SAM GASKIN recalls his American sojourn this year as go-between Victoria University’s Creative Writing Programme and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he visited the midwestern state to meet fellowship recipient and poet Alice Miller.

Iowa University, from the Iowa River

THE SPRING landscape in Iowa is unremarkable, even by Iowan standards. The snow had melted before I arrived, laying bare the empty, beige-brown cornfields. In the town of Iowa City the streets were plugged with leafless trees.

Indirectly, it was casino magnate and University of Iowa alumnus Glenn Schaeffer who had brought me to Middle America. Schaeffer’s fondness for literature and for New Zealand (he has a house in Nelson) led him to forge a relationship between Victoria University’s Creative Writing Programme and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the original and most prestigious creative writing course in the United States. Each year since 2000 a graduate of Victoria’s Masters programme has been awarded a fellowship to study alongside Master of Fine Arts students in the United States. I had come to visit the 2005 recipient, poet Alice Miller.

Eager to entertain me on my first night in town, Alice took me to the Hamburg Inn No. 2, the fifty-year-old diner famously home to the Pie Shake: milk, ice-cream and Pumpkin, Chocolate Pecan or such-and-such a pie blended smooth but for the debris of sweet, short crust pastry. My shake and Buffalo Burger at the Hamburg went some way to sating my hunger for Middle American excess, a desire that lasted three or four weeks, ebbing more quickly after attempting malt liquor, Chili Cheese Fries, and with growing guilt at eating ironically.

In truth, Iowa City isn’t all that entertainingly backwards. Roughly half its sixty-something thousand inhabitants attend Iowa University, making it a College town. Old people and children are scarce, and undergraduates, not locals or yokels, are the prime targets for workshoppers’ derision, just ahead of other workshoppers.

During my first week in Iowa, Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, read from his new novel at Iowa City’s pre-eminent bookstore, Prairie Lights. He wore a sports jacket over a t-shirt, also a popular look among workshoppers. As Lethem read the woman sitting immediately behind me occasionally burst out, “mmh” and “ah ya ya”. Creating a narrator with Tourette’s Syndrome for Motherless Brooklyn has earned Lethem some distinctive fans. At Prairie Lights he accepted the woman’s contributions without awkwardness.

Alice hosted an after-party for Lethem at her house, a Workshop tradition for visiting authors. This provided me my first introduction to the poets and fiction writers en masse. It was also, of course, a chance for the writers to meet Lethem and clothes were straightened and breasts repackaged with the aim of making a good first impression. While this was done in jest – the film of irony coating workshoppers’ interactions is constant, as indelible as the orange stain that comes from eating American chips – the workshoppers’ ambition is genuine and palpable.

Iowa City Council Vehicles

For the most part, students’ days were spent reading and discussing the fiction of William Faulkner, John Cheever and Joyce Carol Oates or the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, John Ashbery and Federico Garcia Lorca, and writing at the Java House or the Tobacco Bowl. Their nights were spent drinking at the Mill, the Foxhead, the Picador or George’s, bars distinguished by what’s on the jukebox as much as anything.

Iowa workshoppers are known to drink. One student’s lecturer congratulated her on being accepted into the Workshop by promising to join her for a drink when she completed her MFA, by which time it was accepted – again with some irony – that she would be an alcoholic. The long winter, the smallness of the town, the tired drama of long-distance relationships and anxiety over one’s art all help fuel workshoppers’ drinking and their writing.

Like any trope, the notion that emotional instability is essential to creativity is something the workshoppers’ love to reference and manipulate. Confessing to a minor trauma (like seeing Clockwork Orange as a child) is taken as compelling evidence for why someone became a poet. By far the majority of exchanges between workshoppers are similarly good humoured quips, incongruities, and set-ups and subversions of genre. Cattiness is common, the consequence of a tendency towards the dramatic, but voiced in private. In public – for instance at Talk Art, readings organized and given by workshoppers at the Mill – support is raucous. Students present each other with elaborate, glowing introductions before each reading, and cheer raucously for them, willing them to triumph.

On a few occasions, however, workshoppers talked openly about the psychological drain of writing: honing one’s sensitivity to the point of anxiety, working in solitude and bearing one’s art to criticism. In workshops, tutorials of 10-15 students, writers read their work to the class and are then asked to watch in silence while it is dissected, with or without admiration. Twice in seemingly straightforward conversations I found myself reassuring talented writers as their eyes welled with tears remembering workshop criticisms.

Emotional volatility is a bond most workshoppers enjoy sharing, in part for its dramatic potential. One poet even confessed to wondering whether he was too emotionally balanced to write great poetry, a sentiment I was reminded of last night when watching Animal House in a San Francisco bar. In one scene a woman asks her boyfriend not to go to a keg party.

“It’s a fraternity party,” he responds, “I’m in the fraternity. How can I miss it?”

“I’ll write you a note,” she says, “I’ll tell them you’re too well to attend.”

While members of the same fraternity, the poets and fiction writers have their differences. In seminars, the fiction writers’ discussions were more structured and centered on the craft of writing. Ethan Canin began one lecture on Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories by reading selectively from letters his students had emailed him in response to them, a method of generating unmediated feedback from each member of the class.

In the letters and discussions that followed the class admired – among other things – the “high thread count” of Oates’ stories (and the “high thread count” metaphor), her ability to integrate scene description into the narrator’s experience, and her chronological switches. After appreciating an integral paragraph, Canin implored the class to “make it brilliant” when writing key passages. The students laughed at the almost cruel implication that they could simply assume such talent but Canin was unrelenting. Come back to a story over a number of years if you have to.

The Victorious Poets at Happy Hollow Park, Iowa City

In contrast, the poets’ discussions ranged more freely and tended towards the conceptual. They pitted enthusiasm for the agility and impact of Lorca’s surrealist images against a desire for a more artful and deliberate internal logic, for example, and intellectual affection for Ashbery’s postmodern realism – relentless non-sequiturs and opaque, sometimes empty allusions – against a longing for more emotional connection. One student asked outright of Ashbery, “where’s the heart?”

In both the fiction and poetry streams, the students’ ambition, energy, intellectual curiosity, humour and closeness as a group make the Iowa Writer’s Workshop an enviable place to be. The students know what they’ve got. Many plan to stay in Iowa after graduation, miles from their more metropolitan homes, even without fellowships or teaching positions to fund their writing.

Victoria’s privileged relationship with the Workshop is unparalleled. When I visited, Alice was the sole non-American attending. In addition, two Iowa graduates receive fellowships to teach summer trimester courses at Victoria, and furthermore, Dora Malech, a recent Iowa grad, is coordinating the MA in poetry at Victoria this year while Bill Manhire takes classroom leave. Based on my time at Iowa, Victoria’s writing programme can only benefit from the relationship.

By my last week in Iowa the temperature had risen and virulent green leaves had quickly spread to almost every tree. The outfield shone around the baseball diamond at Happy Hollow Park where the poets and the fiction writers were duking it out.

By mid-afternoon it was the bottom of the fifth and final inning. A hit high to right-field was easily caught and with this last out the victorious poets whooped, hugged and hi-fived. Both teams lined up and shook hands, hamming up the earnest protocol for restoring civility. Compared to the end of year competition for fellowships no-one had anything riding on the game.

The poets’ coach, a Chicagoan wearing three-quarter-length baseball pants and sporting a slugger’s belly and moustache, called his victorious team over. ‘Take a knee,’ he said. The poets formed a ring around him, dropped down, and gazed up at their coach. He turned and walked and turned as he talked, addressing each of them with typical mock gravity. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry.” He paused. “And I kept that promise.”

Sam Gaskin is a Wellington writer currently living in Shanghai.