The world’s in crisis, but poetry is more accessible than ever in Iowa City

The Poem Inside the Poem Saturdays

Zoom virtual workshop -- Aug. 22-Sept. 12 at 12:30 p.m.

Nora Clare Miller of Iowa City Poetry will host the three-week virtual workshop The Poem Inside the Poem: Experiments in Radical Revision in late August. — courtesy photo

“Poetry is somewhere between jazz and bird call and computer code and ornate lacquer box and hot wrought iron and prayer and primal scream,” said Lisa Roberts, founding director of Iowa City Poetry.

For seven years, Roberts has collaborated with artists around one of the most prestigious (and arguably elitist) writing capitals in the world to make writing and literature as accessible as possible. Since March, though, when things started shutting down in response to COVID-19, the literary world has faced different challenges from other nonprofits and small businesses. Accessibility became easier while the potential for collaboration and networking diminished.

“Since going online,” Roberts said in an email, “my co-director Jenny Colville and I have been able to continue to welcome long-time local participants in the Free Generative [Writing Workshops], which has been so lovely. But now we’ve also been able to include writers from slightly farther-flung spots in Iowa — from Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Marion and Des Moines. It’s been really heartening to reach Iowans from all over, because that’s truly living up to our mandate to share Iowa City resources widely and help folks find a literary community.”

Iowa City Poetry’s monthly Free Generative Writing Workshops have continued as scheduled to a growing audience since March. Their other programming has included three paid workshop series and a new series started by Reading Series Director Jennifer MacBaines-Stephens.

“Iowa City Poetry did have a bit of a running start because we were already thinking about expanding our programming [this year],” Roberts said. “We were already poised to transform ourselves from a calendar of local poetry events into a center offering original poetry programs … But we’d always imagined these things happening IRL, in the inspiringly grungy arts spaces around town that we love.

“So in March and April we had to rush to retool the tech so that we could bring our first three-part workshop, Poetry & Wellness, to everybody online. Those first sessions in April … were joyful things. You could feel how relieved we all were to see human faces again and interact through writing.”

Next in the paid workshop series, Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum and multimedia artist Nora Claire Miller will teach a three-part workshop called The Poem Inside the Poem, in which workshop attendees, according to the course description, will bring poetry they have abandoned as “‘dead’ beyond remedy.” The workshop will focus on radical interventions such as literally cooking or burying the page, as Miller subscribes to the thought that a poem itself can be a generative source.

“Poetry is less like a tree, something built from the bottom up, and more like a field of grass,” they said in an email correspondence. “When you chop a tree at its trunk, all of its branches die, but when you pull up a clump of grass, new grass continues to grow all around it, sustained by the roots of its neighbors. In biology this concept is called a rhizome. Poems, like rhizomes, are sites of lateral growth.They aren’t units, they’re systems.”

The use of the poem as source material has helped Miller to produce poems in less traditional formats, like comics and music, and they don’t see the digital format as much of an obstacle. Having taught a course called Creative Writing for New Media at the University of Iowa in the spring, they saw the shift online “as an interesting opportunity to put theory into practice,” asking how this apparent impediment could be used as a tool.

“Instead of seeing online instruction as merely a second-tier version of physical classes, I am interested in considering [how] it provides an interesting opportunity for creative exploration, a space in which students can engage with their newly much more digital worlds,” Miller said.

In their New Media class, for example, students used social media to compose their writing.

“In The Poem Inside the Poem, I hope to continue to investigate how pedagogy can be, if not strengthened by an online format, at least productively altered by it,” they said. “Perhaps the computer screen itself is a tool for revision.”

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Miller’s optimism about the potential of new formats to generate art overlaps with their beliefs about art in quarantine.

“Creative folks are tasked with envisioning a new type of world, but such imagination can be difficult when, each day, we eat the same bowl of cereal, look out the same kitchen window at the same tree, feel the same commingling sense of dread and boredom,” they said. “Revision is as much about rewriting as it is about literal revisioning — looking at the same old things and considering them differently … I hope to help participants in my workshop see beyond the limitations of domestic space, and instead to see creative possibility in their gardens, in the hinges of their doors, underneath their sofa cushions. Beyond using radical revision strategies as a way to revive and strengthen our poetry, I hope participants begin to find a sense of possibility in even the most ordinary places.”

Roberts, too, sees art serving to energize people during isolation.

“The truth is that many, many people write poems. And they write them to figure things out or calm themselves or protest or pay tribute or celebrate or mourn,” she said. “Look at all the pandemic poetry sites that have popped up since March. So why can’t [Iowa City Poetry] tap into the talent in our area to offer poets more ways to expand their tool kit so they can do even more of what they want with poetry?”

Iowa City Poetry will soon launch a Poetry Interview Series and a large variety of additional workshops in the near future. Those interested in Iowa City Poetry or Miller’s workshop can find more information on the website and Facebook page. The workshop will run on Saturdays from Aug. 22 to Sept. 5, with a reading on Sept. 12. Roberts invites anyone to reach out with ideas or for information.

Editor’s note: Since the original print publication of this article, Iowa City Poetry postponed the series a week as a result of the Aug. 10 derecho. The dates have been updated in this version.

Sarah Elgatian is a writer and activist with a lot of questions. Her work has been published in ‘Beholder Magazine’ and the Iowa Writers’ House print anthology ‘We the Interwoven.’ This article was originally published in Little Village issue 285.