Oct. 12, 2009


by Sonia Gernes

for my parent's fiftieth anniversary

In the old photographs, it is always autumn.
Colors fade to the sepia of remembered thought:
my mother in a flapper dress, my father
proud beside the Model A. They glow
in the light of dreams that I can never know.

What did they think of that autumn
they climbed into the photograph of bride & groom?
That love would conquer?—the Depression yield
more than its tart and scanty fruit?
In a season of scarceness, the bitter root

of her father's death fresh within the house,
they strode from the church believing
in sunlight—the prairie ringing for them,
the October trees all aflame with praise.
Good farmers, they knew how to raise

the future, a steady hand on each day's plow,
patience in the fallow fields, a table
big enough for all who'd need it, hope
in the seedlings, beauty's grace, a faith
that is the opposite of winter's death.

This autumn, I would take the color
of that triumph, the bright praise of trees.
the harvest secure in the heart's high bins;
I would make of them a portrait fit to hold
through time: these trees, these lives, this gold.

"Golden" by Sonia Gernes, from What You Hear in the Dark. © University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Reprinted with the permission of the author. (buy now)

It's the day that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus reached the New World. On this day in 1492, one of the sailors on the Pinta sighted land, an island in the Bahamas, after 10 weeks of sailing from Palos, Spain, with the Santa María, the Pinta, and the Niña. Columbus thought he had reached East Asia. When he sighted Cuba, he thought it was China, and when the expedition landed on Hispaniola, he thought it might be Japan.

Columbus became obsessed with finding a western sea route, but he miscalculated the world's size, and he didn't know the Pacific Ocean existed. He called his plan the "Enterprise of the Indies." He pitched it first to King John II of Portugal, who rejected it, and then to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They also turned him down, twice, before they conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492 and had some treasure to spare. Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World during his lifetime, and over the next century his discovery made Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Still, he died in 1506 without accomplishing his original goal of finding a western trading route to Asia.

It's the birthday of Paul Engle, (books by this author) born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (1908) into a farming family. A poet, novelist, and editor, his books include Worn Earth (1932), American Child: Sonnets for My Daughter (1956), Poems in Praise (1959), and Embrace: Selected Love Poems (1969). But he's best known for his work with the Iowa Writers' Workshop. For a quarter of a century he directed the M.F.A. program — the first of its kind — transforming it from an obscure experiment into a prestigious graduate level creative writing degree program. The Poetry Foundation notes: "Engle had the distinction of having trained more poets than perhaps any other man in history. In one anthology published in 1957, one-third of the American poets were former Engle students."

Graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop have over a dozen Pulitzers Prizes; among the alumni prize recipients are Rita Dove, Jane Smiley, and James Tate. Many more prizes — Pulitzers, National Book Awards, and others—have been awarded to Iowa faculty members: John Cheever, Philip Roth, John Berryman, Donald Justice, Louise Gluck, Philip Levine, and Jorie Graham have all taught at the Workshop. The two men who shared the 2008 Poetry Prize each spent time at Iowa: Philip Schultz as an M.F.A. student and Robert Hass as a faculty member.

Despite its illustrious alumni and faculty, the program has vocal detractors. Flannery O'Connor — herself a graduate — was once asked if the Iowa Writers' Workshop discouraged young writers, and she responded, "Not enough of them." In an article written 50 years after the program began, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted: "The argument is afoot that the workshop system has led to comfortable writing, safe and salable. Could Moby Dick or The Waste Land or Gravity's Rainbow have been written as homework?" Literary journal editor Charles Newman noted, ''Writing for class makes you not write narrative, but little miniatures that can be discussed in class.'' And there's the argument that students spend too much time imitating the technique of accomplished short-story writers like Raymond Carver. In the early 1980s, there was even a writing contest at Iowa to imitate Raymond Carver — and Carver himself served as the judge.

The Iowa Creative Writing Program began in 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression. It was founded by Wilbur Schramm, and it was first in the country to offer an M.F.A. in English. Paul Engle took over as director in 1941, staying in that position until 1965. To apply to the program students submit a manuscript of their best work, usually a dozen poems or a few short stories or a chunk of a novel in progress. Admitted students are generally either on the Poetry track or the Fiction one and are accordingly divided into sections for the Graduate Workshop. It's the most important part of the program and meets once a week for three hours. Each week, a few students are selected to submit their writing for discussion; it's everyone else's assignment to review the work. For the thesis, students must submit a book-length manuscript — a novel, a short-story collection, or book of verse. They graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree in English, qualifying them to teach college creative writing courses.

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