Iowa City became the third UNESCO City of Literature in November 2008.
Iowa City is the cultural capital of the state of Iowa, with an estimated population of 73,000. The city has an impressive literary history, coupled with a flourishing network of university, grassroots and civic institutions with enthusiastic approaches to teaching and nurturing great writing.
The city is known for being home to Iowa State’s first public institution of higher learning in The University of Iowa, which was founded in 1847. The highly acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the world’s first Master of Fine Arts degree program in creative writing. Iowa City and the University of Iowa have played a substantial role in how literature, first in America and then around the world, has come to be written.
10 Things to Know About Iowa City
- 1. The University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop
- The University of Iowa was founded in 1847 and is currently home to over 31,000 students. It is the oldest University within the state of Iowa, carrying out an impressive level of research within the sciences and arts.
It is world-renowned for its highly acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, founded in 1936 as the world’s first Master of Fine Arts degree program in creative writing. The MFA degree workshop concept has spread to more than 300 hundred American universities and to universities in numerous other countries.
In a more physical sense, The University of Iowa Centre for the book combines the artistry that is bookmaking with research into the rich history of books, ensuring that there is a continual development and emphasis on the importance of the physical book.
- 2. The International Writing Program
- The International Writing Program is the University of Iowa’s writing residency for international artists which combines both the talent of national and international individuals, creating diversity within literature that allows authors to successfully work alongside one another.
It serves to introduce local authors to the influence of cultures worldwide by hosting reading tours and providing access to a wide range of archival and pedagogical materials.
- 3. City of Authors
- More than 25 Pulitzer Prizes in literature have been won by graduates and faculty of the University of Iowa since 1955.
Authors who have lived, taught and studied in the city include Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Rita Dove, Jane Smiley, Robert Hass, John Irving, Flannery O’Connor, and T.C. Boyle, many of whom were graduates from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
- 4. Literary Festivals
- Iowa City is home to several exciting literary festivals, each serving to strengthen the city’s literary talent and appreciation.
The Iowa City Book Festival is run over the course of four days each October and is organized by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature as a celebration of books and writing. The festival always features a variety of events on translation, international writing, contemporary fiction, children’s literature, author panels, readings, and many more literary topics.
Also hosted by Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature is the annual One Book Two Book festival of children’s literature. The festival not only acknowledges the work of successful children’s authors, but also aims to champion writing by children themselves, as a means of encouraging local children to be interested in books and the art of writing.
The Iowa Summer Writing Festival brings together writers from across the world, of different ages and with an interest in different genres. The festival provides a variety of workshops for writers, encouraging literary conversations between budding writers both local and international.
The Mission Creek Festival runs each year in April, motivated by a desire to strengthen the artistic and cultural community within the city and beyond. It is organized by Iowa City’s Englert Theatre and offers a programme of exciting events: lectures, readings, music and comedy, film screenings, to name but a few.
- 5. Literary Prizes and Contests
- Iowa City celebrates Paul Engle’s birthday annually; a poet widely known for his best-selling book of poetry, American Song, Engle worked determinedly to build the reputation of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and was successful in getting writers such as Philip Roth to the city. In 2000, Paul Engle was declared Iowa’s Poet of the Century, and his birthday was designated Paul Engle Day.
Paul Engle’s popularity therefore led Iowa City of Literature to set up two projects in his name: the Paul Engle Prize and the Glory of the Senses High School Project. The Paul Engle Prize seeks to reward a writer who is has created a forward and positive change within the world of writing, both on and off the page. Glory of the Senses High School Project annually invites essays from Iowa High School students on the subject of personal experiences of Iowa. The winner of this award receives one year of free tuition to the University of Iowa, with the runners up receiving a $500 scholarship.
- 6. Projects and Programmes
- Iowa City’s Poetry in Public Project is currently in its 14th year, a celebration of the literary tradition with Iowa City and the local writing talent it encourages. Poems by writers from the city are displayed in a variety of public spaces, such as buses and on the side of buildings.
Iowa City also takes part in the Hawkeye Reader’s Program, a four-week program that runs between the months of January and April. The program takes place within schools and is run by teachers, with the successful reader being rewarded with a ticket to a RedHawks baseball game during 2016.
- 7. Publishing
- Iowa City is home to 11 literary presses, providing a variety of publication materials from this creative city.
Penfield Books is devoted to providing texts from Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Irish, Italian, Mexican, Norwegian, Polish, Scandinavian, Scottish, Slovak, Swedish, and Ukrainian cultures, and was founded in 2001. In 2009, the press was a Midwest Independent Publishers Association (MIPA) 2008 prize-winner for their License to Cook Missouri Style.
The University of Iowa Press, established in 1979, is an academic publisher working in a wide range of exciting genres. They also publish the winners of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Iowa Poetry Prize.
- 8. Libraries
- The University of Iowa library system is celebrated as Iowa’s largest library, made up of Main Library, the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, five branch libraries, and the Law Library, all of which combined contain more than 5 million volumes.
The Iowa City Public Library was founded in 1896, and was expanded and renovated in 2004. The library offers a wide range of books, from fiction to non-fiction, as well as music, videos, unique collections of art and games, as well as an exciting calendar of literary events for both adults and children.
- 9. Bookshops
- Prairie Lights Books appeared in Iowa City in 1978, then providing a small collection of novels and short story collections from both emerging and established authors. A literary salon called the Times Club used to be held in the 1930s where the bookshop and café now stands, attracting such literary luminaries as Langston Hughes and Gertrude Stein as regulars. Connected to the bookstore is the exciting Live From Prairie Lights. This reading series takes place within the bookstore and has played host to readers such as Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen, James Galvin, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Bharati Mukherjee, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, and David Sedaris, to name but a few.
Prairie Light Books is not the only store of interest to booklovers. There is also Haunted Books, established in 1978 and boasting an impressive collection of over 50,000 titles; Beat the Bookstore that specialises in the buying and selling of school textbooks, Murphy-Brookfield Books and the ever-popular Barnes & Noble.
- 10. World Book and Copyright Day
- The City of Iowa has celebrates World Book Day over the years by hosting a Community Book Talk, wan event which sees writers, readers, bookshop owners, students and faculty staff of the University come together to discuss the importance of literature and the influence their favourite book has had on them throughout their lives.