Iowa Poetry Prize winner reads today

BY RILEY UBBEN | MARCH 31, 2011 7:20 AM

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As a child, Julie Hanson began her life as a poet by jumping on her grandmother’s bed. Or more precisely, immediately afterwards, when her grandmother, upset about the noise, burst into the room and demanded, “What is the meaning of this?”

“Whether it carries a tone of judgment or not, it’s a good question to ask of every single thing that happens, and I have been asking it of the world and of myself ever since,” she said.

Hanson will read from her recently published book, Unbeknownst, at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., as part of the Mission Creek Festival. Admission is free. The collection earned Hanson the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2010.

Holly Carver, the editor of the University of Iowa Press, said Hanson’s sincere, relatable style won over the judges.

“I’ve been working with these Poetry Prize books for 20-some years, and to my mind, her [manuscript] was one of the freshest and brightest books that we’ve ever published,” she said. “It just seemed to have an honesty and an accessibility that made it really stand above a lot of other really good, cleverly crafted poems that maybedidn’t ring quite as true.”

Success certainly didn’t happen instantly for Hanson. After receiving an M.F.A. in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1982, she spent years trying to perfect her craft and using rejection letters from literary journals to find out what she needed to improve.

In time, however, many journals did choose to publish Hanson’s work, which helped the writer land a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998. With that, she began to seriously study the market, and publication became a more regular occurrence.

Jan Weissmiller, a co-owner of Prairie Lights, thinks that Hanson’s prolonged separation from the industry may have been the key to developing her sincere tone.

“She writes from her heart,” Weissmiller said. “It’s not that she doesn’t write for an audience, but she hasn’t had an audience, so she writes what pleases her.”

In March 2010, she began compiling poems for what became her first published collection, Unbeknownst. Hanson said her fascination with the book’s title became a major theme in the work.

“At the heart of the book is that old idea that there is always something unknown,” she said. “If it weren’t for this, there would never be surprise, there would never be deception, there would never be revelation, there wouldn’t even be disappointment.”

As a mother, gardener, wife, and daughter, Hanson writes about what she knows in the book.

Though she admits to having some concerns as to how her friends and family will feel reading about themselves, she notes that her husband and son have been very understanding.

“That’s what I hope for, that friends, and any readers for that matter, will know or see that each poem simply uses what it can find and hear and pick up off the ground to answer at any given moment that question, ‘What is the meaning of this?’ ” she said.

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