Letter From Iowa


At the back of an old farmhouse, several young men stand holding shovels. They’re about to dig up a hangi. A familiar scene—except the paddocks around and about are all planted in corn; the boys all have very white faces; and the bemused bystanders (poets, all twenty of them) are saying ‘it’s been in the ground?! The food is in the ground?’ Perhaps the oddest thing about the whole scene is that it wasn’t my idea. Broc Russell, host of the world’s first Iowan hangi, was taught the art of underground cooking by Maori Mormon Missionaries in Utah. A Writer’s Workshop party seemed the perfect place to try it for himself. I hadn’t felt so at home in weeks.

‘This is not America,’ my friends here keep telling me. They’re all from elsewhere—New York, Texas, Louisiana, Montana, Seattle. Iowa, with its rolling cornfields, fertilizer polluted rivers, porch swings, jello-salads and blonde, polite mid-westerners, is almost as much a foreign country to them as it is to me. Never mind about the rest for now, I say. I like it here.

Iowa City, on the Iowa River, in the State of Iowa might sound kind of hick, but there’s a hell of a lot going on. There are fifty poets and fifty fiction writers enrolled in the workshop. People like novelist Elizabeth McCracken and poet Bob Hass teach classes. The bookshop, Prairie Lights, hosts readings on Thursdays and Sundays. A few weeks ago, Seamus Heaney popped in to accept a prize and read some poems. Then he went drinking at the Foxhead, the student bar. All this is in a town the size of Wanganui.

People are nice in the mid-west. Boy are they nice. I’ve been the recipient of gifts of furniture and food; lifts home with various store assistants when my purchases proved too large for me to carry; free massages and innumerable cheerful greetings called out from porches. ‘Thank you,’ I say to the woman behind the counter at the local grocery store. ‘Uh-huh,’ she says—the abbreviated but endearing local form of ‘you’re welcome.’

And then there are the small mammals. Squirrels on the lawn; chipmunks on the footpath outside the bar. I can’t get over the way they skitter straight up trees; horizontal, vertical, it’s all the same to a squirrel.

It’s mid-Fall and the trees are doing amazing things with their leaves. It’s not just the incredible colours; it’s also the sheer volume of shed biomass. Several mornings ago I was sitting on my porch watching neighbours up and down the street rake their leaves to the curb. I was musing on the purpose of this task and trying to justify my unwillingness to attend to my own leaf patch. Surely the leaves would just blow back over the lawn?

Then I noticed a strange sucking noise in the air. Around the corner came a large truck followed by several men wearing orange safety vests and carrying rakes. A large pipe protruded from the truck. One man guided this trunk-like object towards the mounds of leaves. The other men followed behind with rakes and little dustpans, collecting the missed leaves and throwing them in the path of pipe. The truck continued slowly and neatly along the road, ignoring my unswept frontage. The neighbours watched happily.

Iowa City: home of the world’s biggest hoover.



Anna Livesey is the current Schaeffer Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first book of poems, Good Luck, was published earlier this year by Victoria University Press.