A former dancer brings her stories to the page, and creates a place for others do the same.
You could say that Amy Margolis has lived two lives: one focused on movement, the other on words.
Those who’ve spent time with her at The University of Iowa know her for her word-focused efforts. For nearly 20 years, she has worked to bring writers from across the country to Iowa City for the annual Iowa Summer Writing Festival. She joined the Festival in 1990 as a graduate assistant while earning an MFA in fiction from the Writers' Workshop. Today she serves as director, orchestrating the 140 non-credit classes in genres ranging from playwriting to poetry that are offered each June and July.
But before she arrived at Iowa, Margolis danced.
Growing up in Kansas City, she lived a life in motion—in jumps, falls, turns. “I don’t even remember when I started dancing. There was no start. It was what I was brought up to do,” Margolis says.
After graduating high school, she followed the call to dance and moved to New York to train with the companies of modern masters Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. The experience was demanding and challenged her on both a physical and a personal level.
“Dance is political, as much as any of the arts. The stakes are very high,” she says. “I learned how to just put my head down and motor—through self-doubt, embarrassment, the whole range of insults you experience as an artist. I learned where to go inside myself to find the rope and tie the knot and haul myself out. All of my values and my understanding of artistic practice come out of my training as a dancer.”
Then, at the age of 27, Margolis decided she was done.
“On the most fundamental level, I wanted to sit down. I wanted to go into the seated arts. I had no musical talent, I was no good at the visual arts, but I loved to tell a story,” she says. “When I started writing, I felt like a wild boy, a primitive person with no grammar, no syntax, as if I’d just stumbled out of the woods and into the verbal culture. If I wanted to get something across, I couldn’t just embody it here. I had to find a word for it. This was hair-raising.”
She studied the history and literature of religions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., then applied to The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop “on a lark” with little expectation of acceptance. The Workshop was challenging, she says, but her years in the dance studio gave her the thick skin necessary for the scrutiny her writing received in workshop. More importantly, coming to The University of Iowa brought Margolis to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and her experience in the Workshop shaped her idea of what a writing class should be like.
“I want to make sure that every writer leaves the Festival fortified by others who are kindred and with the tools they need to continue the difficult work ahead,” she says.
Organizing the two-month summer festival is a year-round job. Preparation begins in the fall when Margolis hires instructors and builds the curriculum. Then she works with a designer to create a catalogue, which is published both in print and online. Once the catalogue is released, she fields calls from students, counseling them on classes and helping them register. Along the way, she works with the UI Center for Conferences to lay in event infrastructure like securing classrooms and large-group venues, arranging lodging, and setting up dinners.
Her favorite part of the job, though, is the Festival itself and the energy that its participants bring to campus.
“These are my people,” she says. “I’m not a particularly social person, but I get this community, I get this particular stripe of human. This mob comes from every walk of life, every background, but we come together with a common purpose and in a common enterprise. As much energy as it takes, I get so much energy back from the Festival that I write more when we’re in session than in any time of year.”
When Margolis started writing, she concentrated on fiction. These days, however, she’s “whacking at” the essay. She carries a small notebook in her purse to jot down notes when inspiration strikes.
“Writing is a completely new vocation every time you sit down to make a new piece of work,” she says. “My first goal is to get it down on the page, or thereabouts.”
And once in a while, between the writing and the Festival organizing, she still sneaks in a little dance. It’s just a slightly less formal style today than it was twenty-some years ago: “I dance with my broomstick,” she says, “Like everybody else.”
Story by Anne Kapler; photo by Kirk Murray
July 13, 2009