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National Book Award winner Stern, UI emeritus faculty, prescribes an hour of poetry a day

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- There's nothing like a prestigious literary award to shatter the customarily sedate life of a poet. The Nov. 19 announcement that Gerald Stern, an emeritus faculty member of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, had won the National Book Award attracted 70 phone calls in a single day -- everyone from the New York Times and well-wishing poet friends to his neighbor who pours concrete.

Stern is seizing this moment in the spotlight to send a message back to Iowa: "Remind them that they have the finest writing programs in the world there. Tell them Gerald Stern says for all the farmers, dentists, lawyers and especially the politicians to read poetry for an hour each day. The vibes from the Writers' Workshop will come their way, and it will change their lives for the better."

Stern was at the UI 1982-1995, and admits that he is sometimes sorry he retired. "I didn't have to retire," Stern says. "I don't know where we got the idea that when you get to be 65 you retire. But you have to take two airplanes to get out of Iowa City, and I do a great deal of traveling. So I decided to come back East, where most of my background is, and where my children are."

He now lives in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and occasionally teaches at New York University and Sarah Lawrence College. But Iowa retains a strong presence in his heart. Among his regular contacts at the UI this fall has been visiting faculty member Carl Phillips, who was another of the five 1998 finalists for the National Book Award in poetry.

"I love Iowa, and not only the university," Stern says. "From the very beginning, I have fond memories about the people I met in Iowa -- not merely my colleagues and students, but people of all kinds and professions, from dentists to shopkeepers. And I love the sky and the light in Iowa. In particular I like Iowa City and the Iowa River. I could not have asked for more than I got at the UI."

A positive aspect of Stern's retirement, however, is that shedding the rigorous demands of teaching in the Writers' Workshop has increased his poetic output by at least a third. "I had to work very hard at the UI, much harder than I would have had to work at some other institutions, because the students at the UI are so good that they need a lot of attention," he says ."They are hungry for it
-- greedy for it, in fact. So I spent a great deal of time and energy with students. But I came to relish that and accept it as my life."

Stern says that about half of the poems in his National Book Award-winning volume, "This Time: New and Selected Poems," were written during his time at the UI, and, as a result, Iowa plays a significant role in the work. "I'm extremely sensitive to the immediate physical environment in my poetry, and the Iowa landscape and people were a major part of my poetry for many years," he explains. "It's not that my poems were specifically about them, but they were my surroundings, and they exist in those poems."

Stern has written more than a dozen volumes of poetry and has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. His work has received numerous awards including the Patterson Poetry Prize, the PEN Award, the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize, the Melville Caine Award from the Poetry Society of America, The Lamont Poetry Prize and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets for Distinguished Lifetime Service. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants.

UI Writers' Workshop alumni and faculty who have won previous National Book Awards include Nelson Algren, John Cheever, Robert Penn Warren, Philip Roth, Robert Lowell, William Stafford, Robert Bly, John Berryman, Mona Van Duyn, Flannery O'Connor, Wallace Stegner, John Irving, Mary Lee Settle, Philip Levine, Tracy Kidder, Charles Wright, Bob Shacochis, John Casey and James Tate.

The National Book Awards were established in 1950 and are awarded each year by the National Book Foundation.