Archive for June 2014
If you can get away from whatever grind is keeping you down late Thursday morning and join American Outlaws at Donnelly’s Pub in Iowa City, here’s what you can expect.
First, don’t worry about finding the exact location (even though it’s listed as 110 E. College St.). Get within a block, and you’ll hear it. Most likely, you’ll hear chants of “I Believe That We Will Win!” and an adaptation of Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him” that riffs on the chorus: “We support the U.S., the U.S., the U.S. / and that’s the way we love it, we love it, we love it.”
When the crowd isn’t warming up with the chants, you’ll hear a catalog of America-themed songs blasting over the speakers. They’d be cliched and corny if they weren’t so aptly patriotic at this time and in this place: R.O.C.K. in the USA, Born in the USA, American Girl, and ironically, David Bowie’s Young Americans. Bowie is British, but don’t harsh anybody’s nationalistic buzz by pointing that out.
No worries if you’re deaf and blind. You’ll still know you’re in the right place when you feel your feet sliding on the tile floor from layers of condensation and spillings of beer and Jameson and who knows what else. You can actually stand at one end of the bar and start watching the game, and by stoppage time you’ll have slid to the other end of the bar. A thick stench of deodorant seeping from three hundred armpits hangs in the humid air. That may be the most unique feature of Donnelly’s during World Cup–their ability to somehow match the conditions on the pitch to an exact degree. It’ll be somewhere in the 80s with 80-90% humidity. You’ll wash your USA wear before you return for the next game.
And speaking of USA wear, the joint and every joy-seeker therein are decked in red, white, and blue. Clint Dempsey #8 jerseys saturate the crowd. Painted flags and stars blotch most every face, and everybody has a bandanna around their neck, across their forehead, or over their face in outlaw fashion.
The chants will never stop. Someone will call out, “When the Yanks Come Marching In,” and “USA Ain’t Nuthin’ to Fuck With” and “USA-USA-USA” will come into steady rotation. Tim Howard will make a critical stop (aren’t they all critical at this point?), and one of the Outlaws will start up the chant Everton fans started in the English Premier League:
We have Tim Howard
and he says “Fuck You!”
At some point, if #8 is banking a shot off the upright or stomaching one into the net, some guy will stand on his stool and scream, “Clint Dempsey fucked my mom!”
If a goal drought continues for too long and the crowd is getting itchy, the Outlaws will launch into a Yankee Doodle-inspired ditty:
Come on U.S. score a goal
It’s really very simple
Put the ball into the next
and we’ll go fucking mental!
And “mental” we will go. Four times now, it has been bedlam that you’ll feel in your heart like a kick drum at a rock concert. You might feel a degree of Patriotism uncommon in such an ethnically diverse nation, and you’ll definitely understand how it feels to be One Nation, One Team.
So you went back to University of Iowa and took a poetry workshop. Good for you. It’s a great time to work on your writing, no? And not just the poetry. Because you have tons of other stuff to work on, don’t you? You brought it with you. And since the workshop only meets on Mondays, you’ll have plenty of time to get stuff done, right? You’ve got seven weeks, right?
Wrong. Here’s why:
1. You’re sitting on the front porch Saturday afternoon actually doing some work when from somewhere behind the house you hear bluegrass music. You go investigate and find out George’s Buffet is having it’s 75th anniversary. The place is an institution in Iowa City. And it’s not just the bluegrass band… there’s two blues bands that follow. Kiss the rest of the afternoon goodbye, and the evening. But the music was good.
2. Yoga. Got stay limber to work off physical stresses, focus your mind, and rehab that Achilles injury, don’t you? Of course you do. There goes a few hours each week.
3. World Cup is on, and damn if it isn’t great. Even when the USA isn’t playing, there’s always something good to watch. And when the USA is playing, fuggedaboutit! American Outlaws are in Iowa City, and they have pub space reserved. There goes a few more hours from game time alone. But you didn’t just watch the games, did you? You had to take advantage of the drink specials. Goodbye to the few hours subsequent to the games when you feel too sleepy to do much.
4. The Eleventh Hour. Damned if those daily lectures haven’t been interesting each day. Always something new to think about, discuss, or learn. Goodbye five hours per week.
5. Regular exercise. The bike. A run. Weights. The Elliptical. Gym fees are part of your tuition. Might as well get your money’s worth.
6. Hungry? Go shopping and fix your own meals. Ain’t no dining service here. Oh, and you thought it would be fun to bring your grill so you can cookout in the back yard. There’s a few more hours gone per week.
7. You had never heard of The Machine Stops. But now you’ve read the novella (one hour) and decided it would be a good idea to go see the preview of Act 1 of the opera based upon said piece. When is the next time you’re going to see an opera based on a highly influential science fiction story from a very unexpected source, much less the rough draft of one, for free, merely a five minute walk from your house? That’s right. Don’t miss that, even if it is an hour out of your night.
8. It’s a college town, so somebody has to have established an alternative cinema. They damn well did, and they have a grindhouse feature on Wednesday nights. You’d never heard of Blood Feast, but now you’ve seen it. Damn right you saw the ridiculous piece of crap, and you loved 135 minutes of the experience (walking over there, previews, walking home…).
9. Beethoven is cool. Tolstoy is cool. When they operate in tandem with The Kreutzer Sonata and the free preview interests you enough, you walk down the street and see the full interaction of the two pieces at the Englert Theatre. For free. There goes a few more hours.
10. Writing from your workshop cohorts. They, too, have writing that needs to be reviewed. You wouldn’t dare be that snobby or irresponsible workshop member who doesn’t put any effort into anybody else’s work, so you’re making every effort to work on their poems. Even if some of them are well nigh inaccessible or far too early in the drafting process to be workshopped. Kiss those hours goodbye.
11. You can almost see Prairie Lights bookstore from your front window. They have an acclaimed reading series. You haven’t been to any of them yet, but you already know which ones you will attend. Goodbye, future hours.
12. That laundry isn’t going to do itself. So you tool over to Laundromania and feed quarters into the washers and dryers. Not time wasted, per se, but you could have done without the Romania dude yakking too loud into his bluetooth for well over an hour. It would have been more distracting if you could have understood him, but at least you got deeper into A Prayer for Owen Meany, which has taken up several more hours this week.
13. Go ahead and go to brunch with your workshop cohorts. Not only will it be good to get out of the house for a bite, but you should be making some effort to get to know those folks. Goodbye 2 hours Sunday morning.
14. You have a poem due Monday morning each week. You’re not going to recycle old stuff and throw it in, are you? Probably not. So you’ll need to work on drafting a new poem each week. That is never a short process. If it is, you should probably reconsider writing poetry or much of anything.
To be continued (time permitting)…
The workshop met yesterday for the first time. I won’t see my new writer friends until next Monday, and by my new writer friends I’m talking about the local PhD student with blue dreadlocks and armloads of tattoos, the physicist from New Zealand, the handful of local writers, the comedy writer from LA, the criminologist from Canada (the Canadian Criminologist!), and of course the workshop leader, who ain’t no slouch. Some of us want to change gears in our academic disciplines, some of us want to get back into writing and found this to be a no-pressure but demanding avenue, and I want to continue to be the best writer I can be. So that answers my question from Sunday night about who the hell takes these particular courses. I guess as far as all of Iowa is concerned (and not just Dyersville): If you build it, they will come.
Even though I won’t see my new writer friends for another week, my most pressing concern is how am I going to find any time to get work done between now and then? More on that later.
I’ve realized ever since I got my acceptance letter to the workshop that this was going to be a big sea change for me. Thus far, that has manifested itself in interesting ways. First, I’m using a new type of journal. I’ve made no bones about my quirky journal habits in the past, nor has a writer friend of mine, so when I jump out of my groove it has to be for a good reason. See, in 2004 when I was first at Iowa for the Summer Writing Festival, I thought it was cool as hell that one of my classmates used a honkin’ huge hardbound journal–8.5″ x 11″ and about 2″ thick. Said she used them all the time, and they could be picked up on the cheap at Borders. So I bought one. I busted it out in spring of 2005 as I was starting at Northwestern and made an inscription on the inside cover: If I can fill this journal, I can be a writer.
But damned if I can’t fill the thing. I’ve written a metric ton in it, and have pretty much relegated it to my poetry journal since the pages are so big and I can write entire poems on a page and annotate and edit without running out of space. But the problem is that I’ve written so damn much in it that I’ve reached the last third of the journal and it’s too hard to keep open when I’m writing. I have to exert physical effort when I’m writing to keep it open; plus, I’m losing space on the pages since I can’t reach the inner expanses of each page. So what to do? The size is still perfect. The hard binding means it can absorb a good deal of daily wear and tear. My students’ jaws drop when I whip it out. This is like trying to replace an old flame. There’s comfort and familiarity there. But if I’ve learned anything, it is that sometimes you have to clear the decks and start anew. And I did. Last week, I bought a new journal with the same page sizes, but only about half the thickness. It’s working pretty well thus far. Plus, and I can’t stress this enough, it is spiral bound and will stay open on it’s own. I preach this consistently to my students. Buy something that will stay open by itself. It will make it a lot easier to write in and transcribe from. Don’t waste money on a flashy, expensive journal. Practicality overrides prettiness.
And don’t get me started on pens. This is a huge change, too. For years I’ve used the Pilot V7 fine point pens in all kinds of colors. But I get pissed when the tips bend. And my students have been telling me for years that my handwriting is too hard to read. I blame their laziness with cursive and my pens. I can only change one of those. So I bought a multi-color pack of Pilot G-2 07s. Damned if they’ve made my handwriting any better. Still, new pens and a new style of journal both go a long way towards getting me out of my regular habits as I broach new territory. But change is good, right? Allow yourself to evolve to meet and adapt your circumstances. It’s good to tweak your orbit a little bit. I never used to use pencils in the editing process, but was so self-conscious about my sloppy handwriting when I was digging through piles of manuscripts at The Skids in ’11 that I started using pencils. Now they are indispensable to me when I edit. And my students are thankful that they don’t have to decipher my notes.
That brings me to my next habit, which I now realize is something that has been working against me. See, I have a simple philosophy with poems that I employ everyday, which is the frequency with which I read The Writer’s Almanac. It goes like this: I read the first three or four lines of a poem, and if it doesn’t interest me, I delete it. No harm, no foul, right? Except this has become my default setting now with handling poems. I even tell my students to do the same thing. Why read poems that you don’t like or aren’t interested in? Shitcan them! And what’s more, don’t write poems that you don’t like! Sounds good, and it serves me well. Well, it served me well. Until I sat down in workshop yesterday and looked at the poems my new writer friends submitted and promptly started to feel pretty awkward when I was flipping through poems looking for what interested me and ignoring the rest. I guess this means that I need to start spending more time with poems and seeing where the craft is in each one. That’s going to take more time and more patience. And dammit, it’s probably going to take more knowledge of poetry. Here’s another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.
I’m kicking it in Iowa City right now. I showed up this afternoon after a windy and contentious drive from Chicago, and have already unpacked and rode my bike around University of Iowa. It’s nice to be back, and by “be back” I mean it’s nice to return to where the whole writing thing pretty much started rolling for me ten years ago.
Iowa hosts their Summer Writing Festival each year to bring in aspiring writers from around the country and maintain their reputation as the cradle of American literature. I learned of the festival in 2004 and decided to give it a try, and based on my positive experience decided that I wanted to do more writing–like, “get another masters degree” more writing. So I did, and now I’m back here in a poetry workshop for most of the summer.
I had to audition for this one; it going far beyond the general cattle call of the writing festival. So I sent off a fiction portfolio and a poetry portfolio since there is a workshop offered in both. I was cocky enough to think I’d be accepted into both of them, but I was only half right. I got word that I was accepted into the poetry workshop, and here I am. And here I’ll be for the most part until August 4.
I’m looking at this as a big step as a writer–bigger than the last time I spent a good chunk of summer on a college campus. I’ll finally get some solid, structured instruction in writing poetry. I’ve pretty much pottered around with the genre the last nine years, kind of keeping it as my “left-handed” skill. I’ve read The Writer’s Almanac each day, instructed my students in some of the fundamentals of writing poetry, written a lot of crappy poems, a small amount of mediocre poems, and at least ten pretty decent poems that spoke well enough on my behalf to get me here.
I’m eager to get started. This is a graduate-level, non-credit workshop, and as such, I’m mighty curious about who the hell takes classes like this. Who works at the grad level, but doesn’t need the credit? Who can afford to take the time, much less pay the tuition and board himself for seven weeks? The answers await, along with other answers about how, exactly, one writes poetry.