Critical Mass

On the Road in Iowa City

By Jane Ciabattari

Heading into Iowa on I-80. Corn, corn corn corn, and corn. Flat, flat, flat.

Before long I come upon the literary mecca of Iowa City, the third town designated one of UNESCO’s Cities of Literature, after Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia. Home of the 70-plus-year-old Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which may have produced more American writers than any other writing program.

Home of Prairie Lights, where local talent includes Writers’ Workshop faculty members Ethan Canin, Marilynne Robinson, Lan Samantha Chang, and James Alan McPherson in fiction, and in poetry, James Galvin, Mark Levine, Cole Swenson—not to mention current and past MFA students in the thousands. Among the books displayed in the window on the day I am driving through:  Robin Hemley’s “Do-Over” (Hemley, an NBCC member and recent Guggenheim awardee, has been heading the nonfiction writing program at the U. of Iowa, and will be moderating an NBCC Reads panel at Prairie Lights on November 9. Reading on September 2 is MFA student Benjamin Nugent, author of ” American Nerd.” The next night is a reading from the Iowa Review honoring longtime editor David Hamilton. Prairie Lights is archiving readings here.

In Iowa I encounter widening skies, thickening clouds, a haze of humidity, moments when the sun bursts through in a glancing radiance that bring to mind Marilynne Robinson’s NBCC fiction award winning “Gilead.” ““I love the prairie. So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”Gilead, one of President Obama’s favorite books, and Robinson’s Home, a finalist for the NBCC award last year and winner of the Orange Prize, are set in this Midwest.