Fifty years ago the West Coast blossomed into a summer of love while oppression and frustration boiled over into days of rioting in Detroit. In Iowa City, Paul and Hualing Nieh Engle laid the groundwork for the literary world to come to Iowa. Ever since then, every fall, dozens of distinguished writers from all over the world spend a residency in Iowa in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP.) Many of IWP’s events occur during the weekend, so if you are in Iowa City for a football game, field hockey match, a Hancher show, an exhibition at the museum of art, or a performance at the Englert, you can make it to one of these literary events.
The formula is simple. For most of September and October, there will be a 5 p.m. Friday reading by two of the writers on the university campus at Shambaugh House. On Sundays, at 4 p.m. one of the international writers shares the podium at downtown Prairie Lights bookstore with a graduate student from one of Iowa’s famed and unrivaled writing workshops. You will always encounter a top-notch, usually award-winning writer from another country at these events. You might even encounter a future Nobel Prize winner. Two IWP alums – Mo Yan and Orhan Pamuk – have won literature’s highest honor. The IWP definitely merits to be part of your Iowa City weekend plans.
If you partake, the world will indeed come to you. You can save on your travel budget, and you don’t even need a passport. Thirty-five writers this year hail from nations including Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Egypt, Germany, Guyana, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Macedonia, Mexico, Myanmar, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Tell me how you would ever get to all those countries!
If you are in the Creative Corridor, then two Thursday night events are worth a visit as well. Global Express happens on September 14 at the university’s theatre building when, in an always memorable and inspiring evening, the writers weave writing, theatre, and performance. On October 19, the writers and university dance students present their collaborative concert at Space/Place Theatre in North Hall.
And if you’re coming to the Minnesota (Floyd of Rosedale) football game on October 28, it’s worth coming out a day early to witness the lunchtime “Images of America” in the Iowa City Public Library. In this not-to-be missed annual favorite (lunchtime, October 27,) the writers recount their impressions of the United States and their days as Iowans.
These events are free, and you will intimately mingle with the writers. The authors will not be on some faraway stage as you sit in the nosebleed section of an auditorium. It’s like you'll have a backstage pass or green room privilege at every event.
While you are in Iowa City following writers around, you need to do some writerly things. Buy a book in Prairie Lights. Get some wine or beer at John’s for a picnic. John’s is also a great source for Mast Brother’s chocolate – made by two Iowa City-native brothers now living in Brooklyn, New York. Cross the street from John’s to have a drink in the “writeriest” writerly hangout – Dave’s Fox Head. And then step down half a block to bask in the witty greeting card selections of r.s.v.p. – a paperie. Tell me, when was the last time you were in a paperie?
Take one of those cards you just bought at r.s.v.p. and head to the steps of the Old Capitol or the Benchmarks benches on the pedestrian mall. Or sit on one of the porch swings in Hannah Givler's "Prairie Box," a temporary installation inspired by the foursquare house that used to dot the Iowa landscape. (Shambaugh House also has a porch swing.) There, in one of those cards, compose the first line of your great American novel and mail it off to one of your friends.
Photo by Patrick Muller: Hannah Givler's "Prairie Box," downtown Iowa City