It’s strange being back after 46 years; the simple truth is that I recognize practically nothing about Iowa City, so there’s no great flood of nostalgia. I guess you can’t go home again. And I do think of the Iowa Writers Workshop as a kind of home, as it was here that I first felt I’d become a member of the tribe of writers. And as insubstantial or illusory as that might seem, it’s a feeling that has persisted and sustained me through the years. Some impressions of the celebration:
I’m in the Iowa Memorial Union in the vast main lounge—listening to a panel discussion on “The Writer As Outsider” —generally having a hard time with the sophomoric topics selected for this gathering. As I listen, I realize I’d forgotten just how cerebral a group we writers are. I can practically hear the wheels of our minds whirring at a fine, high pitch.
I don’t attend any more panel discussions the first day. Instead, I hang around the margins—having one-on-one discussions with others who are also avoiding the one panel discussion after another format. Only a few from my years of 1965-67 seem to be in attendance.
I take a walk though town with another poetry workshop graduate; no question, I definitely do not recognize anything.
Significant encounters with others start happening—sort of like popcorn—at first nothing seems to be happening. Then, one kernel pops, then another and soon there’s nothing but the sound of popping. That’s how the celebration ends up feeling.
I attend more panel discussions on the second day—just to listen to writers speak about writing; I no longer care about the topics. I just enjoy listening to the way their minds work.
I am not nostalgic, but I am feeling waves of affection for my fellow writers.
On the morning before I head home, I hear a story from someone who lived at Black’s Gaslight Village in 1965. I had initially rented a basement apartment there that year, but felt within a few hours of moving in that I’d never be able to work there and left. I learn from her that someone later hung himself in that same basement apartment that year.
The Hamburger Inn I patronized no longer exists. I go to Hamburger Inn #2 instead for breakfast twice. The second time, I feel I have partially reestablished some tenuous connection to this Iowa City. I have a conversation with a local; I spot one of the panelists from “The Writer As Outsider” having her last breakfast there too. We are, perhaps, a sentimental bunch. I’m ready to leave.
I asked practically everyone I met, “Why did you come back?” And practically everyone answered, “I don’t know, and…I’m glad I did.”
I’m glad I did.