The storied history of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program is now available for the world to hear. “The Peter Nazareth Collection,” which consists of 30 years of audio interviews with IWP participants and guests, is digitally archived at http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/vwu.
Since 1967, more than 1,000 creative writers from 120 countries have visited the university to attend the IWP. In his interviews with writers connected to the program, Peter Nazareth, a UI faculty member and an advisor to the International Writing Program since 1974, captures the essence of what it means to be a writer at “The Writing University.”
“This collection is a gold mine that’s now going out to the whole world from absolutely the right place at absolutely the right time, because this is a city of writing right now,” said Nazareth, referring to Iowa City’s designation on Nov. 20, 2008, as a UNESCO City of Literature. This is the first such designation to be granted to a city in the Americas. Iowa City joins Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia, as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
Nazareth, professor of English in the UI’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, recorded 66 interviews, seminars and panel discussions conducted in various settings, including “Humanities at Iowa,” a 1980s radio show that aired on WSUI/KSUI.
“Peter and his wife, Mary Nazareth, are the institutional memory of this program,” IWP Director Christopher Merrill said. “His memory is incredible and he has amazing stories to tell.
“His recordings not only are really intelligent and quite moving, but they get at the nitty-gritty of what it means to be a writer. What he does in these interviews is dive into what the writer is all about. Peter really makes an effort to connect with the writer. He tries to understand what motivates a writer to do what they do. That’s at the heart of what writing at Iowa is all about.”
In May, Jim Elmborg, director of the UI’s School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), finished a three-year project of digitizing Nazareth’s interviews and posting them on the Virtual Writing University Archive. The archive began as a collaboration between the IWP and SLIS, which are among 16 departments and programs overseen by the UI Graduate College.
Because of the archive, the rich history captured by the Nazareth Collection is available for all to enjoy. Nazareth was unaware of the true impact of his interviews until the e-mails started arriving this summer. The first came on June 7 from Mariela Arvelo, a poet from Venezuela who read from her work and answered questions at an IWP event on Oct. 23, 1980.
“You find ways of communicating the essence of writing, of literature. That’s what was emerging from most of these tapes,” Nazareth said. “To me, this feels quite normal. But to people far away, (the recordings) are just magical. The real impact was Mariela Arvelo’s message. I began to realize, ‘Wow.’”
Listening to her interview, Arvelo relived the smell of grass and flowers at the UI campus, the sound of the Iowa River and even the taste of new international food.
“With a fantastic and unknown power, the tape recording commanded my imagination to fly and run,” Arvelo said. “That’s why the Peter Nazareth Collection brought back to my life — with all its intensity — one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever lived.”
Nazareth, a former senior finance officer of Uganda, cut his teeth on the art of the long interview in 1977 while writing for the journal “World Literature Written in English.” Award-winning Singaporean poet and academic Edwin Thumboo was his first interview, and it can be heard in the Peter Nazareth Collection.
In Iowa City, subsequent interview subjects were not hard to find.
“There are so many writers in Iowa City — writers, would-be writers,” Nazareth said. “It’s like the air you breathe. We would talk about the essence of things. You meet people from so many cultures. You meet a Korean, and you cannot say, ‘I will study Korean culture and come back and then communicate with you.’ You might say it’s on-the-job training. You find ways of communicating.”
Nazareth’s interviews also have impacted non-IWP writers. Mildred Barya, a Ugandan poet working in Senegal and coming to Syracuse University to study creative writing this fall, e-mailed Nazareth after listening to his collection.
“Some writers are quoting stories and experiences I’ve never heard of and books I’ve never read,” Barya wrote. “Some I’ve dreamt and they’ve been far away. They’ve seemed unreal until now. Some are purely inspirational, some entertaining and some challenging in so many angles. It’s like I am beginning school for the first time.”