All too often writers-in-residence at the IWP have to leave us early. In 2009, Hanaa Hijazi and Fflur Dafydd had to say their goodbyes all too soon, but with the help of fellow-participants, left us with one incredible music video!
The leaves in Iowa City begin to change color in September, from dark green to all shades of amber, brown, or red. When the temperature starts to dip a little at night. This is also the time of year when the writers venture out on the first of two travel periods, where they get their choice of three destinations, each led by IWP staff members.
Behind Door #1 = San Francisco, California
Door #2 = New Orleans, Louisiana
And behind Door #3, a road trip down through the land in between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas, billed as a direct-dialogue with land that captured popular imagination as the American West, both as an American ethos and a metaphor for self-reliance; the birthplace of the archetypal cowboy, a figure embedded in the American experience. Artists such as Georgia O’Keefe have celebrated the sense of isolation and independence of the sparsely populated region; a region that inspired the films of John Ford and Sergio Leone; that made Iowan John Wayne a legend; and tracts of interstate that provided a landscape of inspiration for writers up through Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.[iae|54|l]
Writers who chose Door 3 chose to travel in concert with historic American artistic figures and the works they created. To travel like modern cowboys on the open road, to walk along towering cliffs and through narrow canyons, and listen to the roar of rapids either far below or at arm’s reach. Tabbed to lead the Mountain West experience, I flew with Ge Fei (China), Vicente Groyon (the Philippines), Marius Ivaskevicius (Lithuania), Hagar Peeters (the Netherlands), Kathy White (New Zealand), and Lijia Zhang (China), to Salt Lake City, where our chuckwagon (a 2008 Dodge Minivan) awaited.
“I can drive, anytime, if you’d like,” Marius offered.
After touring Temple Square, and walking a couple miles out of our way for a Thai restaurant Marius read about in a guidebook – which delivered, especially when it came down to the Michael Jackson muzak playing in stereo for atmosphere (there’s nothing quite like eating Moo Yang to Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough on saxophone) – we’d set out from Salt Lake City southbound on I-15, led by a British-accented GPS guide that had tried twice already to steer us incorrectly – Marius, as it turned out, really did have a keen eye for maps.
The interstate cuts Utah diagonally to its southwest corner, close to where Utah, Arizona, and Nevada meet, and at some point between Holden and Sulphurdale the sun started to fall in the west. Like a campfire, the writers huddled around each other in the glow across the back seats, exchanging stories of home, their own personal writing process, and of the places they’d seen featured in the books they’d read. Marius, our map guru, sat up front, pouring through the guidebooks and road maps for sites we just had to pull off the road for. It was hard not to feel a bit like the oddest sort of soccer mom, falling just short of an international “Are We There Yet?” chorus line.
I’d arranged for rooms at a lodge just south of the entrance to Mount Zion National Park, where we’d stay for two nights before moving on to the Grand Canyon. So of course when, on the road, I called ahead to notify the front desk we’d be checking in late, they were afraid to notify me they had no such reservations.
“That’s impossible,” I said. “I made them three weeks ago.”
“Please spell your name for me again,” the man on the phone asked.
Oh boy. “T. i. e. F as in Frank. e. n. T. h. a. l. e. r.”
They had nothing in their system under that name.
“Do you know if anything else nearby is available?”
This was the only point along the entire trip at which the van was silent.
“Not this time of year.”
In a rental car in the middle of Utah, I let the van know plans may not be as such. “Let’s stay in a roadside motel!” Vicente said. “The real American road trip experience.”
I dug through my papers for the confirmation numbers, and Marius, seizing another opportunity to drive, made an offer I still had to refuse. Billboards were a fairly uncommon sight along this vast stretch of Utah landscape, but with Motel ads splayed across exit markers, an excitement rose up from the back for a Best Western or the Spinning Wheel Motel. If we had packed sleeping bags, they would have laid out under the stars, our Dodge Caravan circled around us, celebrating the landscape that influenced artists who influenced them.
Another half hour down the road I called the lodge back with the confirmation numbers (yet a whole other story). As I should have guessed from the start, they’d butchered my name in their computers, swapping both a C and a P in there somewhere. The desk would stay open until we arrived, he said, we were not to worry about our rooms at the lodge. That’s not it at all, I told him. The group looked forward to it.
5 days, 4 states, and 1500 miles of driving later, these 6 writers hiked miles of the American West through 2 national parks; they trekked up the Mountains at Zion, and down the face of the Grand Canyon – Marius dipped his toes into the Colorado River; Lijia taught American idioms to Ge Fei along the trail to the Temple of Sinawava; and at the end of it all, they dropped a total of more than 3,000 feet in elevation. We’d long since shut off our faulty road guide, stopped off the roadside at vermillion rocks that grew out of the ground, at an old Mormon fort, and at a diner for “Ho-made Pie” (where I subsequently left my sunglasses). And somewhere across the Utah and Arizona roads, I should have let Marius take the wheel…what had we to lose?
joseph m. tiefenthaler, program assistant
As if winter weather advisories weren’t enough to remind us of the spoils of January, bloggers web-wide dot the i’s: inundated with Best Of lists, and anticipations of the coming State of the Union address, January doesn’t seem to exist much at all except to provide a month for looking ahead, as well as behind. And with old man winter comfortably settled across the Midwest, we look back on the year, and the residency, that was.
Part 1: The Landscape
One week into the University’s academic semester, 36 writers from 29 countries flew halfway across the world to a region known to some as fly-over country, and others a hub of international letters.
There’s a thirty minute drive from the airport to Iowa City, on an interstate colored with near-harvest crops and prairie grasses, that for many marks the beginning to an 80-day residency one writer remarked as “truly a paradise for creative people.” Maybe he’d seen Field of Dreams. Maybe not.
The road itself isn’t altogether smooth, patched with tar in the places where the road cracked, and those sorts of bumps aren’t kind to the overall experience of riding in University vehicles. As if the twenty hours of travel weren’t enough, the high ride and easy shake of a maxivan, a different beast unto itself, isn’t exactly red carpet limo service. But then again, neither is the Cedar Rapids Airport.
Arrivals funnel through the airport’s lone terminal, and through baggage claim about the size of an end zone.
“Is this Iowa City?”
There’s heartbreak in answering this question, and a lot of heavy luggage to carry around (unless it’s been lost).
“We’ll be there soon…”
This year, Iraqi poet Soheil Najm, on his second day of travel to the states, walked out of the terminal in a pressed suit and leather shoes, like he’d only come from as far away as Chicago. His original flight had to be rescheduled due to the funeral procession of an Imam through the streets of Baghdad, causing city-wide gridlock, and he had an overnight in Istanbul before finally landing stateside in Detroit, and traveling further into the Midwest. I had Andreas Weber, novelist from Austria, along for the ride. He’d arrived that morning, sure enough, to find his luggage delayed, and looked for help at his carrier’s desk while I tended to Soheil.
“This is Iowa City?” he asked, and I had to tell him.
He took this, and his luggage, in stride, and went for a cigarette.
On the ride in, the road was pitch dark, and I told him what the landscape looked like during the day. The river to our right. Corn and soybean fields. And Andreas had a question for Soheil.
“You are a poet. I must ask what you think about this war?”
We drove the rest of the way in kind, an Austrian novelist and Iraqi poet in energetic conversation on the current situation in Baghdad, oblivious to the unsettling road bumps, and pitch black view. Hitting the ground running.
The early weeks of the residency saw a flurry of welcoming events and receptions more or less along the same lines, and across the backyards of countless introductions, the writers started coming alive as we now remember them; personalities, friends, citizens of the world, and charges of intellectual dynamite. Whether suited in full regalia at the home of IWP Director Christopher Merrill, or in hiking boots through the paths of Redbird Farms’ back country, the writers matched local enthusiasm for their mere presence stride for stride. As the weeks went on, a tightly-knit community formed, yielding one-of-a-kind moments that made it a true paradise to be their hosts. Even in maxivans.
joseph m. tiefenthaler
For anyone (as we all are) missing Mabrouck, here's ten minutes of his IWP adventures (in French, bien sur):