International Writing Program

Paul Engle lives on through one-man play

Paul Engle

Photo of Paul Engle courtesy of Hualing Engle

Humanities Iowa helped fund a one-man play by the University of Iowa's International Writing Program (IWP) based on the life of native Iowan Paul Engle, cofounder of the IWP. In 2007 the IWP celebrated 40 years of bringing writers from around the world to Iowa. Humanities Iowa was able to talk with IWP director, Christopher Merrill about Paul Engle, the IWP and what both have meant to Iowa.

Humanities Iowa: Paul Engle and his wife, Hualing Nieh Engle, founded the International Writers Program in 1967. Can you tell us a little bit more about how the IWP came into existence?

Christopher Merrill: In retrospect, the IWP was a natural outgrowth of the Writers' Workshop, and yet at the time it seemed, in the words of Paul Engle, "the craziest idea" he had ever heard. The IWP was the brainstorm of the Chinese novelist, Nieh Hualing, (now Hualing Nieh Engle) who in 1964 was one of 15 foreign writers invited to attend the workshop. She loved the literary culture that Paul Engle had created, the sense of community that with the founding of the IWP would extend around the world, courtesy of grants from the U.S. State Department, the Library of Congress, foundations in the United States and abroad, bilateral agreements with foreign ministries of culture, and extensive private fund-raising efforts. Since 1967, nearly 1,100 writers from over 120 countries have participated in the IWP, including such luminaries as the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, Viktor Pelevin, Edward Radzinsky, Luisa Valenzuela, Jose Donoso, Nina Cassian, Ding Ling, Bei Dao, Yu Hua, Su Tong, John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Tomaz Salamun, Arnost Lustig and on and on.

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HI: Writers who come to Iowa City to be involved in the IWP stay for nearly three months during the fall. What kind of magic happens between these fellow writers from different parts of the world and what types of writers does the IWP typically include?

CM: In the IWP we try to connect - writers to other writers, readers, translators, students and Americans from every walk of life. We invite poets and fiction writers, playwrights and essayists, open-minded artists in early to mid careers who have published at least one book, achieved national and perhaps international standing and possess the desire to spend 10 weeks in Iowa City, the lodestar of creative writing in America. Connections abound. One year the writers from Japan, China, Mongolia, Lithuania and Poland preferred to speak Russian when they were together. A Vietnamese poet translates stories by an Argentine woman. A British novelist and a Malaysian poet share a passion for puppets.

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HI: What does the IWP offer for writers who participate?

CM: We try to establish favorable conditions for the writers to write - their main occupation during the residency. We offer time, space, a per diem, insurance and a staff (recruited from our writing programs), that attend to the writers, connecting them to one person or another. And isn't this what a novelist does in setting a world in motion, attend to the characters, the demands of the plot and story, the linguistic possibilities of each word? We also listen. And some of the writers are real characters. Imagine, as is happening this fall, 31 writers from 25 different countries descending on a small university town on the prairie. The World Comes To Iowa- this was the title of a collection of writings from the IWP, and it is a fair description of what my staff likes to call a three-month-long performance piece, the key features of which are writing, reading, panel discussions, classroom visits, encounters, impressions and ideas. We also offer plenty of opportunities: a weekly translation seminar, for example, in which we pair the writers off with graduate students from the Workshop, the Translation MFA programs, and the departments of foreign languages and literature. This is a rich experience for the students even when they translate from languages they do not know. We also host a workshop to create a performance piece for the Portland Stage Company; a night of staged readings of their poetry, fiction and play; the chance to meet visiting writers, editors and agents, and much, much, more.

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HI: What do you ask then of writers while they are in the IWP?

CM: We ask little of writers- to give a reading, to make a presentation about their work to a class of undergraduates, and to participate in one panel discussion on topics such as the relationship between politics and literature, the art of translation, or the influence of other art forms on their writing. Here is a chance for thoughtful discussion- we ask the writers to prepare a two-page summary of their ideas in order to focus and clarify their ideas- which may lead to new ways of thinking. The rest of their time is their own. And while some devote their residency to soaking up impressions, the majority use their time to write. A Georgian novelist was known to jog the halls of the Iowa House Hotel at 6:30 in the morning, kicking a soccer ball against the doors of his fellow writers, urging them to get to work. He completed an entire book during his stay.

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HI: Switching gears a little bit, tell us now about Paul Engle and what he brought to the IWP.

CM: Paul Engle, the son of a horse-trader from Cedar Rapids and one time Noble Prize nominee, thought globally and acted locally, bringing the world to Iowa and Iowa to the world. His life, marked by writing and travel and success, made the state of Iowa synonymous with literary excellence around the world. His impact upon the literary world as a behind-the-scenes force is as significant as that of any literary figure of the 20th century.

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HI: How will the IWP go about developing the one-man play of Engle's life?

CM: Development of the play's material will be under the direction of Art Borreca, who heads the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop and is an associate professor specializing in dramaturgy and dramatic literature. Professor Borreca will engage eight Iowa-based playwrights, who over the course of several months will conduct self-directed research and write 20 to 25 pages of material. Professor Borreca will then award the task of writing the whole play to the author of the strongest manuscript. The winning playwright will be entitled to use material from any of the other seven playwrights' manuscripts. Professor Borreca will establish deadlines for each part of the process.

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HI: What will those developing the play draw upon?

CM: Paul Engle has left a treasure-trove of testimony to be drawn upon. He published a dozen books of poetry, a novel, a children's book, and a full-length libretto; and after his death, his widow Hualing Nieh Engle entrusted Coe College with a collection of his papers including (according to Coe) family letters, office files, manuscripts, and letters to and/or from "notable literary figures such as Robert Frost, Wallace Stegner, Robert Bly, Robert Penn Warren, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Cheever, Louis Untermeyer, Kurt Vonnegut and others." In addition to this wealth of materials, remembrances have been produced by many of the literally thousands of other writers and artists (American and international) whose lives intersected with Paul Engle's. With such resources available to the playwright, we believe a one-man show about Paul Engle can be theater at its best.

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Christoher Merrill

Christopher Merrill, University of Iowa

Editor's note: Christopher Merrill's books include four collections of poetry, Brilliant Water, Workbook, Fevers & Tides, and Watch Fire, for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; translations of Ales Debeljak's Anxious Moments and The City and the Child; several edited volumes, among them, The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature and From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O'Keeffe as Icon; and three books of nonfiction, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer; The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and The Age of the Refugee; and Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars. His work has been translated into 16 languages. He has held the William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and now directs the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa.

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