smooth veneer

I moved to Iowa for poetry but was fickle.


One workshop stands out in throbbing relief in my mind’s eye when I cast it back over 10 years– a decade— of graduate school in Iowa.

What is perhaps more surprising than the mere occasion of a single class period eclipsing hundreds of others nearly indistinguishable from it is the fact that it was not a Writers’ Workshop workshop but rather a nonfiction workshop corralled up in a ring of institutional seminar tables across campus the English and Philosophy Building, a monstrosity of 1970s architecture with an acre of parking lot; in the defensively independent Nonfiction Writing Program (still in its institutional English Department digs in

in contrast IWW’s digs in quaint Victorian Dey House on the far northern lip of campus, lapping up against the University President’s house lawn.

In the particular workshop that resonates to this day for me, an essay of mine (shocking, I know) was up for “workshop” and was currently undergoing a certain amount of gutting for its smoothness. Two of my classmates in particular– both workmanly dedicated published writers– were for all intents and purposes seriously bugged by what I interpreted at the time as a yawning So What? response to my essay.

In all truth writing workshops were never easy for me. The chasm of desolation yawned over the precipice of self doubt in the dramatically lit tableau of that time and place. A handful of days into that first September I walked out in afternoon light and sat down on a semi-wooded hillside full of spiders. I was accompanied by couple of poets and a fiction writer.

Wind, oh

This room this morning reminds me of another, years and states away—dark glow of lacquered wood cabinetry against whitewashed walls, waking early, pre-dawn, still night, some bête noir or seasonal restlessness kicking me alert at an unusual hour—and I rose from my narrow bed and walked to the open window brightening even as I watched against the dim room, birds loud, unabashed, yelling in bird voices, careless of curfew or examination, odor of peaking lilac and rising exhalation of lawn, a long yawn across the classical quadrangle bisected by trim concrete walkways door to door, a fan of brickwork patio, wide steps like a terraced approach to the façade. In my room, door closed and awake when every stipulated line of the crested handbook deemed I should be sleeping the sleep of the just and ambitious, to wake at the appointed hour and step through the dictates of decorum in a timely and alert manner, good soldier to breakfast, to class, to sport, to study, to college, to Wall Street, to nirvana or Valhalla or Poughkeepsie or Greenwich in double time. But me, spawned out of Midwestern shipping mutts, fled from suburbia to—what? Not the lockstep—that open window loud with night-morning wilderness and invitation, sheer wet cold grass reaching for pellmell tread of bare feet, plush and bleeding green onto feeling skin—was I seduced by the luxury of slouching leather chairs in library alcoves and cool-flagged floors for what they represented of achievement and arrival—or more an ecstatic religion of outright aesthetic bursting with sensory revelation if bereft of explicit intent? What passed for a curtain then, blowing in on the breeze of that morning, a tapestry handed-down from my older sister before me, scrap of previous bohemianism forever smelling somehow of bacon, likely incense of a prior era redolent to me of grandeur, intrigue, and slippery decadence—imagined panoramas concocted against the blank slate sweep of my own small dormitory space, constructed vividly, elaborately envisioned, tempted by and craving something more, beyond, surging like the rolling energy of those forested hillsides reaching across the view—up close forever to scale, endless under the clatter of lacrosse cleats against pavement, impromptu long distance testament to coaching praxis grounded in Yankee punishment and shame, shin splints be damned—but well fed, well bred, acultured to a definite ideal and set of lofty standards—The H______ Experience so called as if by trademark, emblazoned as banner across tastefully matte brochure covers and, I seem to recall, white painter’s caps at the Upper Mid Carnival—even the class years renamed in deference to an other, auspicious tradition, apart from the norm, set teetering upon the pinnacle of a hilltop overlooking a white-steepled town and jewel-blue lake, tottering on the verge of adulthood and self-definition. And now, here, so many years after—another window yawning wide with possibility—the stretch between the two containing what? So much so various. Hardly cohering to a path except that it does and has, somehow—navigable only by the wits and will of an inestimable drive onward through cities and streets, houses and apartment buildings, changing names, professions, habits formed and broken, hearts and feasts and fasts and tumbles through spare bedrooms, across transcontinental highways and gravel back roads, chicken shit and industrial soot, impossible weather. Many mornings waking to sunlight or rain, Spring birds or rumble of jumbo jets in descent, wide and ranging cast of companions and housepets, solitude persistent—always wondering what precisely it was that called me awake that one morning and how to answer it even now.

picking up on an earlier conversation

…I suppose the central and most honest question, from my perspective, becomes: what are your main objects in a) teaching writing and b) writing yourself?

because, for category a), answers I’ve witnessed include, in no particular order: i. self-aggrandizement, e.g. increasing your readership/fanbase/cult of personality to the extent, in some notable cases, of recreating the world in your own image; ii. making a living; iii. contributing to the production of quality literature in the world; iv. helping others learn, grow, and develop new understandings of self and the world around them.

for category b), answers I’ve seen include: i. to get famous; ii. to scratch an itch; iii. to discover what you think you know and open it up for revision.

I’ve seen way too many people engaged in subcategory i (or probably that should be I) pursuits. it consistently makes me mad, and then subsequently sad. I mean, really, who the hell would *want* to be famous? just *look* at the kinds of lives hollywood stars live. yeah, so they’ve got the cash and nice houses and great bods and whatnot, but I have to ask myself if they even really *live* at all. maybe angelina jolie– she is taking flying lessons after all. but they can’t even go out in public without getting mobbed and tabloids publishing and twisting their private relationships to shreds. I know there are a lot of people who feel sympathy is wasted on the rich and famous who’ve clearly chosen their own paths. I’m just saying: fame. can you honestly tell me it’s a GOOD thing?

I dunno. maybe you think so. we all have differently-compelled and -enabled egos. mine says to me:

“make stuff that’s fun and whimsical, sometimes even weird. take a risk, explore; poke and gaze and work it all up into something lovely and captivating– then put it out on a little table on the front lawn for people who walk by to look at, pick up and shake, sniff, sing to, etc.

“and then pick up by the seat of its pants what you know, and what you’re in the process of learning and reassessing, and go into a classroom– and take a can opener to other people’s heads. put that can opener into the people’s own hands and invite them to poke around inside. make a place where everybody involved can lever out the grey lump and work it into stupendous concoctions. go, ooooooooh, collectively.”