Angels Among Us

The past year saw a number of celebrations and commemorations in this City of Literature. With the 75th Anniversary of the Iowa Writers Workshop reuniting decades of alums over the summer and Philip Levine named U.S. Poet Laureate in the fall, 2011 played its nostalgia cards well. At the same time, national year-end lists have been calling out the accomplishments of emerging writers, with several recognitions falling on Iowa City residents. Meanwhile the visible and virtual literary landscapes continued to expand, and literature inspired by the landscape bloomed.

Rochester Cemetery's "Black Angel" made several cameos in 2011.

Oakland Cemetery’s lauded landmark the Black Angel had a booming year as the subject of not one but two new books: the murder mystery Killing Kate by Minnesota author Julie Kramer and Here Lies Linc, a Junior Library Guild Selection by local Delia Ray. Ray’s 12-year-old Linc discovers his own family secrets as he investigates the Black Angel’s curse. On her charming all-ages-friendly website, Ray explains, “The more secrets I uncovered, the more I began to realize that the true stories behind graveyards and ‘haunted’ sites like the Black Angel are often much more interesting than the ghost stories that surround them.”

As a resident artist at the Herbert Hoover Museum in West Branch, Stephen Longmire found similar inspiration photographing Rochester Cemetery and his Life and Death on the Prairie combines those stunning photographs with essays elucidating its history as once-booming pioneer center, ecological significance as prairie remnant and ensuing controversies over priorities in land stewardship. Deep love of the place illuminates every image, from burr oaks to crumbling unreadable tombstones to recently placed flowers to the caretaker mowing near his own family plots. At a recent Prairie Lights reading, Longmire described Rochester as “both a very particular place” and a place that allows him to “tell a story” about our relationships with landscape. Longmire treats all of the cemetery’s constituencies with respect, so his book serves several purposes, even including a “flora of Rochester County” by UI botanist Diana Horton. The photographs were recently on display at The Old Capitol Museum in conjunction with the UI Museum of Art and hopefully will be at the Hoover Museum in spring.

Speaking of art and book crossovers, the Iowa City Literary Walk has expanded to the Northside, with new banners, tree grates and bronze-cast book piles highlighting quotations from Iowa-City-related writers including Lan Samantha Chang, Sarah Prineas, Roberto Ampuero, Lori Erickson, Carl Klaus, Christopher Merrill (whose The Tree of Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War came out this year) and Stephen Bloom (who’s been stirring the pot with his editorial on Iowa’s caucus-worthiness in the Atlantic).

Even if you missed those, no doubt you noticed the series of colorful giant book sculptures popping up throughout Johnson County. Previous cities to enjoy the serial public sculptures adapted Cows on Parade to their own locale—steer, lighthouses, Lincoln stovepipe hats. Appropriately enough, Johnson County chose BookMarks—giant book statues designed by local artists. Surprisingly, most theme choices went more classic than local, but the People’s Choice First Runner Up, Tam Bodkin Bryk’s “Treasure Island,” features a treasure map of Iowa City landmarks like John’s Grocery, The Old Capitol and that infamous Black Angel. Coralville got two of the Iowa hat tips: Jo Myers-Walker’s tribute to Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Lauren Haldeman and Sarah Lenger’s “Celebrating Literary Life in Iowa City,” which features a number of IC authors’ bookjackets. The latter was recently moved in front of IC City Hall. The Iowa City Public Library nabbed two more: Justine Zimmer (who also designed the Ped Mall’s wire tornado) created “The Books” with the poem of the same title by her father Paul Zimmer, former director of the UI Press; Cheryl Jacobsen and Brian Gunning’s “Daze_Past_Future_Tense@ICPL,” inspired by bookbinding and iPads, marries calligraphic illumination, technology and a Marvin Bell poem about the library.

If public art can ask questions about book evolution, no wonder the Iowa City Book Festival went virtual in a few of its offerings, including the collaborative Twitter project Novel Iowa City. Over the course of a weekend, invited and volunteer writers from across the globe co-wrote a Twitter “novel” tweet-by-tweet using the shared hashtag #icbfn, with the last hour’s worth streamed live in the Englert Theatre.

Shane McCrae is one of two Workshop grads to win a Whiting Award in 2011.

New writing in established forms got attention, too. Iowa City’s Shane McCrae won a prestigious Whiting Award, along with another Workshop alum Eduardo Corral. McCrae’s new book of poems, Mule, unflinchingly tackles personal territory such as interracial identity, religion and raising a child with autism—perhaps why McCrae told Keith Montesano of First Book Interviews that he wasn’t the “book contest winning sort.” A chance to hear McCrae read, as he does periodically around town, should be taken; his quiet demeanor, like his controlled poetic form, barely hides the explosions of ideas beneath.

As for the new year, 2012 already promises some intriguing developments. Another local, Olivia Glass, will be featured in Best Women’s Erotica 2012 with her story, “Drought,” first published by Filament magazine in 2011. Filament had been plagued with “all kinds of troubles, especially with censorship,” Glass said. Recently the Australian government ordered the magazine be sold with an opaque plastic wrapper at newstands. “It’s really sad that plenty of sleazy magazines that exploit women manage to stay open without any trouble, but one of the only smart, sexy magazines for heterosexual women has to close its doors.” Glass (who writes in multiple genres under more than one name) herself once assumed that erotica would be “kind of trashy,” yet she aims to “combat the idea that people can’t write explicit erotica that can also be literature.” Regarding the recently-threatened sex-positive shop The Toolbox, Glass encourages “anyone who supports The Toolbox’s mission to email them ( and let them know that they have your support, and also to patronize them.”

In 2012, Laureate Levine plans to use his post to champion unrecognized writers. One of the fifty writers (and one of eight Pulitzer winners) to speak at the Workshop’s 75th anniversary this summer, he has been hailed as the “proletariat poet” of the Midwest, often recalling his Detroit auto factory co-workers from before he came to Iowa in the mid-1950s. Levine’s most frequent critique matches his most frequent praise—a poetry so plain-spoken it defies poetic expectation, and a dedication to the work he long ago left behind. From his new position Levine eschews the “workingman” label for himself and hopes, according to an AARP bulletin from this fall, to encourage and promote “poets who are significant and underappreciated.”

Soon enough the readings calendars will be back at full steam for another year. If speculative fiction’s your game, you don’t have long to wait, as authors E. J. Fischer and An Owomoyela kick off the action reading at The Haunted Bookshop at 7 p.m. on January 20.

And so passes another year in the City of Literature. The new year is sure to have bigger things in store, so keep your ear to the ground and your face in a book.

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