Iowa City’s locally owned bookstore, Prairie Lights, has gained a certain amount of notoriety for their impressive ability to bring writers from all over the world to the store for a reading, always open and free to the public.
Anyone who is at all familiar with Iowa City knows the wonderful feelings associated with attending a Prairie Lights reading. The smell of books, the faint sound of an espresso machine echoing from beyond the closed doors of the coffee shop, the tenderness each reader seems to bring to the mic as they crack open the glossy pages of their book, brand new copies beckoning you to purchase them from the front table.
“Notes from the Underground” was humbly named as four writers from a wide range of genres shared their work. Marcus Brown, Paloma Yannakakis, Katherine Faw, and Richard Hell splayed their selections for the standing-room-only crowd. Works of poetry, fiction, and hints of creative non-fiction. Notes from the Underground might’ve been more aptly named “Raw Emotion: where poetry and fiction meet at poignant, effective language.”
First to read was recent Iowa grad, Marcus Brown. His poem, “Open Letter to My Mentor” is a piece of some length. However, it is clear each word was chosen carefully, painstakingly.
His poem set a tone for the rest of the readers to follow. A tone of intimacy with the audience that was not only effective, but necessary. Brown reminded each audience member why it matters to take a poem off the page and let it live in air.
Paloma Yannakakis is a grad student in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She followed Marcus and read a series of poems her own. Yannakakis’s voice was melodic as it painted vivid pictures spanning several millennia. There is a wise-scope to her work. Her poems, including “The Moth”, create a certain unity between the inner world—exploring the self, and the natural world—exploring details from the minute to the grandiose.
Katherine Faw is a fiction writer whose book, “Ultra-Luminous”, was named a New Yorker Must-Read. Though a first timer in Iowa City, Faw was clearly no stranger to a captivating reading. She read a generous section from “Ultra-Luminous”, explaining the book’s main premise of following a sex worker named “K”.
The selection calls no men by their name but remains heavily about them. Instead, Faw chose to give these characters their own nicknames (i.e. “Art Guy” and “Guy Who Buys Me Things”). The plot of the novel provides a certain air of tragedy to the story, but instead of just drawing upon that sympathy, Faw engages all the senses. Her work is difficult and funny. She engaged the audience at every turn.
The reading closed with Richard Hell. He has written many books of poetry as well as non-fiction. As he tapered up to the mic, he immediately took to establishing a personal connection with the audience. He flipped through pages while telling us of his “creative partner turned bitter enemy” and showcased the slightly slack binding in one of the books from which he had planned to read.
Ultimately, he chose to dazzle with his poetry. His work is brilliant. Expert at elongating a moment, and making that moment worth more, he unapologetically discusses the visceral, the sexy, the awful, and the gruesome. The six poems he read were of alternating lengths but each had their own divine humor. Perhaps most notably, Richard Hell is a writer who asks “the emotional question” of a work. Sometimes, he’ll answer it. Sometimes, he doesn’t. Either way, I was with him the whole way.