by Travis Nichols
Kurt was a genius of the Absurd. He saw that mankind was courting doom and was able to blend the spectacle with the horrific so that we laughed and squirmed. He was an original. I once came out of a bar on a fall evening to find Kurt walking quickly down the sidewalk–backwards. One of his favorite jokes was of the guy strapped into the electric chair who is asked if he has any last words and replies, “Yeah, I guess this will teach me a lesson.”
He used to attend our weekly nickel-dime-poker games, stay an hour, drink one beer, lose $10 and leave. Returning at an advanced age to speak in Iowa City, he articulated a doomsday view of planetary changes, then brightened and said, “But hey! This isn’t my problem. I’m outta here.”
While a teacher in the Workshop, Kurt won a Guggenheim. It would allow him to track down the German guards with whom he had survived the Dresden firebombing. A short time later, he was back in town. “Couldn’t you find them?” I asked. “Oh, I found them,” he said. “No one remembers a thing.”
It was George Starbuck who, as Director of the Workshop, hired Vonnegut. George hired Nelson Algren at the same time. Afterward, Algren claimed that Vonnegut’s students preferred Nelson and came to his classes, but the truth was just the reverse. Algren’s students preferred Vonnegut.
This piece originally appeared on the website University of Iowa website, The Writing University, and later with Lilli Carré’s illustrations, in MAKE #6.
Marvin Bell is the author of eighteen books of poetry and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and a winner of the Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. His most recent volume of poetry is Mars Being Red. He has also published Old Snow Just Melting: Essays and Interviews. A member of the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he is the Flannery O’Connor Professor of Letters, he was named Iowa’s first Poet Laureate in March 2000.
Lilli Carré is an interdisciplinary artist and illustrator currently living in Chicago. Her animated films have shown in festivals throughout the US and abroad, including the Sundance Film Festival, and she is the co-founder of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation. She has created several books of comics, most recently the short story collection, Heads or Tails, published by Fantagraphics. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times, Best American Comics and Best American Nonrequired Reading, amongst other places. Her solo exhibition is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until April 15, 2014.