Wednesday, July 29, 2009

'Novembering' a Summer Writing Festival success

(Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 23, 2009)

When Press-Citizen Writers' Group member Robert Wachal retired as a linguistics professor back in 1997, it took him a while to learn that he didn't really have to keep writing about linguistics if he didn't want to. After publishing a few more academic works, Wachal eventually decided he was more interested in producing -- rather than in analyzing -- the linguistic tricks and contortions that transform otherwise ordinary prose into poetic utterance.

"They involve totally different brain functions," Wachal said. "When you're writing a poem, it's usually best when you're not being too conscious. ... I might compose four or five lines right when wake up. ... But when you're analyzing, then you have to pull on that cognitive part of the brain."

Back in 2002, Wachal started signing up for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival -- one of those annual world-class writing opportunities that led UNESCO to designate Iowa City as an international City of Literature. Every year since, he's been striving to strip down his poetry as much as possible, to condense language and experience into quick, easily digestible bits that still offer something unexpected for the attentive reader to gnaw on.

Press-Citizen readers already have had a taste of Wachal's poetry. In addition to the monthly columns that he has been writing for nearly three years, Wachal submitted two "Poetic License" poems during the lead-up to the 2008 Iowa caucuses -- "A Billary Precedent," which compared Hillary and Bill Clinton to the 17th century joint sovereignty of William III and Mary II, and the more self-explanatory, "Kucinich Eats His Spinach."

Wachal offers more serious fare in his new collection, "Novembering: Poems from Late in Life," which was released recently by the North Liberty-based Ice Cube Press. But all of Wachal's poems celebrate a finely tuned appreciation for clever turns of phrase even as they document what it's like for a poet to turn toward the final phase of life.

Wachal yet again is the middle of an Iowa Summer Writing Festival poetry class. But this year, the man who never thought he would publish a book of poetry will be able to impress his teacher, his fellow students and his neighbors when he reads from "Novembering" at 7 p.m. tonight at Prairie Lights Books.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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