Literary Oasis in the Heartland

I spent a few days in America’s heartland recently and returned home thoroughly impressed. Two people serving on the Hermitage National Artist Advisory Committee live in Iowa City. Another two Hermitage Fellows live in Iowa City. And the Carver Center is one of the premier research clinics for macular degeneration (which I do not yet have but which runs deeply up my mother’s side of the family). These were my reasons for showing up in Iowa City. Besides, I was invited. And not only is Iowa City the home of the internationally renowned Writing Workship and the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa, but Iowa City (population about 68,000) has been designated by UNESCO as one of three “Cities of Literature” in the world. It is mecca for readers and writers.

I stayed with Hermitage National Committee-member Christopher Merrill and his lovely family, wife Lisa and daughters Hana and Abbie and they couldn’t have been more gracious. And while there, I got to see writers Chris Offutt, a National Committee member whom I had not met face-to-face, and Hermitage Fellow Steve Kuusisto (who will be returning in January).

And I visited the Prairie Lights bookstore, one of the few remaining great independent book stores in the US and met its co-owner Jan Weissmiller, a Workshop graduate herself and award-winning poet. The net result of three days in this literary oasis, talking books, plays, writing and reading, is a renewed and revitalized love of it all. Christopher convinced me to work on a play that has been languishing in the back room of my brain for years, and I have started reading fiction with new enthusiasm. But then again, isn’t an oasis all about renewal and refreshment?