Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Blaise knows Iowa well

Originally printed May 3, 2011.

When asked what he gained as a student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop from 1962-64, Clark Blaise provides quite a lengthy list.

"The Workshop gave me my life," Blaise said during a phone interview Friday. "It gave me my training as a writer. It gave my wife and my son. My two years there gave me a profession."

That training brought Blaise back to Iowa City to serve from 1990-1998 as the director of the University of Iowa International Writing Program -- attempting to bridge any rifts between the program and the Workshop.

"At the time, it was kind of seen as a retreat for older writers from overseas and who never had a real connection to the university," Blaise said. "I was told to get younger writers and to integrate them as much as possible into the fabric of the university."

Blaise, who has dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship, also thought so much of the Workshop model that he basically franchised it by founding the post-graduate program in creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal -- which is the largest program of its kind in Canada.

When Blaise first proposed implementing such a model, he said the chairman of the English Department responded with the question, "You propose turning out writers like Ford motor cars?"

Luckily for Blaise, the chairman's next response was, "Interesting. Interesting idea."

"After that," Blaise said, "he backed me all the way."

Blaise is returning to Iowa City to read from his new short-story sequence, "The Meagre Tarmac," at 7 p.m. tonight in Prairie Lights. He will be joined by Alexander MacLeod, whose novel "Light Lifting" was named a best book of the year by the Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, and Amazon (Canada).

"What's continued to work with Iowa," Blaise said, "is that it continues to be an outstanding place for writing. Its standards have never dropped."

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

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