‘A Moveable Famine’ by John Skoyles – Poets in Training

‘A Moveable Famine’ by John Skoyles    (2014) – 294 pages


How does one get to be a poet or literary fiction writer in the United States?  There are a few places here that actively encourage literary careers; the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts and Yaddo in Sarasota Springs, New York are three such places.

 “We were hell-bent to become poets and all poets stood in our way.”

 In ‘A Moveable Famine’, John Skoyles remembers his time spent at these places in the 1970s as a young man wanting to become a poet. The names of some of the participants have been changed so I suppose this book is fiction, but it very much has the feel of a memoir.

These coming-of-age memories are presented here in an offhand, slapdash style which mostly avoids the pitfall of sounding pretentious when dropping the names of famous participants and teachers.  Writers such as Denis Johnson, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Creeley, Raymond Carver, and Gregory Corso do pass through these pages.

Although some of these young aspiring poets may lack for money, one thing they do not lack is ambition.   Occasionally they criticize each other:  “He was disparaged as a lunatic and a minor lunatic at that.”

This being the Seventies, a lot of time is spent in smoky bars and hooking up with members of the opposite or same sex.  Most of the participants in these workshops appear to be males.  Females in this memoir are more likely to be seen as potential bed mates than as serious poets themselves.

 “I’m glad you cut all the adjectives and adverbs – they were like sexy cheerleaders distracting from the game. “     

 Since the memories are haphazard, sometimes sound literary advice can be hidden among the rest.  Take the following from Allen Ginsberg.

 “Yes, I still follow movements of my own mind & keep notebook for Musings.  Only raw mind creates surprises, not deliberate calculation – What’s unknown more poetic than conscious known.” –  Allen Ginsberg

 For me, ‘A Moveable Famine’ kind of loses its energy when we switch from Iowa to Provincetown.  Skoyles at Provincetown is no longer a beginner in the poetry racket, and somehow it feels like we are traveling over the same ground as at Iowa with nearly all different characters.  It is difficult for a reader to switch playing fields halfway through a book.  Perhaps it would have been better to limit the memoirs to just Iowa but go a bit deeper with them.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Sounds fascinating. I am particularly interested in reading the Iowa parts, since I grew up in Iowa City. The quote about cutting adjectives and adverbs is priceless. I haven’t heard of this book, and I thank you for this review, because undoubtedly I will seek it.


    • Hi Kat,
      Yes, I’ve read many works of fiction that came out of the Iowa Writers Workshop over the years. I’m looking forward to the release of ‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson this fall, and I always associate her with Iowa even though she wasn’t born there. Her novels always seem kind of ‘Iowa’ to me, in a good way.


      • I agree about Marilynne Robinson! She has lived in Iowa since the ’80s, I think, so she certainly knows what she’s writing about. A great writer–wonderful that she’s writing novels again after the long hiatus.


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