Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2005 | People

Resident Poet: Robert Dana

By Michael Tracy
Iowa's new poet laureate, Robert Dana, believes that poetry has an unwarranted reputation for being too difficult and esoteric, and he's working to help his art reclaim its place in the affection of readers.

Life never stops delivering surprises, according to Robert Dana. This past September, that adage held true for the Coralville resident when Iowa governor Tom Vilsack appointed him the state’s new poet laureate.

"It was a surprise,” says Dana, 54MA, who took over from Marvin Bell, 63MFA. “I was nominated with three other fine writers and I’m honored by the recognition.”

As state poet, Dana will serve a two-year term that will include reading at public events and developing a project to advance public appreciation for his art.

During a career that has spanned some 50 years, Dana has published 13 books of poetry—including his latest, The Morning of the Red Admirals. Poems written during his high school years, Dana says, were marked by a tendency to the “morbid and sappy,” but over time he’s turned his focus to subjects ranging from politics to everyday life. Poems may begin when he’s raking leaves or swimming at the local pool.

"You never know when a phrase or a story will emerge from ordinary work,” he says. "Poems tend to pick you—you don’t pick them. With poetry, every day is like the World Series—you’re just trying to win this one.”

Before retiring in 1994, Dana spent some 40 years as an English professor and poet-in-residence at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, molding the skills of aspiring poets and sharing his expertise in the craft.

"Clarity makes a good writer. It doesn’t matter how profound you are, if people can’t understand you,” says Iowa’s poet laureate. “Every writer has to strip away falseness and make himself vulnerable. He can’t be afraid to use emotion.”

Poetry may be an under-appreciated art, but Dana sees some advantages in that. Without the pressure of strict deadlines, he has freedom to write on his own terms, discovering the nuances and magic of language.

"New words come into play and old words get new meanings, so it helps keep things fresh,” he says. “I want to add to the life of the language.”