Iowa City Inspiration

I just returned from a quick overnight trip to Iowa City.  There are many things I love about this city.  Like….

People playing outside pianos.

People playing outside pianos.

Children frolicking in fountains.

Children frolicking in fountains.

Inspiring Art Everywhere

Inspiring Art Everywhere

Great Food! Yum!

Great Food! Yum!

But the real reason I return to Iowa City every summer is the way it inspires my writing.  Today I attended a free lecture by Juliet Patterson, “Alternative Fuel Sources: Powering the Non-narrative Essay.”  I was interested in the topic since my sermons and writing are typically narrative driven.  What other tools might I use to drive an essay or a message?

Patterson encouraged us to capitalize on our organic strengths as writers.  She’s not a storyteller.  She’s a lyric poet.  So she’s more comfortable describing scenes in specific detail and focusing on the cadence of her words than on a particular narrative. The risk of writing like this–writing a lyric essay–is that it can be lifeless is there is no drama, arc or plot.  (I can think of a lot of lifeless sermons I’ve heard that fit this description.)  You have to build a scaffolding for what you’re writing.  Oftentimes that comes through the plot of a narrative, but Patterson suggested other alternatives such as images, a refrain (a repeated line or two to return to throughout the piece to ground the reader), or connecting small, seemingly disparate details, into a larger context of meaning.

To understand this way of driving a piece of prose, it was helpful to read the examples Patterson used in the lecture.  Here’s a picture of my notes on two excerpts she discussed.

Alternative Fuel Sources / Patterson 2015 Iowa Summer Writing Festival

Alternative Fuel Sources / Patterson
2015 Iowa Summer Writing Festival

The first excerpt by Joni Tevis uses the image of water / rain to create drama.   The song, “When the Levee Breaks,” provides the structure.  Tevis did a lot of research for this piece, which began (we learned) as a lifeless essay.  But the more research she did the more details, images, and ideas started to connect which made the piece come alive.

The second excerpt by John D’Agata’s “About a Mountain” really struck me.  It uses a refrain, “The life span of” to ground the reader.  But what is so stunning about this piece is about how it creates this aura of slippery-ness here.  Everything is slippery.  Everything slips away.  Even the sentences get shorter as the piece progresses.  D’Agata intentionally creates this aura of slippery-ness before introducing the subject of the book; nuclear waste.  A substance that does not slip away.  Ever.   This is a stunning piece of prose that doesn’t need a narrative to drive it.

After the lecture I went straight to the bookstore and bought two books highlighted by Patterson, “About a Mountain” by John D’Agata and “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” by Sarah Manguso that I hope to dig into this summer. Inspiration abounds in Iowa City!

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“About a Mountain” “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” and a fun book about farts for my 8 year old.

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Summer Pilgrimage into Poetry

photoIowa City is a place of poets and aspiring writers of novels, memoirs, flash-fiction, and sermons.  It’s a place of independent book stores, all-you-can-eat Indian buffets and Hawkeyes—everywhere—Hawkeyes.  I hope to post some of the writing that has bubbled up for me at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival.  But for now a simple note of gratitude.

First, I am grateful for my class, Poetry for Beginners (A Short Course in Attention) and for my teacher, Michael Morse, who taught me that, “More than intending, the poet ATTENDS!”[1]  How true this is (or should be) for pastors and preachers as well.

Michael introduced me to the Pantoum, the Ghazal, and the Sestina, specific kinds of poetry that I might have assumed were wild safari animals before taking this class.  We discussed voice, image, metaphor, sound, and structure—the “ways in” to poetry.  And we read poetry to each other—slowly, deliberately, thoughtfully.  The reader of poetry, as James Tate describes, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks of the prayerful, haunted silence between the words, phrases, images, ideas and lines.[2]  This is what I’ve been doing all week and loving the luxury of it—because in between those lines of poetry lay observations of life I deeply appreciate.

I am constantly in awe of the ability certain poets have to name the mysteries of the universe, or call forth a beautiful, insightful philosophy, in a few, perfectly chosen words.  The power of poetic language astounds me.  For example, this poem by Nazim Hikmet blows me away.

It’s This Way

I stand in the advancing light,

my hands hungry, the world beautiful

My hand can’t get enough of the trees—

they’re so hopeful, so green

A sunny road runs through the mulberries,

I’m at the window of the prison infirmary.

I can’t smell the medicines—

carnations must be blooming nearby.

It’s this way:

being captured is beside the point,

the point is not to surrender.

photoHikmet, a revered poet from Turkey often imprisoned for his socialist views, speaks deeply to me even though my life in no way compares to his.  His point, though, of never surrendering to that which oppresses, or captures, or negates the beautiful, is universally insightful and helpful. What an astonishing poet!  I’m so glad his poetry now graces my bookshelf.

Other new poets have found their way to my shelf as well: Bob Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz.  After learning that Marie Howe (still my favorite poet) studied with Stanley Kunitz, I quickly ran to buy his book. (And yes, my husband will roll his eyes at me when he sees my credit card statement from Prairie Light Books.) Kunitz had me at “hello,” though, or, the words of his brief foreword entitled, “Speaking of Poetry.”  Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul.

If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn.  The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay.  Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence.  What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?

Does one live, therefore for the sake of poetry?  No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of life.[3]

Thank you, to the poets, for another nourishing, contemplative, inspiring week in Iowa City—the land of my spiritual, summer pilgrimages.Image


[1] Dean Young

[2] James Tate, Introduction to the Best American Poetry, 1997.

[3] Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through, (W.W. Norton and & Company, New York, 1995), pgs. 11-12.