by Dick Hakes, courtesy of Iowa City Press-Citizen
Contemporary poetry drew Toby Altman and Izzy Casey from much larger cities — Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively — to the writing-rich environment of Iowa City last year.
And now that love of poetry and appreciation of the poetry community here have led them to launch a unique local public service project.
They call it the Iowa City Suitcase Library. It will lend out volumes of contemporary poetry to anybody interested at no charge, just like a regular library — only working out of a suitcase instead of a building.
“We brainstormed this idea after a poetry seminar by Professor Elizabeth Willis last semester,” says Altman. “We think there is a need for better access to contemporary poetry in Iowa City.”
Altman and Casey are first-year Master of Fine Arts students in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, an accomplishment in itself because only about 5 percent of applicants are accepted. There are currently 38 poetry students in the program, the university reported.
Encouragement for their suitcase library project has come from their instructors and Public Space One, a local nonprofit, artist-run organization.
About 50 enthusiasts attended a poetry reading by local and visiting poets earlier this month to launch the library. The founders have already collected nearly 100 donated volumes for the library, plus the loan of a suitcase to carry them in.
Within the collection are poetry magazines and what are known as “chapbooks,” which are typically homemade or inexpensively printed booklets. The idea of an entire self-continued library “packed up and ready to go” appeals to these graduate students of verse. “It’s easy to manage, store and move,” says Altman.
Their new collection has several books of poetry by local authors, but they seek more. One example is "Instead of Dying," recently published by local poet Lauren Haldeman. "Don’t Call Us Dead" by Danez Smith is typical of the non-local-author contemporary fare.
Casey or Altman will be on hand at a table with the suitcase library during that time, ready to discuss contemporary poetry and poetry books. Checking a volume out for a month requires only leaving a phone number or email address. Both founders of the library are active poets.
“Izzy’s poetry is very funny and very energetic,” Altman interjects.
The two say Iowa City has a vibrant poetry community that, in addition to University programs, includes local alumni who are actively writing poetry, poetry associations and workshops, plus presses and publishing resources.
They would like to expand the scope of their lending library with more volumes and possibly more suitcases to store them in, plus offer readings or other poetry events. “We want this library to grow and create a resource for the community that would continue after we leave,” says Altman.