Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Iowa Artist Fellow Spotlight: Garth Greenwell

They say writers should write what they know. But Garth Greenwell is more interested in what he doesn’t.

The Iowa City writer drew from a stint in Bulgaria to write his latest novel, “Cleanness,” about an American teacher’s search for love and sex in Sofia, the capital city.

“I love being abroad,” he says. “I love living in another language. To me, being an artist requires a sense of foreignness. Even if you’re writing about the place you were born, you have to find a way to see it as a stranger.”

(Photo: Bill Adams)

Greenwell, who recently received a fellowship from the Iowa Arts Council, moved to Iowa City in 2013 to study at the University of Iowa’s famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He had planned to stay just a couple of years but changed plans when he met Luis Munoz, a poet who leads the university’s graduate creative-writing program in Spanish. They fell in love and bought a house with big oak trees in the yard.

“I feel more settled in Iowa than I’ve felt since I left Kentucky at 16,” says the writer, now 42.

Greenwell learned Spanish so he could speak more freely with Munoz. He picked it up after Portuguese and Bulgarian, plus the German, Italian, French and Latin he studied as a vocal-music student at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and Eastman School of Music in upstate New York. He later turned his attention to poetry and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Harvard but left during his third year to teach high school in Michigan and, eventually, Bulgaria.

These days, he speaks Spanish at home and with many of his friends in Iowa City, who come from all over the world.

“People who don’t live in Iowa often think of it as a very homogenous place,” he says, “but that’s not my experience, certainly not in Iowa City. The immigrant and refugee communities, the Black and queer communities — that diversity is so fundamental to what Iowa City means to me.”

That cultural mix differs from Greenwell’s childhood Kentucky, where he was a self-described “queer kid in the pre-internet South.” He struggled in high school — even failed his freshman English class — before a choir teacher helped him focus on music.

“Looking back,” he says, “I feel extraordinarily lucky that someone crossed my path and gave me this gift of art.”

Many critics have linked Greenwell’s background in music and poetry with his ability to write finely tuned prose, especially about emotions that can be hard to explain. He structured the chapters of “Cleanness,” for example, like a song cycle — a classical form from Germany — and shaped its language in a way the novelist Yiyun Li praised for how it “captures the indefinableness of pain and intimacy, love and alienation, vulnerability and sustainability.” The New York Times called it “incandescent.”

Greenwell hopes to achieve that same level of nuance in his next novel, inspired by Kentucky’s LGBTQ history. He’s been researching this year, between the classes he teaches remotely through Grinnell College.

“I’m discovering all these things about the place where I’m from,” he says.

So like any good writer, he’ll write what he knows — or, more precisely, what he never knew until now.

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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