Sex the Iowa Writers Workshop a Battle of Poems and more Degrading Tales

If you attend the Iowa Writers Workshop, you can’t lose in the literary world–but you can certainly endure two miserable, disappointing if not dispiriting years. For me, it was a blast. But I know many for whom the experience was a nightmare. I was lucky. I got the call from a certain capo named Connie Brothers, the director Frank Conroy’s henchwoman, while I was in a taxi in La Crosse, Wisconsin. ‘Is this Rick Harsch?’ I was dispatching from the car at the time, so all calls came to me. ‘Yes.’ ‘This is Connie Brothers of the Iowa Writers Workshop calling,’ and she went on to tell me I had been accepted and would receive enough financial aid to cover all expenses. Naturally I was going to have a blast for two years, regardless of any disappointments, of which there were a great number. Maybe I’ll get to some of those in time. For now, just one illustrative case. An author who has published a book of very fine short stories called A Brown Man, Prasenjit Gupta, who has also published some award winning translations, and who is indeed brown, early in our first year presented for devastation a short story that featured a clever turn from real to surreal. The story has survived and is now in A Brown Man. But the tsar of the workshop, Frank Conroy, author of three middling books, or one middling book, one attempt at literature, and one grand opus that turns on a surprise octaroonery at the end that made trade paperback status, a man who could exert a profound sense of authority with his legs wrapped five or six times around a chair leg like a pair of Indian rat snakes, told Prasenjit in class that one could not write a story that starts out real and becomes surreal. It must start out surreal. When I heard that I cited for Prasenjit several stories from an anthology that proved differently, but Prasenjit is a sensitive fellow and I believe it took him some time for his own confidence to surpass in his mind Frank’s trivial and stupid condemnation.

It was this same Gupta who attended with me my one and only poetry class (in my entire life, not just at the workshop), which we signed up for in order that a young poet named Kate Northrup would have some financial aid. She was teaching a class and not enough people had signed up. We got a few people who had no intention of attending to sign up and the class was then offered. Of some note, later that semester Kate took up with visiting reader and writer, Tim O’Brian, who came to town for one weekend and wound up, for love of Kate, visiting often and staying for weeks at a time. I thought this would be good news for me, as I lived next door and had a recently finished novel I thought perhaps she could get him to read and thrust upon an agent or publisher. But as Tim was a jealous, controlling maniac this would prove to be impossible. Kate would have to mention my name, a man’s name, and therefore an acquaintance of hers who was a potential rival, as all men who knew her or lived in Iowa City were. So nothing came of it for me, and little for Kate, but somewhat more for the nation, as on NPR late in the coming Spring, O’Brian mentioned her on the air, weeping over his loss of her.

As for the class, it was a silly affair, but fun, writing poems I didn’t care about–writing poems at all was a resumption of a partaking of literature I had no talent for and had given up a decade and a half previously–but for two, which were peasants in a battle of poems between a poet I had had an affair with, Hillary Gardner, some relative of Erle Stanley, and myself. Apparently we had a bad breakup, for she opened the year with a bitter salvo called Onion, a food I have trouble eating, that used the tired metaphor of an onion’s many layers peeling down to nothing. That was me–nothing. I fired back the following salvo:

Carapace Tattoo

O creature of elaborate habit
sing to me of

they know not what they are.
Call them fruit.

Thank god for the androgynes!

A tomato with thighs
like a soccer player
once gave me some anger–
the same as what do you need
with two toasters.

Think a little bit about toasters
(I could say, about toasters, toasters)

Do you miss me, my carrot?
My little can of tuna?
Did you duck into the pharmacy
to get away from me?

See how I said duck?

The crazy thing about ducks:
the most feathered of all vegetables

Confronting problems
like being sent to the store
and she ducks out and
when I return
she never does

Her breasts: two pomegranates
Her breasts: two pomegranates

To be fair–just kidding. Why be fair in a forum like this? How fair was she? I’d love to have Hillary’s version of our affair. Mine is quite simply: she changed the rules in the middle of the game. During the affair, which occurred while I was married to my first wife and with her permission and at first with her help arranging it, apparently fellow workshop folk, or many of them, thought I was a swine…I heard that at a point when the tension was so great between me and both women that I was sleeping with neither–the moss is always greener in the other bed. But surely, a measure of fairness is due. I also wrote about her–I wrote her into my first published novel, The Driftless Zone. She had arrived to my back porch one day at my invitation–I planned a peace conference. I got Ariel Sharon with rabies (and knife-wielding rabbis). She let me have it good. I reproduced the rant as well as I could. The following excerpt, then, may be taken as a journalistically accurate enough account:

Beginning of Chapter 2


‘I spent last night with the police…It was their idea.’
—Marlowe, ‘Murder My Sweet’

Remember this, Spleen?
“Twenty-eight years old and you don’t have the courage to tell your friends – and that Japanese bitch – to leave so we can be alone. You’re so fucking weak. You want to be with me you have to show it, but you cared more about your ‘solitary friends’ and that woman who even after I told you what she said to me you let her in your house where you knew I was coming and humiliated me in front of her after what she said to me even though you knew – shit! I don’t even know—You’re weak!
“Look at me. You’re afraid even to look at me sure you look…You can’t even look me in the eye. A coward, that’s what you are, but that’s not the way you see it, no – you think it’s courage to refuse to work, such an act of rebellion. you’re such a rebel.
Well it IS an act. The truth is you’re weak and afraid, afraid to try to succeed at anything so you call it an act of rebellion against an unjust world – well it’s the same fucking world I live in – you think I like it? You’d don’t think I’d like to go without working half the time? But I’m not a coward, I’m not afraid of success, I don’t have a brother whose happiness and success and kindness frighten me, make me afraid to – shit! Why do I even fucking…”
Boy was she mad, remember?
“That’s what it was, isn’t it – your brother, the one with the talent and brains to leave this dump but who sticks around because you can’t be trusted to look after your father. You’re intimidated by your brother. There can only be one strong one and it’s obviously him so you have to be the weak one so you pretend to reject the whole system, as if you can claim a different birthright, as if you can be mister urban survivor, the urban rebel, the ultimate modern man, this false stance of yours that you do so well and now it’s true, here you are, modern fucking man, and look what he turns out to be: a ‘pathetic wreck’, to use one of the phrases you like to repeat till you make me want to puke…Modern man: Spleen, a jobless, directionless, dishonest, posing coward. You’re as modern as can be; you’re the end, the last man, the man afraid to create, afraid to exist, who rejects everything, even life, but is too hypocritical to commit suicide. But don’t think for a minute I expect you to see THAT contradiction, no, then you’d have to choose life or death, you’d have to have GUTS to make that choice, not…By the way, where is that Japanese bitch – is she here?”
You pulled a cigarette from the pack, put it between your lips. Then you removed it, held it before you, rolled it back and forth, set it down on the table.
“I hope she is. I really do. She’s perfect for you. God, to think I once was, thought I was…No, not now, not now that I know you – or don’t know you. More like don’t. What’s there to know? Yeah, she’s perfect. Fucking perfect…Disloyal prick…Some little geisha to wait on you, someone who cares so much for you you don’t have to care for me – remember telling me you cared for me? Maybe you did once or twice but you never acted like it. How many times did I cry and you think giving advice was comfort? It’s cause you don’t fucking care. I used to wonder – you worked wonders for my self-esteem…The worst kind of man…Only later I realized it was you and not me, you’re incapable of love, incapable of caring – especially if it means you have to change your plans, like the time you thought golfing was more important than seeing me when i was depressed when I needed your love most and and then I find out you never went golfing at all, you and Gerard went ‘hiking’. Bullshit! You can’t even be honest about not wanting me. You never even had the guts to say no I don’t want to see you -”
Now you were confused. There were matches in your hand, but the cigarette was gone.

” – tonight I’m doing this instead. It was always, I’d like to see you but I have to read…fucking bullshit, man, you want to read, go to school like your brother did – you know, the one who’s HAPPY, the one who’s exactly like you only HAPPY. But let’s not forget happiness is transient, let’s not forget we’re all gonna die, let’s not forget life is so meaningless all there is is freedom like yours to be a loser, freedom like yours and Roman’s and Gerard’s and especially that fucker Barlow’s – all your goddamn friends, all the free and lonely miserable men you sit around with having miserable discussions with so you don’t have to masturbate all day, talking about nothing but bullshit that ends up the same way every time, that life is meaningless so you all end up prefes- PERPETUATING your own goddamn misery that you blame on anything but yourself when all it is is…is covering up your fear which is so fucking obvious anyway to anybody but you -”
Where’d you put the matches? Now that you had the cigarette back between your lips, didn’t you have enough energy to check your shirt pocket? (That’s where you put them.)
“-yet the only good that ever comes out of it – even that you ruin – you ruin everything you touch; you…belabor things, to use your favorite word. Every time you say something interesting you remember it and repeat it over and over till I want to puke. An example? You want an example? That’s right, DON’T look at me, don’t look me in the face, don’t face anything. What a hypocrite. That’s what you hate people for most, isn’t it? Not facing things? A hypocrite and a coward, that’s what you are. When I quit smoking you never even thought about it because you didn’t have the guts to quit, you never thought about what I was going through. You think it was easy? I just didn’t complain, that’s all. You? You wouldn’t even try to quit…Christ, I don’t even know what I was saying – you and your friends, repeating yourselves, cows in a scrum – you thought that was so funny, well that’s what you and your friends are, cows in a scrum…you must have said that every fucking day. At least I had the sensitivity to overlook it. But whenever the slightest thing about me bothered you, no matter how petty, you had to comment on it until I was afraid to make a move for fear of appearing too normal, middle-class, conventional, conformist – you called me everything at one time or another. Well, fuck you! I’m through with that. I’ll be whatever you want me to be except pathetic like you – or pathetic with you -”
What if you were a dog? How long would a dog sit there stupefied before such excoriation? Would a dog turn and walk away? Or would he put his head on his paws and look up at her with his brown eyes?
“- like you wanted me to be, like you were so dishonest about trying to make me be, like you…you lied about it, you lied about everything. You abused me. Every time you fucked me it was abuse. It was worse than rape. It WAS rape. You misrepresented yourself: it was never you I made love to. i’d never open myself to someone like you. Now that I now you, you couldn’t even make me wet. Every time I see you now the very thought of sex makes me sick. I don’t want to fuck anybody anymore because I think of you and it makes me sick. It couldn’t be worse if I was raped on the street – oh God, you raped me! You’re a fucking rapist! Look at me! You raped me! And you don’t fucking care…well neither do I. You think I care, but I just want to tell you one last time: you’re a piece of shit. You can sit there and not feel a fucking thing. Because you’re so strong? No – because you’re nothing. You aren’t even there. There’s nothing to you. You have no self. You’ve been a goddamn fake for so long you don’t even have yourself. You know where it is? It’s your brother, that’s where your self went. Off to be a good man, someone people can look up to and trust and care about, someone who cares about others and can handle life with strength and courage and and – I don’t know what, anything but the fucking cipher you are…”
You looked up, not quite at her face, but up that way. You’d never heard her say the word ‘cipher’ before.
“- which is the whole thing right there: you’re nothing, a phony – whatever I see, whatever anyone sees, always and for the rest of your miserable life, is a lie, a fake, a pretense. You shave your beard and cut your hair and then you grow it all back, grow your hair long – why? Because you don’t know who the fuck you are. You’re empty, nothing – a fucking cipher. That’s why you have nothing to say right now. All you can do is react, but you can’t react to the truth, can you? There’s nothing there. Nothing at all. Well, I don’t have anything to say either. I’m not going to fill your life up anymore. I’d end up just like you. You drain me. You make me feel like nothing, like you, like I’m not with a man at all – I’m more alone than ever. How many times do I walk in here and you can’t even greet me, just stare at me like you’re stupid, like you don’t even see me? What the fuck was I doing here? You can’t even make me feel wanted. I never felt wanted, not after the first two months when you were acting – ACTING – like a real human being, which was all a goddamn lie, like you told me you were through with that bitch and when it comes down to it you choose her over me because you say she needs you and now I do – Christ! I don’t even know what I’m…”
And just like that she left and it was forever over. But another woman was bound to come along.

That’s the fun part, at least now it is. I had intended to flesh out the story of Kate and Tim, but I realize that I recall little detail, that he was jealous, and he acted like an ass, even a bit scary, but that’s all. My guess is that discrete or discreeter affairs took place, but mine was unhidden and Kate was well known and her story burst onto the scene in a weekend. Dennis Johnson was there for a semester while I was, but he appeared to avoid scandal, even if he and Frank liked to perpetuate the myth that they were high rollers, gamblers of means and slack. Frank was more constructed of pretense, but Johnson was only different in degree, as I saw it, not a bad guy, but not particularly generous of nature, not particularly engaged, and so, in the wild midwriting west, a mercenary figure. An easy 50 or 60 grand in four months. The next manly visiting writer was Thom Jones, fresh off the success of stories having something to do with boxing. Oddly, though, Jones was the one who connected with his students, who formed a following too big for its population to be a cult, but who never seemed to have his eye elsewhere. That’s probably why he’s fallen back off the map, while Johnson has managed to concurrently sell a lot of books and maintain his status as an outsider, or an outsider’s insider. (As I ramble, I realize that any writer who does not know me who hears me say anything about the workshop seems to assume I opine as a writer scorned. Yet I believe during my time there I was among the happiest, even the happiest few–whose writing was well regarded where it mattered–McPherson and Robinson–and even had a modicum of success with work finished while there.) This is indicative, the people mentioned above, the need for that parenthetical, all indicative of the perversion of an art form by its subjugation to a priesthood.

For some reason, I expected the workshop to be a rather close-knit group of extraordinary writers. The sheer numbers worked against that possibility. 50 fiction writers and 50 poets at one time. That’s too many for either expectation. Yet the competetive aspect of the workshop was generally dulled, perhaps suppressed, and though in each class I had people like Mull and Void, a couple who always looked like they had human shit on a plate before them as they sat in class, most were respectful at the very least, or, particularly in one class, frankly disinterested. That group consisted mainly of second year writers, on the way out, happy to be so, yet disillusioned with the two years that had passed, no doubt for a variety of reasons. One was Kirsten Bakis, who had just gotten a sizeable advance for the novel she was writing their called Lives of the Monster Dogs, a section of which I read and loved before she got the deal. As soon as she got the deal, she dropped out, which struck me as entirely sane, little as I knew her. I have no idea what other reasons might have led to her decision, but after getting an advance why stick around another three months–what good could come of it? A lot of aggravation was more likely. The rest in that class I believe were snakebit by Frank and simply not the rioting kind.

But competition lurked. Above-mentioned Hillary was expecting an award poets can get their first semester, I think three of the 25 of that year’s class got it, and she at first heard that she had not gotten it and she went absolutely apeshit. Turns out she got it. (To my relief, as I was seeing her at the time, and probably to the relief of Iowa high society in general, so volcanic was the reaction at first.) The fiction writers got seven of these awards–I heard that I was a favorite to receive one, but gave it little thought, and less so when word came out that seven others got it. I had my financial aid position and was happy with it. Perhaps the worst of this process is that of the 25, at least 15, maybe 21, were certain they would not get it, such was the abrasive effect of workshops, especially led by Conroy, and the pettiness of numerous writers. Most of us felt, I think, that there were chosen ones; I used to refer these as tapped by the wand–it happened early and could not be reversed. It was actually quite nice, though, when some alien who happened to write well and somehow managed to stand apart and behave kindly at the same time, someone like Chris Adrian, got tapped by the wand. Such good things did happen.

Oddly enough, the most disturbing, and the funniest, brush with loutish competition I had did not involve classes, not even fiction. Worse yet, it happened on a Friday night and kept me from going out and drinking. I was going to a bar with two people who had apartments in the same house I had mine. One, Pat Moran, was a poet, and I believe the only other person in the workshop besides myself who still used a typewriter; the other was Larry, one of those type who hang around writing circles, talk a lot about their own work, and generally remain blocked. Larry was blocked the whole two years I was there. We met in my apartment. First Pat came down, and in the course of discussion he used the word ‘sestina’, which was new to me as I was never well versed in matters poetic. He dashed up to his apartment to retrieve a famous sestina so he could show me what it was. Meantime Larry arrived. So I set about trying to get it, with their help. Seven stanzas, six of six lines. Each line ends with a word that will end a line in the next stanza. So you get six key words to work with. In the last stanza you use two of these words per line. As they explained this and that, I found both this and that seemed less difficult than certain other tasks in life and said, Oh, that–or this–doesn’t seem so hard, not meaning the whole writing of a sestina was not so hard, just that and this. Both times they responded with alarming aggression, saying, roughly Right, like you could do it. The situation had become very odd. To me the point was getting the rules, the formula, for the sestina, not to claim I could write a poem, least of all a sestina. But their aggression was so comic, a certain momentum had accrued toward that very end. I asked whether most sestinistas chose the words then wrote the first stanza or wrote the first stanza then chose the words. Stanza first, I was told. So I said, I’ll write a couple lines, but I’ll choose the words first. I chose ape, crap, swine, divine, desquamation, and Pat and quickly wrote the first two stanzas typed below, but not exactly. I was almost in iambic pentameter just from reading the famous sestina, but the fact is I didn’t even know what iambic pentameter was at the time (I was bare 34 years old!). But rather than just laugh at my quick and funny words the two laureates attacked the lack of iambicity to my penta-meter, which was off after decades of disuse. I said, oh, well, okay, then, I’ll fix that. But they sneered and went off to the bar. So then you get the triumphal first line of stanza three, when I decided to write the whole fucking thing. Here, then is

Aping the Crap of Swine Divine, Desquamations for Pat

  • Whenever I must stop to take a crap
  • to signify my canon of divine
  • beliefs, I swipe and wipe before the swine
  • and bow deliberately before the apes.
  • If for no other reason than for Pat,
  • whose can or cant or canons desquamate
  • the same way apes and monkeys desquamate.
  • But see, the Chimps when they must take a crap
  • would like, but cannot place their faith in Pat,
  • a man of whom it’s said there’s less divine
  • except on filthy planets mad with apes
  • and filthy, turgid, febrile troughs of swine.
  • Oh planet come revolve around the swine!
  • It’s not too late to stop and desquamate!
  • (Or defecate a season for the apes.)
  • Oh planet come devolve and take a crap
  • on those mad preeners pruning thoughts divine:
  • create a world that’s somewhat safe for Pat, 
  • or simulacrum of safety for Pat–
  • so dangerously cast with priests of swine,
  • so feverishly drunk with pigs divine,
  • inordinately steeped with desquamat-
  • ing beasts and fowl whose foul beaks peck the crap
  • of all the low and lowliest of apes.
  • Or can a planet stop, remove the apes,
  • in hopes the swine will bow before their Pat,
  • and still survive without the monkey’s crap?
  • Or will the dirty whining of the swine
  • bring down with squall a pall or desquamate
  • a fate more evil even than the most divine?
  • Considerations of the said divine
  • remove the burden of the foresaid apes;
  • they drip and dry and drop–they desquamate–
  • and slip and slide off umbrage-covered Pat
  • (who knows salvation breeds along with swine
  • who slaver in the troughs of monkey crap).
  • Oh help my friend, help Pat to take a crap.
  • To desquamate itself may be divine,
  • but one must dine with swine, not only apes.

That was fun. For years, more than 20 years now, that poem has just existed on a single typed page, other than two copies I made that night and slipped in the mailboxes of Larry and Pat, both of whom ungraciously avoided mention of the piece. Sorry I couldn’t single space it without them little black squares, but I couldn’t even figure a different way to get space between stanzas. I have been informed that there may be some automatic formatting at work. Well, but there you have the form of the sestina.