loved me too much or not enough.

As if through a sieve, details of a life sift through and so much gets lost. This was a place I left when it was time to leave. I didn’t turn back much, at first. A semester ended, I received my degree, packed up a car and took off. I came back twice in the eighties: Once after I returned from Israel to see how my poems would play in Iowa and another time for the fiftieth reunion of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Now I’ve come back to give a reading from my first book of poems.

Back then, I found my poets and I abandoned them. This time, even street names evoke feelings, each one reminds me of someone else: Tony Sanders on Johnson, Mary Cross on Dodge, Gerald Stern on Van Buren, Marvin Bell on College Avenue, Jorie Graham and Jim Galvin, Jack Leggett and later me and Betsy Breglio on Summit Street, Ethan Canin and the person I once was on Burlington.

I search for that young woman on Burlington, wondering if I can still rescue her from the way those years tried to shape and define her. I want to free her from the battles she once fought here, the ones I fear she might still be engaged in.

 

In his essay collection “False Papers,” Andre Aciman, who left the Egypt of his boyhood at thirteen, writes that freedom is not about leaving Egypt. It is about returning to one’s Egypt to become truly free of it. It wasn’t until he went back as an adult that he came to peace with the place from which he was exiled. On this return, I realize that Iowa had been both a promised land and a kind of Egypt. Can I free myself after returning for the ultimate review of my poems?

 

But first off, what was Iowa—what do those selective memories add up to now that I’m a grown poet and teacher of poetry? I came here alone when I was twenty-two and with each week I dove deeper into my loneliness. Everything I thought I knew about who I was had been slowly stripped away by the comments about my poems in workshop, the large but seemingly unsupportive community that surrounded me. I had come to learn from the best poets in the country, yet when I looked into the cornfields for inspiration, I saw my own young but ancient face peering back. I was still trying to define myself by the people who had once been in my life, the supportive poetry community at the college where I had been star poet, my boyfriend who sent roses with a card that said, “hang in there Longfellow” when I was blue about the way a poem was critiqued in workshop. And now I was defining myself by what was and was not said of my poems in class.

The first poem that I turned in for Stanley Plumly’s workshop had been written in the suburbs where I’d spent the summer with my family, from the persona of a mother speaking of her children. Stanley knew right away that the voice was untrue. The “we” I spoke of to express the concerns of citizens also rang false—there was not a community or world that I truly felt a part of. No one believed the voice in my poem. Everyone saw through me. And at the same time I felt that no one looked at me; no one saw me. I didn’t know where my own voice had gone.

Soon I roamed different streets besides the ones the poets walked down. Amy, a photographer from Brooklyn, showed me the back roads, abandoned farmhouses, and through the lens of her camera the cornfields were an extraordinary green. I thought her photographs were magical and my poems spoke to her. Amy described it as, “we like the way each other views the world.”

I found others with the same world view when I got a job at the synagogue teaching Hebrew. And then came the Jewish poems. Even if I was beginning to find or rediscover my subject, my voice, my world—the poems that came as a result of this were not always celebrated in workshop.

In his office, Plumly told me I was too talented to throw myself into this crazy world of poets and critics at the age of twenty-two. “What are you doing here? You’re so young. Come back when you’re thirty and divorced like everyone else.”

“But when I’m thirty I want to have my first book out, to be teaching, settled, you know… not in a writing program.”

Stanley pulled his chair closer to me, his cowboy boots click together in my memory and he said with his warm or belittling smile, “Babe, come back when you’re thirty and tell me that.”

Betsy Breglio

He said that unlike many of the other, older poets, I have something to say, content. My problem, he seemed to be suggesting, was that I stayed too close to the literal. I interpreted this as not being imaginative enough. I took this definition with me. At the end of the second year, during a conference with Gerald Stern about my thesis-in-progress, when he asked what I thought my greatest weakness was I said, “my work isn’t imaginative enough?” He disagreed. He said my work was imaginative, musical, but that it needed more urgency, more rage.

Then where was I putting all of my rage if not into my poems?

My problem, as Stanley continued to define it as the weeks followed and I began to explore Jewish history and the Holocaust in my poems, was my obsession with the yellow star. Once he described my poem as a man in a heavy black coat. As winter approached he asked me to remove the coat and gave me an assignment one week of writing something that had nothing Jewish in it. I brought him a poem about a blind Arab woman I had been tutoring in linguistics, and how keenly she felt the world around her.

On the way to a reading one evening I complained to Ethan, a fiction writer and my neighbor, and to Kate, a fellow poet, about Stanley’s assignment. Kate said, “Who cares what you write about? It’s form that is of utmost importance here. I look for a form and then I figure out what I want to say.” “But not everything is worthy of being formed. Like Ruth’s poem about a beetle that we discussed in class last week. Who cares if it’s perfectly metered or if she wrote a sestina. She isn’t saying anything.”

“I still say it’s all about form,” Kate insisted. Ethan for once was conspicuously quiet.

In a conference with Plumly near the end of the semester he said, “it’s okay if you’re still writing about the yellow star. Five years from now you’ll do so with very different language.” That seemed fair enough. Five years later he wrote me a letter of recommendation that said, “Dina is a Jewish American poet, in the best sense of the word.”

If I had bothered to put together the comments from back then, I’d have to say my voice was inauthentic, I was too literal, not angry enough and a bit too Jewish. But I don’t think I put it all together twenty years ago; I had too many other things on my mind. Yet I kept writing the next poem and saying screw you to the bad comments in workshop and silently relishing the good ones.. I grew more and more silent, my poems grew quieter yet I was often full of rage. Jewish rage?

For others it was a different kind of rage. In Gerald Stern’s long poem seminar he handed us a syllabus with all male poets. “Weren’t there any women who wrote long poems?” a chorus of voices asked him. He scratched his mostly bald skull and mentioned Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser who we then added to the syllabus. He assigned someone else the task of presenting these poets to the class. But for me, even in Stern’s seminar, it was still Jewish rage or, as the poet Paul Celan described it, Jewish loneliness. I wrote a poem called “Trains” that explored my father’s relationship to Germany when he was in the Air Force during the Second World War. It included his Jewish anger, my grappling with the Holocaust and with Israel. I can’t remember what Stern said about it but there was this unspoken sense that he was uncomfortable with its blatant Jewishness. I think that winter he wrote a poem called “Soap” that was really about murdered Jews.

Tony Sanders

The poets in Stanley’s workshop thought I had nerve writing about the Holocaust, that it was too ambitious, in the worst sense of the word. Yet I was bored reading their poems about insects and nature and I would often miss their Christian imagery unless it was obvious or footnoted. It wasn’t until Marvin Bell read “Trains” the following autumn and Prairie Schooner accepted it for publication that it was truly validated. I still think it was one of the most important poems I’ve written.

I was lucky that I didn’t discard it, that at twenty-two I was able to listen to what made sense to me and to disregard the comments that told me more about the readers than my poem. This wisdom or audacity saved me. In some ways I was already too much myself; I would not compromise when it came to saying what I thought needed to be said in a poem. But it came with a price. I had a chip on my shoulder and sometimes blocked out the valuable comments as well. I was angry a lot and Stern accused me of not having enough rage in my poems.

 

Soon the summer poets arrived, Jodi, just back from Israel and Tony from Connecticut who I met at the Sheepshead Cafe where our bikes were parked next to each other. With the pressure of the academic year away and more time to bike and canoe we were able to build a day around the love of poems. Even summer workshop felt more honest. My peers appreciated some of my poems and others, the more imaginative ones that I began to write that summer, bewildered them. But I could be the Jewish poet and the sad poet and all of it was acceptable, even to Plumly who was running the workshop. When we weren’t exchanging our own poems, we’d be surrounded by the poems of others, rowing our canoes at Lake MacBride, quoting lines from Forché, Plumly, Amichai and Tichy. Poetry was a natural part of a summer afternoon; it mattered more than anything else.

I loved the way Tony could devour several books of poems in a day, how he emulated the poet John Ashbery. With his blond hair and blue eyes he probed my poems—all of them—and when I wrote about the Lower East Side of New York he had his own version. When I finished a poem that summer and the year that followed, I knew Tony and others were waiting to read it. I found my audience and my voice was my own because I knew someone was listening for me at the other end.

These are the sustaining memories: the poems I fell in love with, how while walking down Dubuque Street through the stink of leaves with Lam, a dyslexic student who I tutored in poetry, we recited Marvin Bell’s poem about Ginkgo leaves and how as Christmas approached with displays of fancy soaps and lotions, I carried with me images of Gerald Stern’s “Soap” poem, and how the rhythms of Jorie Graham’s poem “To A Friend Going Blind” echoed into my days with lines like: when Bruna finishes her dress/it is the shape of what has come/ to rescue her….

There is still a marker in my copy of Theodore Roethke’s “Collected Poems” next to “The Lost Son,” the poem Jim Galvin asked me to present in his form seminar.

I remember how I was praised for the way I interpreted it through my reading, not on my analysis of it. Jim had given us, along with a new appreciation for form and meter, the poems that he made us digest. He had given me Roethke whose rhythms, plants and darkness would later shape my own poems.

Last spring I presented my poetry students with a session on the long poem. When I went to revisitThe Lost Son” in the collection I still have from Iowa, my neatly typed up notes fell out as if they had been waiting for my return. I felt Galvin’s presence as I taught it and in front of my students’ eyes, fell in love with it all over again so that the poem spilled into them. At the end of class there was the silence of deep appreciation followed by a great applause.

Other poems live in me the same way. I cannot read Galway Kinnell’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World” without returning to Stern’s living room on Van Buren Street where with his bellowing, melodic voice, his humor and his wisdom, he brought these poets to life for us. Bury me not Bunko damned Catholic I pray you in Egypt.

In Stern’s living room, we didn’t analyze the poems necessarily but we said them aloud until they became a part of us. We listened to Stern’s stories until Pound, Eliot, Berryman and Williams became alive in the room for us—no longer only words on a page. We knew the fathers and the sons ( the mothers and daughters we’d have to dig up on our own) and understood our own generation of poets in a deeper way. We heard the music in “The Lost Son” in a lasting way that would enlarge the possibilities of our own work.

Amy Lilienfeld and Ethan Canin

That spring a group of workshop students gave a reading together at the Hillel center celebrating Israel Independence Day. I remember the women poets giggling in embarrassment before we got on stage and me wondering if I really had a right to read my poems out loud. And I remember the way Ethan confidently leaned against the podium and read the story he had published in a big magazine, the story that got him into Iowa and gave him the most prestigious honor, a teaching writing fellowship. I read, among other things, a poem I’d written that autumn called “A Jewish Waitress at a Chinese Restaurant” and what I remember most was Ethan saying it sounded like the rantings of an unassimilated Jew. I had been so busy fighting my Jewish battle back then that I never thought of the male-female dynamic between me and Ethan, between Ethan and others. I didn’t dwell on the fact that there was only one female on the poetry faculty. I didn’t hold a grudge about the lack of women poets in Stern’s long poem seminar. I held onto the idea of the “unassimilated Jew” to the extent that I never noticed that only men got teaching writing fellowships, even in poetry. I guess we all chose our own battles.

 

On the car ride to Iowa twenty years later memories like this assault me. I hadn’t put it together when I lived there. It hadn’t added up. It wasn’t until I read Andre Aciman’s description of how freedom is not about leaving Egypt but about returning to it, that I saw how Iowa had been my Egypt. It is where I was asked in a totally different way than I had been asked in other contexts of my life, what it meant to be a Jewish American writer in the twentieth century, where I was judged for bringing it into my writing. It is where most profoundly I received messages about who I could or could not be as a writer.

Betsy Breglio and Fidel Fijardo

As these memories fall on the windshield with the drops of rain I keep trying to wipe away, they loom larger as I cross the Mississippi River. My husband is next to me and our children, four-year-old Ilan and eight-year-old Sarina, are in the back seat. I try to tell my daughter what it meant to be a Jew in Iowa and images, fragments of conversations return. It begins to add up: Stanley Plumly asking me to write something that isn’t Jewish, Gerald Stern’s discomfort over my “Trains” poem, Ethan calling me an unassimilated Jew, a potential roommate who told me my bicycle and plants also seemed Jewish.

As we reach the other side of the Mississippi River my thoughts drift back to what it had meant to leave with all of this baggage. I was able to shut the door when I left Iowa—or so I thought—and get on a plane for Israel. I searched for a working typewriter on kibbutz but mostly I didn’t need my own room to write in. My poems appeared at bus stations, in wadis, on the tops of mountains. The poems came like gifts. There was the urgency Stern had longed for but it wasn’t about myself. I was wrestling with the absorption of Ethiopian Jews, speaking a new and ancient language, needing a larger canvas and writing more prose, confronting poverty, racism and war. Maybe in Iowa I had been too separate from the world to know real rage. Maybe the voice in my first “workshopped” poem sounded untrue when I tried to speak as a citizen because before my travels I didn’t feel like a citizen of the world or of any particular place.

 

Back in Iowa this time, I am immersed in Aciman’s memoir Out of Egypt.” Teaching a course on Home and Estrangement, I begin to frame my experiences within that context. I’ve come to read with my friend “ Phillip,” a visiting faculty member in fiction. He and his wife “Julia” had become good friends when they lived in Evanston several years ago. Although I’m exhausted from driving in the rain and from the strain of memory, I insist on going to the reading of a distinguished visiting poet and Phillip joins me.

We rush to Van Allen Hall where I had gone to readings in the eighties, and find seats near an aisle. The room is packed with students who wave to Phillip from where they sit on the steps. I look for myself in the crowd of twenty-something poets but only recognize my posture and expression in the anxious array of faces. Was I ever that young and uncertain, that eager and full of the promise of poetry? The territory these people inhabit is so small and insular yet to them it is the universe.

There is an emptiness in the poems of the visiting poet but everyone finds something to laugh at as if it had been decided in advance that this is a great poet and now he can do whatever he wants. My eyes scan the room to find a Jim Galvin of twenty years later who I’m sure won’t recognize me. I wish that Marvin Bell and Gerry Stern were still here. I would tell them how they’ve accompanied me all these years to my classrooms in Chicago. How Marvin encouraging us to break new ground in our work, and Gerry’s passion and insight into William Carlos Williams, John Berryman and Philip Levine have infused my teaching with compassion and love. I also learned from my teachers’ mistakes; I bend over backwards to help my students discover their own way.

The next morning in the workshop office, my own face on the poster for our reading doesn’t exactly register; I’m still moving back and forth in time. Connie Brothers who is still the mother of the workshop greets my children and me with enthusiasm and warmth as she takes us on a tour of Dey House, the renovated Victorian building that now houses the workshop and the twenty years catch up with me. I give her a copy of my poetry book “Apples of the Earth” to join the others in the workshop library.

At Prairie Lights bookstore I catch up with a fellow alum who never left Iowa City. Jan’s first book has also been recently published and the two of us, although we don’t remember each other that well, have an immediate rapport—as if we are survivors of the same plane crash although she probably doesn’t think of it that way. We exchange memories, open our books and point to the poems that had been born in Iowa, laughing at what our peers had once said about them. Soon other friends and acquaintances join and it is small-town Iowa in the best sense: A thriving literary community where poems are engraved in the sidewalks.

 

Phillip and Julia invite Ethan, a permanent faculty member now, and his family to have Shabbat dinner with their family and mine. Phillip and Ethan are colleagues now and Ethan and I had communicated via Phillip that we’d love to see each other when I got to town. “So how’s the po’ business,” Ethan asks after we hug with sincere warmth.

After a few drinks I share with him my memories of his old black piano that had filled his studio apartment on Burlington, and his passion for hardware stores. I don’t remind him about the day he received his teaching writing fellowship or of his comment about the unassimilated Jew. He had forgotten the old black piano because his life now, as a fiction writer in Iowa, had almost completely erased his past.

We are both larger and older but in our friends’ home everything feels leveled. We are more than just writers now: we are parents, citizens and teachers. We have come together to greet the Sabbath; something we would never have done together as students. My daughter does the long blessing over the wine by heart and I am more proud than embarrassed by her earnestness and the loud pitch of her voice. Yet I whisper to Ethan something about how her day school tuition is paying off. Really I am amazed by her Hebrew fluency. I think then that maybe I am an unassimilated Jew, just as I’m an unassimilated poet.

My son stays in the kitchen writing his name on the wipe off message board on the fridge: I—L—A—N. He wipes it off and then writes it again, larger. His name means tree in Hebrew and he is proud of this. As I watch him from the next room I think that maybe this is what Iowa was about, we practiced writing our names. We practiced putting our visions of ourselves and the world onto paper with words that visited us while we lay down and when we arose, when we went about our days and when we stopped to dream. We practiced, in different forms, music, rhythms and schools of thought. We shouted to each other: Here I Am.

 

Our reading, co-sponsored by the workshop, is at the Hillel Center where Ethan and I had read twenty years before. The building is more drab and rundown. At the podium I speak from now, a poet who had her book-release party at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, who had read to a packed room of friends and followers in Chicago, a teacher who tries to help her students discover what they want to say in their writing, eloquently and authentically. I speak of this place as once having been my home and I realize, as I stand before these mostly strange writers, that home is not always about comfort. Sometimes estrangement is a kind of home.

Although my books sell and there are many positive and some exuberant responses to my reading, I notice how more people surround Phillip and buy his books. And then it only takes one slight to send me spinning back to the wounds of the twenty-two-year-old poet who never felt recognized here. But as Roethke so profoundly put it, “a real hurt is soft.” And deep.

Twenty years have passed between the Iowas of the past and present and like most writers I’ve faced all sorts of rejection but also enough acceptance to feel validated. But again the time between the two decades vanishes. This was my Egypt and I revisit it only to get stuck in the mud.

 

Chard deNiord and Fidel Fijardo take the writer's furniture the day she leaves Iowa

The next day we pick apples and I try to rinse the mud from my boots. I am quiet with my friends noticing how Phillip gloats over the positive responses to his reading. Out of Iowa I had only regarded him as a friend and ally. In the harsh light of Iowa everything turns murky. My husband reminds me that this is Phillip’s home now and he has students and colleagues to cheer him on. Still this paralysis lasts days into my return to Chicago.

When a note arrives from Connie telling me how extraordinary my reading had been and how lovely my children, I decide to listen only to her voice. I look at my own words that surround me in books and magazines—words that say exactly what I mean, that help me understand and sometimes transform lives. I stay in that place as the decades slowly separate again like slowly moving elevator doors.

And then I remember Marvin Bell’s words upon graduation, “Ten years from now, most of you won’t be writing a stitch—only those of you who have to will be writing—only a chosen few.” I looked at Marvin’s photo on the back of his most recent poetry book and felt grateful to be among the chosen.

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