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Poetry City Actualized: A look back at the birth of an Iowa City-based literary movement

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David "Dr. Alphabet" Morice writing poetry atop the Jefferson Building in 1979   — photo by Lillian Morice
David “Dr. Alphabet” Morice writing poetry atop the Jefferson Building in 1979 — photo by Lillian Morice

Welcome to Iowa City, aka Poetry City, where key Actualist sites have been targeted by urban development for over forty years.

What’s Actualism? It’s a poetry movement that was quietly born out of a conversation between a Finnish-born Writers Workshop instructor Anselm Hollo, a few of his students and other poets living in Iowa City.

While some of them were hanging out in George Mattingly’s apartment at 214 East Court Street — long since torn down as a bit of urban renewal — Hollo suggested the poetry group could become a movement.

“Good idea,” said Darrell Gray.

But the idea was laughed off by Mattingly who said if they became a movement then they would need membership cards.

“Good idea,” said Gray again.

By the next day, Gray (a 1968 graduate of the Writers’ Workshop) had a name for the burgeoning poetry movement: Actualism.

It was 1972, and people like Hollo, Mattingly, Gray, Allan Kornblum, David Morice and Morty Sklar formed the core of the Actualist movement, which has its roots in Dadaism and often relies on poetry that is performed.

Much of their work was concentrated on disrupting the seriousness of the Writers Workshop, which they felt had fallen into a trap of academic thought. Actualism was a way to mock the Workshop mentality.

“Actualism takes art off its pedestal in order to look clearly at the pedestal itself,” Gray said. Indeed, much of Actualist poetry is about common everyday objects and occurrences. According to poet David Morice, “Actualism showed why ‘poetry’ and ‘party’ sound almost the same.”

Glen and Harry Epstein inside their urban renewal module bookstore, 1974  — submitted photo
Glen and Harry Epstein inside their urban renewal module bookstore, 1974 — photo via David Morice

Predictably, Actualism had a decentralized structure, but Epstein’s Books became a meeting place. The original store at the corner of Washington and Clinton streets was among the buildings torn down to make way for the Old Capitol mall.

By the end of 1972, Gray had written an Actualist Manifesto that Morice published in his magazine, Gum.

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ACTUALISM – A Manifesto

Actuality is never frustrated because it is always complete.
The purpose of “intention” is to complicate a matter.
A material paraphrase is a complication.
Or as Guillevic says, “The problem is to do to things
what light does to them.”
Typing through sunglasses is, of course, an alternative.
There is no room for alternative illusions. There is
barely room for the table and bed.
The World has changed its mind. Ice cream is on sale.
We write in words to disguise ourselves, as a protection
from the fact that words are writing us.
Concentration is a problem for those obsessed with
process. For those obsessed with stasis, the opposite
of concentration sets in, and there is a seeming
dispersal throughout all the sensory regions.
An object is a condition of liberation.
Where is the missing balance?
Actualism poses the question, “Of the seven openings
in the human body, why are five of them located
above the neck?”
Thoughts are concrete things.
Things are characterized more by their conditions
than their conditions are characterized by them.
“The useless is not horrible until it is bandaged with truth.”
What, belabor the impossible?

Gray may have been Actualism’s biggest advocate — an Actualist’s Actualist if you will. He went on to spread the word in the San Francisco Bay Area where, eventually, eight Actualist conventions were held.

But in Iowa City, the first Actualist convention took place on March 10, 1973 at the Wesley House. One week before their inaugural event, Morice ran his first Poetry Marathon while sitting at Epstein’s Books, writing 1,000 poems in six hours, three to a page.

David Morice, left, with Glen and Harry Epstein, 1974  — submitted photo
David Morice, left, with Glen and Harry Epstein, 1974 — photo via David Morice

In 1977, Morty Sklar co-edited and published The Actualist Anthology, which included works by Hollo, Morice, Allan Kornblum, Chuck Miller, Sheila Heldenbrand, George Mattingly, John Sjoberg, David Hilton, John Batki, Jim Mulac, Steve Toth and Cinda Kornblum.

Today, Sklar runs The Spirit That Moves Us Press from Jackson Heights, NY. In 1983, he was the first in the U.S. to publish Czechoslovakian poet Jaroslav Seifert, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1984. In 1989, Sklar moved back to New York City to care for his mother.

“At a certain point, I felt like Iowa City wasn’t the same, probably part of it was urban renewal,” he said, “But also, people left and the scene kind of deteriorated.”

Still living in Iowa City today, Morice was in the Workshop when Actualism began, and he eventually dropped the shortest thesis in Workshop history — a tiny chapbook titled Poems. The following year, the department made a rule that any Workshop thesis must have at least 35 pages. Morice claims to have given a reading of his thesis in under 30 seconds.

Performing his poetry, Morice wrote under the pseudonym “Joyce Holland,” then later became “Dr. Alphabet,” and he once created a poem that wrapped around Epstein’s Books. Another time, he gave away “Poetry Tonics,” potions with verses floating in tiny vials. It was a taste of his own medicine — the intoxicating effects of words.

“We called Iowa City ‘Poetry City’ back then, and here it is 30 years later, and they call it the ‘City of Literature,’” said Morice laughing in an interview at the Hamburg Inn.

Still living in Poetry City, Morice is working on a 1,000 page illustrated poetry comic. He’s the subject of a book, “Dr Alphabet Unmasked.”  -- photo by Lillian Morice
Still living in Poetry City, Morice is working on a 1,000 page illustrated poetry comic. He’s the subject of a book, “Dr Alphabet Unmasked.” — photo by Lillian Morice

“We had fun back in those days,” he said, “And there were more poetry readings than there are today.”

Since the 1970s, municipal neighborhood initiatives converted Iowa City real estate into urban renewal projects — including Epstein’s Books and other key Actualist sites — using money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). City leaders saw dollar signs behind the town’s Victorian architecture and were moved to remove the old buildings.

At the heart of the real estate grub was developer Freda Hieronymous. She spearheaded a plan that coalesced around the plot of land south of the Pentacrest and led a downtown urban renewal program that eventually built the Old Capitol Mall for $18 million. The project was completed in 1981.

A temporary urban renewal module put up at 125 South Dubuque St. housed Epstein’s Books for a few years while the Old Capitol Mall was built. Harry and Glen Epstein were promised a space in the mall, but high rent would make it impossible to continue in the mall, and the bookstore folded in 1977.

Epstein’s Books wrapped in David Morice’s “Urban Renewal Poem”  — submitted photo
Epstein’s Books wrapped in David Morice’s “Urban Renewal Poem” — photo via David Morice

Later, on the site of Epstein’s abandoned urban renewal module, Hieronymous helped build Plaza Centre One.

Jim Mulac made all the posters for readings by hand. A gifted piano player, he had a piano in his used book/record shop.  — illustration by Jim Mulac
Jim Mulac made all the posters for readings by hand. A gifted piano player, he had a piano in his used book/record shop. — illustration by Jim Mulac
Two other key Actualist sites are still standing: The Sanctuary, which once held weekly poetry readings for 52 weeks straight, organized by Jim Mulac; and the worker cottage at 610 South Dubuque, which in 1975 became a bookstore called Alandoni’s run by Alan Frank; then in 1977, it became Jim’s Used Books and Records, where Mulac ran the store until 1981.

Fast forward to 1986, when Will Ingles was looking for a place to live and start a bookstore. He spoke to Freda Hieronymous, the property owner of the cottage where he eventually moved.

In order to allow him to establish residence, they had to comb records and prove to the city that the buildings had always been used as both residential and commercial properties. Ingles moved into The Book Shop and set up a business.

Today he is embroiled in a fight to stay in his home, keep his store open and keep the 150-year old cottage (and two others, including the 610 South Dubuque cottage Actualist site) away from the wrecking ball.

That Poetry City eventually became the City of Literature, and the buildings that housed the players and instigators of Actualism, is an ongoing story. Iowa City owes a debt to the Workshop and the Actualists for its renown as a place of writing. Will the city (and the University) put Actualist sites on a pedestal of historical importance? Or will they brush the movement aside in the push for more students and apartment buildings?


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