Friday, June 10, 2011

It is my very great honor and pleasure to join you this evening in celebration of the Writers’ Workshop 75th anniversary. And welcoming so many former and present Workshop faculty, alumni, and friends makes tonight a very, very special event.

If you were to play word association with someone from across the country, saying “The University of Iowa” would probably yield three responses: the Hawkeyes, medicine and health care, and the Writers’ Workshop. And I would venture to say that if you played word association with someone across the entire world, the most common response would be “The Writers’ Workshop.”

When I first entertained the notion of being a candidate for the presidency of this institution four years ago, one of the main things I knew about Iowa was the Writers’ Workshop. Today, I am still humbled to serve at an institution with such a rich literary tradition, and the institution that hosts the world’s first and still most renowned Writers’ Workshop.

We are celebrating the formal founding of the Workshop through the work of Wilbur Schramm 75 years ago. But I am proud that the cornerstone of today’s celebration was laid well over a hundred years ago at The University of Iowa. In 1897, George Cook taught the first course in creative writing at the UI, called “Verse Making.” Later, Edwin Ford Piper’s “Poetics” class became the prototype of the workshop method, in which students’ work was discussed critically.

Professor Piper joined forces with Graduate College Dean Carl Seashore to convince the faculty to award graduate degree credit for creative work in 1922. This, too, was a momentous historical occasion, a revolution in the academic world that not only changed the UI forever, but higher education in general. Dean Seashore anticipated by decades what we still today consider innovations in the academy: the fusion of teaching, research, and service; interdisciplinary study; and creative endeavor. Through the forward vision of Carl Seashore and others, the UI became the world leader in legitimizing creative work in the academic world. By the 1960s, MFA programs were burgeoning throughout the country.

As I mentioned before, the Workshop as we know it was established in 1936 by Wilbur Schramm, who became the first director of the graduate creative writing seminar and designated that program for the first time as “Writers’ Workshop.” Since then, the story of the Workshop and the University of Iowa’s broad commitment to writing is more widely known: the Workshop leadership of Paul Engle, George Starbuck, and John Leggett; the creation of the International Writing Program; the Workshop’s National Humanities Medal under the leadership of Frank Conroy; up to today’s still-number-one status of the Workshop under the guidance of Lan Samantha Chang.


The list of notable writers who have taught and studied at the Workshop reads like the table of contents of a literature textbook: Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stegner, Flannery O’Connor, Donald Justice, William Stafford, John Gardner, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Raymond Carver, James Tate, Gail Godwin, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Levine, James Alan McPherson, Jane Smiley, Rita Dove, Sandra Cisneros, Jorie Graham, James Galvin, Meg Wolitzer, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Cole Swenson, Elizabeth McCracken, Ethan Canin, Naomi Wallace, Paul Harding, Yiyun Li. I’ve recited this long list of names to remind us of the astonishing depth of the Workshop’s literary legacy, but also to note that this list is just a selection of the Workshop roll call. Reciting a complete list of the Workshop’s prominent names—many of whom are in the room with us right now—would make us miss the alumni open mic event later this evening.

Just that list of names alone makes it clear why for two years in a row, Poets & Writers magazine has ranked the UI creative writing programs as number one in the United States in their Master of Fine Arts "Top Fifty" list. Even so, what’s most important about the Workshop is not really that list of names—though we treasure each and every one of the people who has been affiliated with the program. What’s most important is the work, the writing itself, and what it brings to the world.

One of the Workshop’s great honors is to administer the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin, the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism. At the award ceremony, I often like to quote Capote himself, and I’d like to end my remarks tonight with one of my favorites. “To me,” Capote said, “the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” Simply put, I am enormously proud to lead an institution where words make such gorgeous music.

Thank you, Writers’ Workshop, for 75 years of the world’s best in creativity. And thank you to each and every one of you in this room—and beyond—who has made it all possible.