Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - Big editorial shoes to fill at The Iowa Review

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 3, 2009.

If you flip over the most recent issue of The Iowa Review, you'll see the list of names of contributors on the back cover are arranged into four couplets and a tercet. Some of the rhymes are very strong and obvious (Blair/Bear, Mutel/Bell); others require more creativity (Cook/Pick, Kinsella/Will, Keene/Kern/McKeen.) But nowhere in the issue is it announced that this small poetic flourish is the work of David Hamilton, who is stepping down after 32 years of editing the magazine.

Next year, The Iowa Review celebrates its 40th anniversary. That means the magazine's national reputation as a premier literary journal is due predominantly to Hamilton's vision, energy and personality over the past more than three decades.

"The magazine is a reflection of David," said Russell Valentino, chairman of the University of Iowa Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature. "It has a quiet quality that is contemplative as well as playful. ... It's understated, but full of little subtleties that go far beyond the mere collection of material."

And the most recent issue, the last under Hamilton's editorial control, showcases many of the qualities that have made The Iowa Review such a success:

• It focuses on timely, interesting material from a wide variety of perspectives. In this case, the issue overflows with stories, essays, drawings, poems and photographs about rivers -- including even a bizarre "articulated river as a stream of sound."

• It comes across as a very welcoming magazine that publishes unknown writers alongside much more familiar names.

• It depends upon the participation of an impressive number of smart, creative, committed folks -- not only those who submit their writing for publication, but also those who read through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts to pull out those good pieces that might otherwise be overlooked.

• And the contemplative playfulness Valentino describes is on display in Hamilton's introductory story about one of his experiences eating fish caught in the Iowa River: "The fish tasted fine, by the way, grilled, with chemicals infusing the olive oil and lemon. Maybe an occasional fish from the Iowa River is like shots I used to take as a kid, little bits of many things making my allergies manageable. But I wouldn't want to count on that."

The issue, in fact, seems an extension of the uncountable number of literary friendships and mentor relationships that Hamilton has developed during his time as a professor of English and non-fiction writing at UI.

"David is friends with so many people," said Valentino, who also faces the daunting task of taking over as the magazine's new editor. "I have come to be overwhelmed by that. The magazine is an expression of his personal connections."

Valentino said he hopes to pull from his own experiences and connections in nonprofit publishing, comparative literature, translation projects and the Writing University taskforce, but he'll definitely be looking to Hamilton as a model for how to balance inclusiveness and high standards, humor and sophistication.

"David has developed and cared for these relationships over years," Valentino said. "It's not the type of thing I can step into and immediately mimic. It would just be mimicry on my part."

To hear more nice things about David Hamilton, attend the reading and reception being held at 7 p.m. today in the Old Capitol Museum Senate Chamber. Our local city of literature is lucky that Hamilton is just stepping down from the magazine -- not from the university -- and will continue to teach and to mentor many once and future writers.

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