Friday, September 03, 2010

The Middle Stage in Iowa

The Middle Stage greets you, for the first time its five-year-old existence, from America. Last Friday I arrived, after three flights on successively smaller planes, at the University of Iowa, where I'm going to be living and working for ten weeks as part of the university's International Writing Program, one of the world's oldest writing residencies.

Iowa is one of three cities in the world designated a "city of literature" by UNESCO (the others are Melbourne and Edinburgh), and in the week that I've been here I've seen plenty of evidence to support that claim. The city is, of course, home to the highly rated Iowa Writer's Workshop program, which began in 1936, and currently offers degrees in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation, making for a large pool of teachers and students steeped in literature, a number of public and private institutions supporting their activities, and literary events and readings almost all year round.

This week I've been to one of the best independent bookstores I've ever seen, Prairie Lights, and to an excellent secondhand bookshop, the Haunted Bookshop (where I found a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis's marvellous The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel). The IWP office, a lovely grey house with wooden floors and book-lined walls, is a place not to be forgotten, and I've already spent many fulfilling hours in conversation with the other writers on the program, who represent more than 30 countries. Even the hotel gym had copies of the New Yorker in between the racks of weights and the treadmills.

I'm looking forward, in the next three months, not just to time for my own work, but also to reading purely for pleasure again and not always for work (though often the two can be made to coincide). After tomorrow, I won't have any reviews in Mint Lounge till early December, although there will still be essays up from time on time in this space.

Earlier this week I gave a talk on Indian literature and my relationship to some of its traditions at the IWP's International Literature Today class, and I'm looking forward in the coming months not just to a saturated experience of American life and literature, but also to reading and lecturing a little. I'll be reading from Arzee the Dwarf on September 19 at Prairie Lights here in Iowa, reading along with Vikram Chandra from India: A Traveler's Literary Companion at Book Passage in San Francisco on the 30th of September, and giving a talk on "Place and the Making of Literature" at the Department of South Asian studies at Yale University in October.

And, since I don't like any post to be without some reading, here is a poem, an independent-minded sonnet, by the Czech poet Ivan Blatny. I chanced upon it serendipitiously in his book The Drug of Art, which was lying under two other books on a table near me while I was waiting for a meeting, and thought it very fine:

Autumn III
by Ivan Blatny, in a translation by Justin Quinn

All my lovely years, where have they whirled,
those lovely hallways that led to sweet women
the murmurs, ankles, the magic of the world?
Oh why did I stay alone, alone, alone?

The orchard shook and fell like a dead goddess.
The undertakers usher out the bier.
The castle stands, oh nonetheless,
and shreds fly far and near.

The villages drowse in the autumn plains
while actors take off their greasepaint off the train
The curtain rises. The band begins to play.

Nadhera the director paces backstage.
Cervacek sings as in a bygone age,
and stars depart again, the same old way.

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