Gimme a (Line) Break

Video shot and edited by Tim Tack
LVtv Interview by Justin Cox

In a town like Iowa City, there’s no shortage of writers. It seems like everywhere you go–the Java House, The Times Club at Prairie Lights, the Burlington street Kum-and-Go at midnight on a Tuesday–you run into someone who either writes, wants to write, or (possibly) is holding a Pulitzer prize. Iowa City is lucky to not just have novelists, non-fiction writers, and playwrights roaming the streets, but also some of the most influential and inspiring contemporary American poets as well.

Two of these resident poets, Dora Malech and Shane McCrae, are set to release brand-new collections of poems this fall, both from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. The poems in these collections were not only crafted, created, and revised (in part) here in our community, but they also speak to larger social issues facing our world on a daily basis.

Malech and McCrae, both graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, write from and towards a sense of intense human experience. While each poet maintains a unique style, their collective ability to speak to us as readers through a range of echoing sounds and music makes these books must-reads for any lover of the lyric.

A sense of driving rhythm is palpable in Dora Malech’s forthcoming collection, Say So. The recipient of a Frederick M. Clapp Poetry Writing Fellowship from Yale, a Teaching-Writing Fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a Glenn Schaeffer Poetry Award, and a Writer’s Fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Italy, Malech is also the author of Shore Ordered Ocean (published last spring by Waywiser Press)–a fantastic collection whose themes of love, war, and growth remain central concerns in her newer work. Say So is a book that will engage and intrigue any reader through puns, wordplay, and one of the most consistently fresh and exciting voices poetry has yet to hear.

While Shore Ordered Ocean comments on the more public sphere, Say So focuses on the private and intimate relationships one develops over time. “The poems in this collection wrestle with human relationships,” says Malech, “but they also wrestle with language itself.”

When asked about her early influences and inspirations, Malech recalls, “I fell in love early on with the pleasures and possibilities of language on the page and language in the ear, mouth, and memory. For me, poetry seems to wed seemingly opposite impulses (the narrative and the lyric, the ‘page’ and the ‘stage,’ the sense of the mind and the senses of the body, etcetera).”

She goes on to list Shakespeare, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop as favorites. Much in the same vain as these early influences, Malech’s work keeps her audience engaged by invoking beauty in a line like “tweaked nipple and whistle,” which leads to the defeat of a “mechanical bullfight running on empty threats,” in a terrifically touching poem entitled “Them’s Fighting Words.” Poems like this–pieces that use strong alliteration, and rhyme, and tantalizing juxtaposition–are prevalent throughout Malech’s work, and serve as another reason why Say So is such an active and interesting read.

Another example of this linguistic play can be seen in “Break, Make Or,” a poem that begins with a dream, but ends (quite powerfully) with a speaker questioning what reality shows us and what we can and cannot see through: “Binoculars backwards closest call to distance / as in redwing flipped to a fleck on a lens.” Again, the heavy sonic attention suggests that Malech is operating not just with a poetic voice, but with a poetic ear that is hauntingly captivating and striking in its magic and musicality.

While Malech is not originally from Iowa City, since graduating from the Writers’ Workshop in ‘05 she has spent the last few years living in town, working and teaching for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Augustana College, and the University’s eight week summer writing workshop. Malech says that her time in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop gave her “all kinds of permission,” both aesthetically and formally in her writing process. As a current resident of Iowa City, she points out that this freedom allows the town to truly, “feel like a community”–as well as “a rare place where being a writer is sort of…normal.”

Like Malech, Shane McCrae’s work pushes against traditional poetic style through his use of fragmented syntax and, at times, difficult subject matter–race, class, parenthood, and marriage. Although this is challenging material, the honest and direct voice of the speaker allows us as readers to trust the work implicitly. Mule, McCrae’s first collection, is so precise in its language that readers will immediately feel connected to the impassioned speaker, even in its hiccups and stutters. What McCrae offers us in Mule through repetition and pause is a chance to be both the outsider and the one looking out–a chance to see, as he says in a poem called “Mullato,” the “world in the world,” and to come back from our viewing experience “erased.”

In another poem from the collection, “In No Place,” McCrae writes:

And we divorced in any anyhow / But sudden anyhow

but hurry we / Divorced in sudden hurry the affair / Become the main thing don’t

want to be mar- / ried still become the main thing anyhow

Already sit and don’t go out

Again, these lines not only show McCrae’s intuitive sense of rhythm, but also how intensely committed he is to poetic form, as this poem is actually a fragmented sonnet of sorts, each metric line ending where the backslash (/) appears. McCrae explains that, “in Mule, I try to explore my own identity as a biracial person, and I also examine marriage and parenthood, as well as theological questions–and I do a lot of formal experimentation, too. In the end, I hope a reader [will] find it musical, and take some of that music with him- or herself.”

McCrae is currently pursuing his doctorate in English Literature at the University of Iowa. As a writer and reader of poetry since first stumbling upon Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” in the 10th grade, McCrae says that although he has lived in other cities before, Iowa City is the most “supportive and welcoming” community he has been a part of.

“I’ve lived in very literary cities before–I’m thinking especially of Portland, OR and Boston,” says McCrae, “but I’ve found it hard to connect with such relatively diffuse populations of writers. In Iowa City, the writers are concentrated into a fairly small space.”

Iowa City is also where McCrae first realized he was serious about writing poetry. “I think that kind of seriousness is important,” says McCrae. “Sometimes, it’s all you’ve got to keep yourself going.”

With print media losing small battles everyday, and larger chain bookstores making it nearly impossible for independents to survive, living in Iowa City seems to mean as much to the writers who are fortunate enough to live here as it does to the readers of the work they create. Both Dora Malech and Shane McCrae are wonderful examples of what can happen when a community supports creative arts. As their writing careers continue to grow, we can all find comfort in reading their amazing work and remembering that they’re one of us.

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