Iowa alums: Rita Dove, James McPherson, Ayanna Mathis

October 30, 2013

There would have been no marriage between Rita Dove and Fred Viebahn if it had not been for Iowa City.   She was at the Writers’ Workshop, getting her MFA in 1977; he was from Germany, a Fulbright Fellow at the International Writing Program.   They fell in love and married in 1979.   Thirty some years into the marriage, they’re still dancing together, ballroom dancing, and showing off on PBS.

“Poetry is a kind of dance,” Dove says.  “Technically, there’s the play of contemporary speech against the bass-line of the iambic, but there’s also the expression of desire that is continually restrained by the limits of the page, the breath, the very architecture of the language–just as dance is limited by the capabilities of our physical bodies as well as by gravity.   A dancer toils in order… to appear weightless,” just as a poet toils so that her words could be winged words.

James McPherson, another alum, and longtime permanent faculty at the Workshop, also knew about winged words: he had spent time in Japan teaching at Mejii University and Chiba University.  In 2011 he was the first recipient of the UNESCO City of Literature Paul Engle Award, invoking the tangled genealogy of the Workshop and the International Writing Program in that name.

Ayanna Mathis doesn’t have a German husband or Japanese teaching experience, but her words are winged in their own way: after the loss of  her twins, her protagonist Hattie “wore her white nightgown all day and floated through the rooms of the house, pale and silent as an iceberg.”

Dance steps all of them, backwards, sideways, forwards.


About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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