“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That’s what poetry does.” –Allen Ginsberg
On the north end of the University of Iowa campus sits the Dey House and the Glenn Schaeffer Library, two uniquely picturesque buildings among the nearby academic facilities. These buildings house one of the university’s most renowned programs – the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop was the first creative writing degree program in the country, and it remains one of the most prestigious, regularly attracting over 1,000 applicants for a maximum class of 50 new students each year. Last year, one of those 50 was Honors College alum Ethan Heusser.
“I am a graduate student in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree, which will terminate in May of 2020,” Ethan says. “There are many brilliant poets who have produced incredible works without the benefit of a graduate education, but for me it always felt like a necessary step – both to enter a space where I can challenge my own art and to build bridges with kindred spirits.”
While Ethan is now a graduate student in a world-renowned creative writing program, he didn’t enter college with the intent to study writing or language. “I applied to OSU because my initial plan was to major in electrical engineering and computer science,” Ethan says. “I changed my mind after my first year to focus on English and computer science because that work felt more significant to me on a personal level – in other words, what I wanted my own life to be about.” Ethan graduated from Oregon State University in spring 2018 with an honors baccalaureate degree (HBA) in English and minors in writing and computer science.
Ethan’s honors thesis also reflects his deep interest in poetry and language; entitled “Go Back to the Ground,” it comprises 31 poems of varying length put together into a cohesive book. The work forms an arc processing grief while exploring familial, religious and literary heritages. It goes on to examine the crossroads between these shared histories and carries recurring themes representing experiences related to homelessness, mental illness and self-discovery.
“The most influential aspect of my honors experience was far and away my thesis,” Ethan says. “It offered me one of the few available opportunities to pursue whatever field I was interested in with institutional support at the undergraduate level; it bought me enough interest from faculty to get my foot in the door; perhaps most importantly, it provided me with the structure I needed to complete an extended project in the vein of what the ‘real world’ expects.”
“It was a special moment of genuine academic freedom,” he says.
The poetry that Ethan writes stems from his own core identity and experiences, though the significance of that influence can be obscure early in the writing process, even to him. His poetry improves and significance shines through, though, when he simply allows the process to happen.
“I first started writing poetry after I encountered the work of writers such as T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg in high school. I was enraptured by the power of the written word to overcome barriers – obstacles of time, geography and social stratification,” he says.
“My writing works best when I remove as many cognitive barriers as possible and allow the subconscious to direct my work and interest. Rarely do I sit down with the goal of writing about one specific idea or theme; instead, I simply pick up where I stopped yesterday and allow my mind to wander. After a while I bookend one of those journeys and look back on what adventures the writing enacted; nearly always I’ll see that I was writing about some specific memory, concern or artistic anxiety the whole time.
“I save all of my work just in case it will prove useful later, but it’s worth noting that by the end of the revision process, almost everything gets relegated to the scrap heap,” Ethan says. “Poetry requires excellence in the smallest scale possible, which means that a finished product is often extremely deceptive about the amount of work and material that went into its generation behind the scenes.”
Outside of his academic and work obligations, Ethan enjoys taking time to relax and appreciate the creative work of others. “I would consider myself a nerd in the classical sense, which means a lot of my free time revolves around absorbing science fiction and fantasy stories in books, movies, television and games,” Ethan says. “I love playing board games with my friends, and I also enjoy outdoor adventures with my dog.”
While Ethan hopes to establish himself in his field and create impactful work, he also recognizes the challenges inherent in that goal: “Poetry is a historic realm of art, and over the millennia, our species has built a towering body of work far taller than any individual could climb on their own. There will always be a deeper level of mastery to pursue or some obscure writer who managed to get to some aspect of human experience before you do. That’s an immense challenge, but if you want to contribute to that legacy rather than just consume it, you need to let that challenge excite and inspire, rather than discourage.
“I want my poetic legacy to be one of genuine, vulnerable self-expression, a poetics relevant for my contemporary community, respectful of those who came before and instructive for those who will follow. It’s only natural to wish the best for one’s family and to create a world where one’s children enjoy a life better than one’s own; I hope to expand this sentiment to the broadest possible population and recognize the shared humanity and worth of every individual,” Ethan says.
“We must love who we were, are and will be: with love comes understanding, and my hope is that by building one of those twin halves, I will lead us one step closer to the other.”
By Christopher McCracken: Student Media Writer, Honors College