Which writer first compared Iowa to heaven?
For THE DES MOINES REGISTER, Kyle Munson wonders whether Iowa City poet Dave Morice or “fellow Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumnus W.P. Kinsella of SHOELESS JOE and FIELD OF DREAMS fame,” first compared Iowa to heaven?
Morice remembers sharing an informal writing group with Kinsella in the late 1970s. The writers met weekly at a local rec center.
Morice culled through 15,000 pages of his work for his newly published thematic collection, “Poetry City: A Literary Remembrance of Iowa City, Iowa.” That’s how he and his editor, Joye Chizek, unearthed his 1974 poem “The Bugs of Johnson County”:
Insects outnumber us by the octillions.
They are in love with each other.
The planet is a plant.
The universe is a garden.
I’m a gardener.
And I love it.
You live here too.
Or you don’t.
Wild ideas fill the heads of insects.
They get carried away by their passion for life.
Is this Heaven?
No, just count the bugs. It’s Iowa!
Poet Dave Morice, as “Dr. Alphabet,” types poetry from atop the Jefferson Building in downtown Iowa City in 1979 in one of his many poetry marathons. (Photo: The Des Moines Register)
Kinsella didn’t even arrive in Iowa City until 1976. Before leaving with his master of fine arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1978, he had written the bones and read aloud portions of what would become the novel “Shoeless Joe.” It was published in 1982.
The title character, a ghostly baseball player, speaks with Iowan Ray Kinsella early in the book:
“God what an outfield,” he says. “What a left field.” He looks up at me and I look down at him. “This must be heaven,” he says.
“No. It’s Iowa,” I reply automatically.
And then of course Ray Liotta asked Kevin Coster, “Is this heaven?,” in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” cementing it into our culture.
W. P. Kinsella (photo: Ed Steers)
I phoned Kinsella at home in Canada, northeast of Vancouver. He remembered Morice but not “The Bugs of Johnson County.”
I read him the complete poem.
“I’ve never heard of that at all,” he said.
I wasn’t shocked. I can’t remember everything I wrote — much less read — a year ago. So I wouldn’t expect Morice or Kinsella to recall a seven-stanza poem nearly 40 years later.
Was “Is this heaven?” somehow fluttering around Iowa City’s literary atmosphere in the ’70s when Kinsella captured it and sealed its fate?
Who knows. To be clear, I’m not calling Kinsella, 80, a plagiarist. I’m merely saying that the origins of one of Iowa’s signature movie catchphrases might be more complicated and interesting than we assumed — and would be par for the course considering the creative Petri dish that was Iowa City in the 1970s.
Read the rest of Munson’s article at THE DES MOINES REGISTER.
For more info about THE ESSENTIAL W. P. KINSELLA, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover art by Thomas Canty.
Cover design by Elizabeth Story.