Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Revisiting the Actualists and the Iowa City of the 1970s

Originally printed May 26, 2012, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
Before he arrived in Iowa City back in 1971, Morty Sklar thought his objective as a poet should be to get his poems first printed in big circulation magazines, like The New Yorker, and then published by as large a publisher as possible.

But Iowa City soon taught Sklar that poetry was more of a life than a job.

Sklar, who moved back to his native New York in 1989, said his initial decision to relocate to Iowa City was accidental.

He had been thinking of leaving New York for a while, but he didn't make the decision final until after attending the National Poetry Festival in Allendale, Mich. At the end of the six-day affair, he remembers sitting on his motorcycle, trying to figure out where to go next.

"A woman came up to me and asked, 'Where are you going?'" Sklar said in a phone interview earlier this month. "I said, 'I'm looking for a nice place to live.' And she said, 'Iowa City is a nice place to live.'"

So Sklar rode the nearly 400 miles to what became his home for the next 18 years and found a city full of writers and poets. Some were thriving with institutional stamp of approval from the University of Iowa and its Writers' Workshop. Others refused to be institutionalized.

"I met Allan Kornblum, who published Toothpaste Magazine," Sklar said. "He remembered me from the festival. He had been falling asleep during a reading, but when I started reading my poem, 'Bed,' it woke him up."

Sklar found Iowa City in the 1970s to be an "easy place to live." He worked odd jobs until he could establish residency, and then enrolled in the university as an undergraduate. Over the years, he paid the bills by driving buses for the Cambus and Iowa City Transit. But his "life" consisted of getting together with people to write, read and eventually publish poetry.

Following in the footsteps of Kornblum and others, he started his own magazine and press — The Spirit That Moves Us (

Over the years, the press' catalog has included:

• "The Actualist Anthology," co-edited with Darrell Gray, which features the work of many of the poets Sklar met in Iowa City over the years.

• Three issues of "Editor's Choice," anthologies of what Sklar and his guest editors, Jim Mulac, Mary Biggs and Robert Peters, thought were the best samples of writing from small presses throughout the U.S.

• Poetry collections from Chuck Miller, Bob Jacob, David Ray, Marianne Wolfe and others.
"I only wanted to publish the work I liked most," Sklar said.

The most fortuitous of the press's books was "The Casting of the Bells," an English translation of Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert.

Sklar said someone else had organized the translations and ensured that enough universities and libraries would be interested in the book to pay for the printing. So printing "The Casting of the Bells" required only a fraction of the time and labor Sklar spent on the press's other books. And because Seifert was "on his deathbed," Sklar decided to jump the project ahead of the two anthologies he was working on.

That flexibility paid off when Seifert won the 1984 Nobel Prize for Literature and "The Casting of the Bells" was the only English translation in print. (Sklar's press also published translations of Seifer's "Mozart in Prague" and "Eight Days: An Elegy for Thomas Masaryk").

Since returning to New York in 1989, Sklar has been back to Iowa City only a few times. His reading at 2 p.m. today in Uptown Bill's Coffee House, 730 S. Dubuque St., will be a chance to connect with old friends and, at least temporarily, to travel back in time a few decades.

Skylar will be reading from his most recent collection of poetry, "The Smell of Life: Poems 1969 to 2005." But the anthologist of the Actualists says he writes very little poetry these days.
He's more "attracted to writing longer works."

"I still use poetic expression," he said, "but I need more space to talk about a lot of the things I want to talk about."

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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