Monday, April 25, 2011

Reading provides a glimpse of Iowa City's future

Originally printed July 15, 2010.

The Iowa City Book Festival officially kicks off Friday night with a chance to dine with many of the authors participating in the weekend's events -- the dinner already is sold out. The festival then begins in earnest Saturday with a host of opportunities to meet with authors, filmmakers and publishers. And Sunday -- titled "A Day in the City of Literature" -- the readings move out from university settings and bookstores and in to jewelry stores, clothing shops, churches and museums.

But every great Iowa City-linked writer, poet and publisher had to start somewhere. And where the book festival offers an opportunity to celebrate the Iowa City's literary past and present, local residents have an opportunity tonight to observe a literary experiment in progress and perhaps to catch a glimpse of Iowa City's literary future.

Mark Rahe, a local graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, will read from his first book of poems, "The Smaller Half," at 7 p.m. in Prairie Lights Books.

Rahe is the type of poet who always notices "the entrances to homes / where a wheelchair couldn't go" ("Summer"). Who proudly announces, "I've signed the petition against me" ("Petition"). Who bemoans to a friend that he "would have responded sooner, / but they didn't allow smoking on the train" ("Dear Paul"). Who contemplates, "How the stretch is not yet a yawn / but yawn becoming" ("Outstretched").

And with titles such as "Hangover at the Family Diner," "There Are Cabs That Will Come Too Late" and "Felix's Helixes," Rahe's poems bear all the marks of a workshop graduate. Christina Mengert, in her review of "The Smaller Half" for, lists those tell-tale workshop signs as: "(The poems are) slightly narrative, with the occasionally surreal image twisting our sense of time and place; (they employ) explosive, Donne-like openings followed by short, well-crafted lines, and an ending that lifts off the page as the poem gently but firmly settles into heavy silence."

It's not surprising, then, that "The Smaller Half" isn't merely the work of one workshop graduate; it represents the collaboration between three graduates. Not only is "The Smaller Half" Rahe's first book of poetry; it's also the debut publication of Rescue+Press, a Milwaukee-based operation run by workshop graduates Caryl Pagel and Daniel Khalastchi.

"We really felt that the book chose us and that it would give us a wide audience," Khalastchi said in a phone interview last month. "We approached Marc and asked him he wanted to help us get all this off the ground. And he entrusted his work to two people who had never done this before."

Khalastchi said Rescue Press came about because the more he and Pagel spoke with their writing colleagues and students, the more they realized there are far more good writers out there than there are publishers to print them.

"It's so difficult to get good work into print," Khalastchi said. "There's really a state of emergency in print media. ... We're just trying to rescue the world from the absence of pieces of literature."

Although Khalastchi and Pagel so far have saved only one book from a non-print existence, Khalastchi said they are working to ensure that Rescue+Press isn't limited by their contacts and aesthetic preferences.

That's why the call for submissions on the press's website ( reads: "We are interested in small collections of artwork, comics, compositions, essays, experiments, how-tos, interrogations, lectures, lists, manifestos, notes, outlines, poetry, procedures, questions, reviews, sketches, stories, technical prose, textbooks, travel writing and anything else that transforms us."

It's unclear what the future holds for either Rescue+Press or for Rahe's poetry. But the collaboration among Rahe, Khalastchi and Pagel is just one small, recent example of the many such presses and literary partnerships that have dotted Iowa City's history. Observing this present day example is an opportunity to watch a little bit of that history unfold.

Or, in Rahe's words, it's an opportunity to lift our faces and to open our eyes to "something carried in the cold / some trivia brought down from above / that gains weight as it approaches" ("Stray").

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

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