Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2008 | Features

The Modest Genius

By Judy Polumbaum
Even with a half-a-million dollar grant in recognition of his literary prowess, Chicago's "blue-collar bard" remains refreshingly down-to-earth.

Don't expect your typical fish story from Stuart Dybek. Stock narratives—reeling in the big one, the one that got away—are not for him. Dreams and visions are more likely. And the protagonist will be neither the fisherman nor the fish.

Instead, a narrator looking out a window sees a cormorant swept up awkwardly in a current. At first he thinks the bird is injured. Then he realizes the creature is yielding to the water in order to focus on consuming a very large fish. That's it. The narrator offers no interpretation, except that he knows the sight means something, and that someday that meaning may reveal itself.

Dybek, 73MFA, relates this vignette as a highlight of his latest retreat to the Florida Keys, where he spends a month each spring fishing and writing with his friend from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, author Tracy Kidder, 74MFA. This year, the winds were high and the two didn't get out on the water much, nor capture many fish—but, as Dybek tells it, that's not really the purpose.

"Just this image of this powerful swimming bird caught in a current trying to swallow a fish—to have that impressed on your visual memory—is why one goes to places like that," he says.

Dybek's keen sensibility for such transitory moments, and his ability to capture them vividly and magically in fiction and poetry, no doubt are part of what earned him a place in the newest class of MacArthur Fellows—two or three dozen people a year who receive from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation no-strings-attached grants of half-a-million dollars, colloquially known as the "genius" awards.

Like many accomplished writers, Dybek has long made his main livelihood by teaching, while publishing regularly in literary journals and magazines and producing three books of short stories and two volumes of poetry set in the immigrant working-class environs of Chicago where he grew up.

Upon publication of his first short-story collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, in 1980, critics immediately put him in the company of Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and Gwendolyn Brooks. The reviews were "painfully laudatory," he recalls, still sounding appalled to be compared with authors he so admires.

Subsequent story collections, The Coast of Chicago (1990) and I Sailed with Magellan (2003), further validated his powers to evoke Chicago's backstreets in a manner hailed as "fantastic" and "luminous." Chicago radio personality and writer Studs Terkel has called him "our city's blue-collar bard."

His MacArthur award, announced last fall, produced only muted effect on his life. The real impact has been psychic—providing "a stronger sense of possibility," he says. "That sense of the possible is motivating. It reshapes time—the way you divide time and marshal time."

His closest thing to an extravagance—before he'd even gotten the first year's check—was to hire a typist to pull together all his earlier works into a uniform electronic file. The ability to turn down extra teaching was significant, but again, not a major change. After more than two decades on the faculty at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Dybek already had left his full-time professorship for an appointment as a distinguished visiting professor at Northwestern University.

Dybek shrugs off his MacArthur award as "luck." He adds that being pegged as a writer of the "Chicago School" was an assignation he never sought—and one that sometimes feels confining. Chicago served as "an organizing principle" for his books, he says. "I've created a place, but a lot of writers have. I didn't do it consciously; I was just wired that way."

He does grant that his preference for what he calls a "lyrical mode," which hardly begins to capture his idiosyncratic navigations between prose and poetry, might also be a factor. In a timely tribute to his genre-crossing tendencies, the journal Poetry ran its first short story ever, Dybek's "Pink Ocean," in its January 2008 issue.

Time, place, and state of mind have long been mutable in Dybek's writings; and his very appearance teases time as well. Wiry, boyish-looking, blue-jeaned, with short shaggy brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he resembles neither the grandfather he is (he turned 66 in April) nor the literary maestro his work and the string of honors it has earned proclaim him to be.

Product of a Polish Catholic working-class background, Dybek says he became a writer after realizing just how demanding was this one among many dreams and loves: "I wasn't gonna be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, start my own inner-city school, or be a jazz musician and a writer."

One of three brothers, the first in his family to attend college, Dybek studied English literature at Loyola University of Chicago and taught at an elementary school in the Chicago suburbs and then at a high school in the Virgin Islands. He came to Iowa intending to earn a Ph.D. in English education, switching to the Writers' Workshop when it offered him a fellowship.

"I'd never met a writer before I went to Iowa," he says. "What Iowa did for me...." He warns that he's about to sound hokey, then continues: "It changed my life, it really did."

In his latest stint at Northwestern, Dybek taught a creative writing workshop and a film class on "the invention of childhood," the context for much of the ineffable magic he evokes in his fiction and poetry. In childhood, he observes, "the boundaries between the monster world and the parental world are permeable."

Crossing boundaries into alternate realities is a recurring motif in his work. "I'm always looking for the rabbit hole, the entrance, the doorway, through which perception is changed," he says. In his stories, the shift happens suddenly, intensely, mystically, yet the route is likely to be strikingly realistic—be it through inebriation, drugs, sex, religious experience, or an encounter with the arts, particularly music.

Dybek has returned to the UI several times as a visiting professor. He takes such obvious pleasure in teaching that, MacArthur award regardless, he's inclined to keep doing it. "In teaching," he says, "you're forced to articulate things that you wouldn't have done on your own."

He'll be teaching in Prague this summer, and he's also anticipating his first visit to Japan this fall.

In yet another indication that his genius grant hasn't gone to his head, Dybek won't even take credit for the popularity of Japanese translations of his work, attributing it instead to the brilliance of his translator, Motoyuki Shibata. "He knows more about American literature than I do," Dybek says. "It's all him; it isn't me."