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from the November 2007 issue

Only Connect

"Only connect," E.M. Forster famously advised novelistsóand this is the governing principle of the International Writing Program, which brings the writers of the world to the University of Iowa for three-month residencies. In retrospect, the IWP, as it is known, was a natural outgrowth of the Writers' Workshop, and yet at the time it seemed, in the words of its co-founder, Paul Engle, "the craziest idea" he had ever heard. The IWP was the brainstorm of the Chinese novelist Nieh Hua-ling, who in 1964 was one of fifteen foreign writers invited to attend the Workshop. She loved the literary culture that Engle had created during his tenure, the sense of community that with the founding of the IWP would extend around the world, courtesy of grants from the U.S. State Department, the Library of Congress, foundations in the United States and abroad, bilateral agreements with foreign ministries of culture, and extensive private fund-raising efforts. Since 1967, more than 1,100 writers from over 120 countries have participated in the IWP, including such luminaries as the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, Viktor Pelevin, Edward Radzinsky, Luisa Valenzuela, Jose Donoso, Nina Cassian, Ding Ling, Bei Dao, Yu Hua, Su Tong, John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Tomaž Šalamun, Arnost Lustig, and on and on.

Thus in the IWP we try to connectówriters to other writers, readers, translators, students, and Americans from every walk of life. We invite poets and fiction writers, playwrights and essayists, open-minded artists in early to mid career who have published at least one book, achieved national and perhaps international standing, and possess the desire to spend ten weeks in Iowa City, the lodestar of creative writing in America. And we try to establish favorable conditions for the writers to writeótheir main occupation during the residency. We offer time, space, a per diem, insurance, and a staff (recruited from our writing programs) that attends to the writers, connecting them to one person or another. And isn't this what a novelist does in setting a world in motionóattending to the characters, the demands of the plot and story, the linguistic possibilities of each word?

So: we listen. And some of the writers are real characters. Imagine, as happened this fall, forty-two writers from thirty-one countries descending on a small university town on the prairie. The World Comes to Iowaóthis was the title of a collection of writings from the IWP, and it is a fair description of what my staff likes to call a three-month-long performance piece, the key features of which are writing, reading, panel discussions, classroom visits, encounters, impressions, and ideas. Connections abound. One year the writers from Japan, China, Mongolia, Lithuania, and Poland preferred to speak Russian when they were together. A Vietnamese poet translates stories by an Argentine woman. A British novelist and a Malaysian poet share a passion for puppets.

We often host Israeli and Palestinian writers at the same timeówhich for many members of the IWP complicates their understanding of the conflict. One day they heard a four-hour debate about the Oslo peace process between the Israeli short-story writer Etgar Keret and the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, in which neither raised his voice. Not to say that minds were changed. But I noticed that subsequent political discussions began at a different level of engagement. The next year I asked an Israeli novelist about a Palestinian poet who had arrived late because of difficulties in securing a visa. He yelled at me for an hour and a half, she said. What did you do? I said. I was expecting it, she said. So I let him vent, and now we're fine. Indeed they became good friends, and after the residency, during the two-week travel period (the writers can go wherever they like), he stayed with her when his hotel reservation in New York City fell through.

Literature works by subterranean means. Ideas migrate at the speed of thought, which for a writer in the act of composition means the speed of soundósyllable by syllableóif not the speed of light. And literary exchanges have the merit of launching new ideas into the cultural discourse. Thus in designing programs for the IWP I bear in mind other fruitful exchangesóthe friendship of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the activities of the French Surrealists; the discussions and arguments, in the bars and lofts of Greenwich Village, where poets of the New York School like John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara and Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning inspired one another to break new ground on the page and on the canvas. For all the romantic mythology about the solitary artist it turns out that most poets and writers are social creaturesóespecially after a spell of working in solitude. We need to test our ideas and discoveries, to trade opinions and impressions, to explore aesthetic boundaries, to find kindred spirits. At its best the IWP fosters such friendships.

We ask little of the writersóto give a reading, to make a presentation about their work to a class of undergraduates, and to participate in one panel discussion on topics such as the relationship between politics and literature, the art of translation, or the influence of other art forms on their writing. Here is a chance for thoughtful discussionówe ask the writers to prepare a two-page summary of their ideas in order to focus and clarify their ideasówhich may lead to new ways of thinking. The rest of their time is their own. And while some devote their residency to soaking up impressions (and alcohol), the majority use their time to write. A Georgian novelist was known to jog the halls of the Iowa House Hotel at 6:30 of a morning, kicking a soccer ball against the doors of his fellow writers, urging them to get to work. He completed an entire book during his stay.

But we offer them plenty of opportunities: a weekly translation seminar, for example, in which we pair the writers off with graduate students from the Workshop, the Translation MFA program, and the departments of foreign languages and literatures. This is a rich experience for the students even when they translate from languages they do not know. This is indefensible, of course, until you consider the alternative, which is silence. Our goal is to bring as much good work into English as possible, much of which ends up getting published. We also host a night of staged readings of their poetry, fiction, and play; the chance to meet visiting writers, editors, and agents; and much, much more.

The writers visit museums, farms, Amish households, Indian ruins, the Mississippi River, emigrants from their countries. They play soccer; sometimes they go to a football gameówhich invariably leaves them puzzled. They tell stories about each other. (My favorite: a New Zealander asked why one poet had traded his career as an architect for literature. Because he designed buildings that no one could find their way out of.) It goes without saying that in the IWP some writers fall in and out of love. Enough said. But for the most part they write, read their colleagues' books, and learn to listen to one another. The IWP depends upon empathy. And isn't that one reason why we readóto inhabit other lives, other worlds, other ways of being? Think of the IWP as an essay in empathy, in listening.

A case in point: the jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris once brought his quartet to the university for a week-long residency, which included two workshops and a cabaret-style performance with a dozen poets from the IWP. Stefon's idea was to listen to each poet read in his or her native language, then use the soundsóthe syllables and rhythmsóas a springboard for improvisation. He had read English translations of the poems ahead of time, but he was more interested in linguistic textures than in meaning, in the process more than the product. The first poet to offer his work to the musicians, a Lithuanian with a jazz degree from the conservatory in Vilnius, instructed Stefon to play "Take Five." Stefon, raising an eyebrow, nodded to his pianist, who halfheartedly took up the tune. The bassist and drummer joined in, and Stefon tapped out a line or two. At the conclusion of the piece he said, "That was fine. But that's not really how we like to play. What we do"óand here he smiled at the musiciansó"is to listen for a door to a space we can enter. If we don't find anything interesting in there, we'll listen for another door. So why don't we try that again, with you reading your poem. We'll listen." The Lithuanian seemed miffed, but nevertheless he read his poem, at the end of which Stefon turned to the pianist. "I think I hear F sharp minor to D minor. Do you hear that?" The pianist shrugged. "Let's try it," said Stefon, and then they were off, playing with the joy and excitement born of an artist's decision to surrender to the materials at hand.

In fact the musicians found something to inspire them in every poem. Stefon made notes on their discoveries, the most interesting of which came last, when he asked a poet from Botswana to translate a chant that he had written in English into his tribal language. The poet obliged. Stefon and the pianist smiled at the glorious sounds in the air, and what they discovered in their riffs was no less vital, both in the workshop and in the performance the next nightóan hour-long exchange of musical and literary ideas, some of which made it into Stefon's concert. Indeed I was surprised to hear some of the same riffs, and the journalist in me wondered if perhaps the musicians had recycled old ideas for the sake of the poets. The bassist adamantly denied this at the party afterwards, insisting that these discoveries were a new addition to their musical vocabulary. Permanent? I said. No, he said. Just till we get bored with them. But Stefon had the final word: when I asked him the same question, he said the riffs were now a permanent part of his vocabulary. And I like to think that once you set such tunes in motion they work on all of us.

One year there were in residence three Chinese writers from three generationsóa fiction writer, a poet, and a playwrightówho met every day to discuss the literary and political situation in their homeland. There is no way to gauge how their conversations will shape China's future, but I am certain that in their determination to find common ground they created a force for good. In this I am reminded of Winston Churchill's observation about the usefulness of conferences: that it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war. For this is how we connect, as we learn in some lines from a poem by Jorie Graham, who was a student and then a teacher in the Workshop: "The way things work,/ is that eventually/ something catches." The beauty of an exchange program like the IWP is that sometimes things catch, connections are made, and the rest is literature. Let me close, then, with a text by an Indian writer from the IWP, S. Diwakar, which he and I translated from his native Kannadaóa commentary, if you will, on the virtue of connecting:

The World

A novelist writes about another novelist who is writing two novels about two other novelists, one writing novels to tell lies, the other to search for truth. In the 42 novels about 42 novelists they write, there are some novelists completely unaware of the lies they tell or deliberately telling lies or some that look for truth knowing pretty well they won't find it or some skeptical about the truth they find. And those 47 novelists write 560 novels describing 1,585 novelists, and among those 1,585 novelists, while some novelists behave childishly even after having grown old in dozens of novels, others (some of them women) hang on to some ideals because of their Western education, and, despite marriage and family worries, become social reformers in about 60 novels, yet others rebel for reasons of their ideals or nation or selfishness and start a revolution against poverty and inequality in 920 novels, and only one novelist, leaving his home and family and traveling around the country, fights for the freedom of his nation and writes a beautiful novel about another novelist who, like himself, leaving his home and family to travel around the country, fights for the freedom of his nation, and finally gets killed. The main character of another novel about another novelist, a person from the same town as that of the dead novelist, suffers from loneliness even while stressing the need for subjectivity, forgets the very existence of the dead novelist and writes a novel about 2,088 novelists who in turn write 5,831 novels narrating the eternal plight of society's oppressed peoples and 3,216 novels depicting the interior landscape of women. In 9,057 novels those 2,088 novelists write there appear 13,702 novelists whose 20,829 novels tell the story of only one novelist who, although he tries to write a single novel about one other novelist, fails to complete that novel, meets the other novelist and, to kill him, boils down all the novelists, including himself, numbering 13,701, 9,057, 2,088, 1,585, 47, 2, 1, and finally becomes the single novelist known as the novelist of all novelists.

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