Thursday, January 17, 2013

when i arrived in iowa city in january of 1975 i landed in the middle of what was called the actualist movement in poetry; i, however, didn't realize it at the time. in fact i was interested in the writer's workshop, a graduate program at the university of iowa which was famous in literary circles, but, when i enrolled at the university that spring, and took a writing course, it was held in a bar, and i didn't make much of a connection with the teacher; soon i dropped out for another five years or so, disillusioned with the university writing scene.

the actualists actually thrived on rejection, or rather the snobbery of the writer's workshop. they loved having a common enemy, and using street poetry or actualist poetry to highlight the difference between themselves and the workshop, which had perhaps become too aloof, too academic. as i look back i find plenty of evidence of the actualists' feelings, their reactions, the spontaneity and immediacy of their writing. but i didn't know anyone in the workshop. how do i find out how they really felt?

one day i was walking down the street in downtown iowa city when i saw a small crowd standing around, looking up. dave morice was writing a poem, literally over the edge of iowa city's highest building. he was big on poetry as theater: he wrote poems across bridges, poems that spanned the longest day, etc. he dressed up in a kind of uncle-sam tuxedo and top hat that were covered with letters, so that he was known as "dr. alphabet." he was a leader of the actualists, but surely not the only one.

my own trajectory meanwhile was leading me directly away from writing. a friend i had met in the workshop borrowed the journal that i had written as i'd traveled 48 states, and lost it. as i tried to write, with more pressure, in a classroom situation, i couldn't. when i quit school, i started a restaurant with some friends and devoted myself to it. eventually this restaurant served breakfast and became competition for another well-known restaurant, the hamburg inn which was known as "the burg". We were actually very poor competition, as we weren't as organized or experienced as they were. it was my ambition at that moment, however, to compete.

the burg, being a kind of everyday hamburger joint, was loved by the actualists, or at least frequented by them, whereas it was scorned by the workshop people, who generally went for finer dining, if they went anywhere at all. nobody quite knew what to make of stone soup, the hippie restaurant, but it being a lively counterculture scene and all, the actualists embraced it also. this is where i met and befriended a number of them: john sjoberg, morty sklar, chuck miller. dave morice, i knew more from elsewhere, i figure. i don't remember clearly exactly how i was involved with these people, but they were friends.

then there were the workshop people. the one guy, j.j. by initials (not the same jj who was at one time my best friend in iowa city) just out-and-out lost that traveling journal, though not intentionally. but really, i wasn't mad at them so much as disappointed in myself, that i couldn't just produce good stories on demand, or that i didn't have a repository waiting to be criticized. i just became disinterested. i was more oriented toward living life than writing about it. i got the sense that they scorned the burg (one even picks this up in the book, the burg: a writer's diner, but i think it's unfair to make generalizations especially about a crowd that is clearly very diverse. so i'll just say: i didn't know much about them.

time passed. i had a kid. i quit the restaurant and worked in the bakery for a while. then i quit that and did a number of other things, documented herein. stay tuned!


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