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Article roils Workshop's waters

BY CARTER CRANBERG | FEBRUARY 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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Officials and students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop said one experience should not reflect the entire program after a negative article was published in a national paper.

Tony Tulathimutte, an alumnus of the program, pointed out that that his experience at Iowa was beneficial to his writing, but it’s unfair to cite one person’s experience as a complete reflection of the program.

“I made very close friends who happen to be excellent readers and writers; I read very deeply; and I wrote about four-fifths of a novel there … but my experience shouldn’t be taken to represent every graduate’s, and neither should Eric Bennett’s,” he said.

Eric Bennett, an assistant professor of English at Providence College and a Workshop graduate, published a critical essay, “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month.

Bennett argues that the Workshop received CIA funding during the Cold War as a means to influence foreign writers to adopt American values. In addition to the allegation, Bennett posits his belief that the Workshop is too cookie-cutter in its teaching and too restrictive on creativity.

Bennett declined to be interviewed by The Daily Iowan.

Christopher Merrill, the director of the International Writing Program, was quick to respond, pointing out with what he saw as flaws with Bennett’s article. Merrill disagreed with Bennett’s assertions that Paul Engle, the longtime Workshop director and cofounder of the IWP, had any involvement with the CIA.

“We get this one suspicious grant in 1967, but by then, Paul Engle is no longer director,” he said. “It seems to me like he had personal issues with the workshop and wanted to pin it to the CIA to slander it. I’m surprised the Chronicle would publish something like this.”

Merrill stressed that Bennett’s article will cause ripples for the Workshop by what he feels is a slandering of its teachers and alumni. More importantly, he said, it not only fosters a negative image of the workshop domestically but on an international level as well, which could lead to problems down the road.

“Let’s say a writer comes to us from China or Russia, or anywhere really, it is not uncommon for writers returning to those countries to be approached by their government and asked if they were contacted by the CIA,” he said. “This article now gives us a bad reputation and will make foreign affairs difficult.”

Merrill said he is frustrated because the Workshop now has to perform “cleanup” because of the article.

“We are writing a letter to the editor [of the Chronicle],” he said. “Our department is doing what he should have done and is reviewing the claims he made. So far, our research has found that Engle received money from tons of sources and haven’t found the slightest trace of CIA involvement.”

Tulathimutte disagreed with Bennett’s accusations against the program’s ability to help cultivate creativity and talent.

“The Workshop gives its students two years of time and money to write whatever they want … you are required to do very little else, besides teach a few classes, take additional classes of your choosing, and live in highly affordable Iowa City,” he said. “If that all sounds terribly lenient, it still hasn’t stopped several recent graduates from writing books to high acclaim.”

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, a current student in the program, offered similar views.

“A few of us in the Workshop have discussed it, and the general feeling is that his views of the Workshop are not reflective of how it is now,” she said. “Maybe what he said was truer when he attended it.”


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