An open reception at the Café at Prairie Lights will immediately follow the reading. — photo by Liz Wilson
Live From Prairie Lights: Rebecca Wolff, Emily Hunt & Christian Schlegel
Prairie Lights Bookstore — Wednesday, Sep. 30 at 7 p.m.
New York City is considered — or at least considers itself — the epicenter of culture. As a native Manhattanite, however, poet and novelist Rebecca Wolff felt an early onset of asphyxiation in the high-rises and nightlife, and skipped town at the age of 17.
“Iowa was the first place that I really enjoyed living,” Wolff said. “I was so blissed out by the particular vibe at the time.” When Wolff arrived in Iowa in 1991, the University’s writing community was much smaller community than it is today. Indeed, Iowa City itself was smaller. The borders between farmland and city limits blurred, and the buildings were squatter. (Prairie Lights, where she later read for the first time in support of her second collection, Figment (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), was then only a single story tall.) After living in rural Vermont as well as urban and rural Massachusetts, Iowa City made Wolff realize she didn’t want to live in the congestion of New York.
She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop just over two decades ago, and on Wednesday, Sep. 30, Wolff will visit Prairie Lights Bookstore again to read from her fourth and newest collection of poetry One Morning– (Wave Books, 2015).
“It’s always fun to visit the old weird streets that I used to crawl around on,” Wolff said.
One Morning– contends with Wolff’s progression towards more fragmented, yet still sharp observations through the book’s speaker. Blown-out images coincide with a precise examination of the procedure of perusing one’s self. Equally tongue-in-cheek and fascinated with pop culture, governmental shortcomings, the doldrums and everything in between, Wolff’s humor extracts haunting insights into these relationships. Embedded deeper within the poems are critiques of poetic techniques themselves (name-dropping to populate the texture of language, for instance). Wolff’s is a collection that tests and interrogates the ways we articulate.
“In a way [my work is] now all about interruption and being really scatter-brained,” Wolff said, laughing. “I’m just really scattered by life and responsibility.”
When she moved to Iowa City almost 25 years ago, Wolff says, the town had an air of easy communion between its people and the arts. Creative reclusiveness and keeping close community weren’t mutually exclusive, which allowed Wolff to find a balance between her private and public life. At the time, MFA programs in creative writing in far shorter supply than they are now, and undergraduate creative writing tracks programs were low-profile if they existed at all.
In the early 1990’s, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was known for extolling the modern American lyric poem, Wolff says. (Wolff learned of the IWW through an undergraduate professor; it was the only MFA program to which she applied.) As a result, Wolff says she found a dominant political ideology within that structure. In the years after her graduation, she flooded the market with poetry submissions. However, she witnessed a stark distinction between the literary journal — prestigious and stagnant — and boutique small presses, which allowed experimentation, but could be narrow-minded.
In 1998, Wolff founded the now-influential literary magazine FENCE, which expanded into Fence Books in 2001. She created the magazine, fully aware of the “fence-sitter” analogy, as a rejection to subscribe to one ideological or political camp in the publishing sphere at the time. “FENCE has a strange anti-community in terms of how we publish,” Wolff said.
Where poetry is primarily a tool for the investigation of the self for Wolff, fiction is her means of maintaining balance within her perception of storytelling. Her approach to her first collection, Manderley (University of Illinois Press, 2001), which was selected by Robert Pinksy for the 2000 National Poetry Series, was that a good writer’s “I” becomes a universal “I.” She never tried to write confessionally, but it became difficult to dissociate first-person perspective from the truly personal. As a result, everything in One Morning– still revolves around the self, but Wolff embraces abstraction.
“Poems,” she explained, “are a place to be freaky, raw and open.”
Joining Wolff at Prairie Lights will be poet Emily Hunt and fellow Workshop alumn Christian Schlegel. John Ashbery called Schlegel’s poetry collection Honest James (The Song Cave Press, 2015) “One of the strangest books of poetry to come along in some time,” saying it, “seems to draw inspiration from the back corridors and anterooms of poetry.” Of Emily Hunt’s collection, Dark Green (The Song Cave Press, 2015), Peter Gizzi says: “Emily Hunt is an accomplished lyricist, quiet ethnographer, and kooky observer of inner turbulences … Dark Green is a wonder and a gift.” More information about all three poets and the event can be found online.