Chicken Knees, Skinny Luther, the Carnival-less Carnival Room, and Other Mysteries

Over the two weeks in Iowa City, I learned a vast array of important knowledge that will stick with me for the rest of my life. For example, chickens in fact have knees, that there is no prom like a prom thrown together at the last minute by a group of pioneering young writers. I learned that the street performer Skinny Luther cannot, in fact, juggle six balls while swallowing a sword for a total of six seconds, but can juggle five balls while swallowing a sword for a total of eleven seconds, and that he now holds the record for that. But more than that, I learned the names and faces of (most of) the sixty-five other brilliant young writers that joined me for the second session of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.

The camp began with a bang. The opening ceremonies involved the lovely Stephen Lovely reading to us all in what turned out to be quite a hilarious event including details of our ukulele playing, accordion wielding, and Irish dancing peers who find themselves in the occasional drum circle. From there, the amusement levels dropped no lower as we filtered to the inaccurately named Carnival Room (it did not contain any carnivals, to my great disappointment) in order to engage in an awkward ice breaker made delightfully morbid by the witty, dark humor of counselor Margaret Reges. Many of our days were made brighter with the help of her and our residential professional amateur meteorologist, James Longley.

On the second day, everyone got right down to business, heading off to our rigorous morning seminars where we met our teacher and classmates properly. I attended the poetry class led by swashbuckling Margaret Ross. As expected of a crowd of nine poets (including our valiant captain, Margaret), we were a group of rough cut individuals who didn’t play by the rules. Immediately, the group became infamous for being the cuddliest, closest knit group around as we pirated our way through Iowa City, plundering and pillaging every coffee shop we visited with the quiet, awkward sounds of poets loitering.

Quickly though, others joined the fun of coffee shop loitering. It dominated the studio as the main pastime and sport. Nothing can quite top the endless hours spent at Prairie Lights and Java House, bickering over which of the locations was more productive and which one had better drinks. This led to the Great Coffee House War at the end of Week One, A.L. (After Lovely), which culminated with a six hour jam session between Nina and me at Java House as we worked through a year’s worth of writer’s block and emerged victorious with pages of new plans for her work-in-progress novel.

The business of week one stepped aside briefly for the Intermission Weekend, a time of peace and prosperity across the land of Iowa City. On the first day of the two day national holiday, we put our differences aside and signed up for dunk tanks, electives of various forms ranging from song writing to improv. I found myself along with three other poets from my class in the Food Writing course. The class of about 12 spent the morning at the food market following people around discreetly and writing down everything they did. Havoc was wreaked, pie and donuts were had, and a joyous time was achieved by all.

Sunday followed, bringing a day to sleep in before heading to brunch. A large populous had made the journey to a local breakfast place to indulge in the joys of eggs, sausage, and pie shakes. Two brave travelers stayed behind though in wait of a third, and upon hearing the news of a forty-five minute wait, began their legendary trek to the boonies of residential Iowa City to indulge in the delights of Sunny’s Restaurant, with its reportedly amazing French toast, and much more debatable Tempeh Reuben. The path was a long one, but the writers found themselves an enjoyable yet affordable meal that had them leaving satisfied, other than the tempeh, which was as debatable as reviews suggested.

Week Two, A.L.,  started up as quickly as Week One, and everyone returned to work critiquing each other’s poems and stories (all well-armed with the 100 line poems and the 10 page stories that were assigned to be written over the holiday). The week progressed much as the first did until the Tragedy of the Washington County Fair occurred, in which a villainous mechanical bull took on challengers and emerged victorious over all but the brave and powerful Margaret Reges. Her victory will be told of in many tales and songs to come. The night progressed much as expected, accompanied with poorly fried Jell-O and Klondike Bars, until on the way back it was revealed that the bus’s radiator had broken down, leaving us very briefly stranded by a roadside gas station in the middle of the eternal cornfield that is Iowa.

The Tragedy, though fierce, did not lessen the trip at all, but instead improved spirits and brought about much mirth and joke making from the staff and students alike. Week Two ended with an hour long “prom,” whose theme was voted upon by students from a wild list of eleven themes. Though close, classics such as “North Korean Submarine Luau,” and “Magic the Gathering: a Magical Gathering” all lost out to “Rumspringa,” and so the Amish themed dance began.

The following day was of course one of great sadness as dozens of campers returned home from their grand pilgrimage to the holy land of writers. Two-thirds of the writers, counselors included, went without sleep, many wanting to stay up to see the first shuttle off. For the 5:30 shuttle, there were a dozen or so bystanders to wave the crowd goodbye, a number that increased after a trip to Java House for morale boost much needed. After reaching its peak at the 9:30 shuttle, the group began to dwindle as there simply weren’t enough people remaining. After noon, there were four campers left standing. Gabran, a young novelist, and I joined our counselors David and James for one last lunch at the fine eateries of Burge. As a somber last dare, James challenged Gabran to make and eat a chicken sandwich using grilled cheese sandwiches as buns. This last meal will surely be marked throughout time as both the grandest and saddest of all meals ever attended in those halls.

gabrans last meal

Gabran asks himself, Have I created a monster?

It wasn’t long after lunch that Gabran’s parents picked him up, and time had not long passed before mine came for me. The once bustling Burge Commons were now quiet and empty, wearing only the scattered bodies of counselors and teachers who remained without anyone to counsel or teach. Dear Leader Lovely was all that remained to brighten their days as they began to prepare for Session 1 of 2014.

—Noah Dversall

Noah Dversall is a junior at the Dayton Regional STEM School in Kettering, Ohio. He attended Session 2, 2013 of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.