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IWP Fall Residency 2009 Pt. I: The Landscape

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

Writers gathered in front of Shambaugh House

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.

A day's hike through Redbird Farms

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

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