Iowa City

Iowa City

123 S Linn St

For 80 years, Iowa City has been teaching the world to write. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa pioneered the teaching of creative writing at the university level. Dozens of creative programs within the university and the city followed. The newest chapter in this tradition is Iowa City’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature.

Literary Reference

“This Was Iowa”

A feverish air seemed to wave from the flowers.
They opened their charred blossoms; light
curled, uncurled; inside the gold eyes, pollen, sand,
a lifting cane of thin bone.

I was looking at an art book on Georgia O’Keeffe
across from the First National Bank in Iowa City

I didn’t want to get lost in there, so I stared away
getting familiar in a small town.

Herrera, Juan Felipe. This Was Iowa. University of Iowa. Web. (PDF)


Abraham Verghese meets John Irving

One night there was a big reading in Iowa City by John Irving, the author of The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp. The famous novelist’s real purpose in town was to watch an NCAA wrestling tournament. But Irving went to a student party, where the apprentice writers put out some chips and beer in a dirty apartment and, out of intimidation, were slow to approach him. Verghese introduced himself to the author, who, as it happened, was researching a novel called A Son of the Circus, a story about a doctor trying to find his way in India. Verghese had found a mentor, and a friendship took root.

Reid, Jan. “The Good Doctor.” Texas Monthly, Dec 2004.


Andre Dubus and Robert Lacy at Marv’s Tavern

Robert Lacy remembers his time in Iowa, in his essay “Richard Yates in Iowa”: 

Marv’s was where he gathered with some of his students–Jim Crumley, Andre Dubus, Jim Whitehead, Ted Weesner, myself, others–after class. We looked forward to those gatherings in Marv’s, but not as much as Yates seemed to. We married students had wives and kids to go home to, and he didn’t. It was something he used to remark on: “Guess you guys are leaving, huh?” he’d say. “Got to get home to the little woman, right? Nobody wants to have another one with me? Just one?”

“Better not, Dick,” we’d say, and out we would go, leaving him sitting in the booth alone.

Lacy, Robert. “Richard Yates in Iowa.” The Sewanee Review.  vol. 118, no. 3, 2010, 422-428.


Charles Wright on his first year at the Workshop

Charles Wright recalls his time in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in an interview in Yale Daily News:

I just showed up having gotten into the [University of Iowa] English department, so my name was down, but I never sent in a manuscript. If I had, I would never have gotten in. So I just signed up for the classes and went to the first workshop. Kept doing that for two years. That’s it. It turned out that I told them that I’ve never gotten in — which didn’t surprise the teachers at all— but each one thought the other one let me in. It was very laissez-faire in those days. Not as structured as it is now. I had more fun in Iowa City than in any other place I’ve ever had in America. I really liked Iowa a lot.

Potash, Jacob. “Charles Wright: Self-Made Poet.” Yale Daily News. Yale Daily News, 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 12 July 2016


Gerald Stern, Haki R. Madhubuti, Marvin Bell, and James Galvin reading

Poets Gerald Stern, Haki Madhubuti, James Galvin, and Marvin Bell reflect on the state of American poetry during the Contemporary American Poetry Seminar panel discussion at The University of Iowa on September 8, 1983.

Haki Madhubuti argues that poetry is ‘an endangered species’ in America.


The University of Iowa Libraries, Virtual Writing University Archive: https://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/islandora/object/ui%3Avwu_350


James McPherson’s Love for Iowa City

…gradually [McPherson] began to connect with his Iowa City neighbors, with colleagues, and with students, and to see in Iowa City the basis of a spiritually centered democracy. “I have many friends here,” he wrote, “black and white and other … I am confident that here I am first of all a person, a human being. I have been accepted into the life of the community. I have open and free access to what in this community has meaning and value”.

DeWitt. “About James Alan McPherson.” Ploughshares at Emerson College. Emerson College in Boston, 2008. Web. 21 May 2016.


Jane Smiley in Iowa City

Here are things I would not have done if I had not spent all of that time in Iowa City:

  • given birth to my three children;
    written The Greenlanders, Barn Blind, A Thousand Acres, and The Age of Grief (at least);
    taught at Iowa State University;
    married the fathers of my children.

I do not in fact know what I would have done, or who I would have been as an adult if I hadn’t lived in and around Iowa City for nine years.


From Jane Smiley’s Iowa City Days on the Writing University website


John Irving and Andre Dubus in Iowa City

John Irving remembers his time in Iowa, in the collection Trying to Save Piggy Sneed:

Andre Dubus and James Crumley were also students at the Writers’ Workshop then. I remember a picnic at Vance Bourjaily’s farm, where a friendly pie-fight ensued; Dubus or Crumley, bare-chested and reasonably hairy, was struck in the chest by a Boston cream pie. Who threw the pie, and why, escapes my ever-failing memory–I swear I didn’t do it.



Irving, John. Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. Garp Enterprises Ltd. (1996).


Jorie Graham on her time in Iowa City

From the Paris Review, interviewed by Thomas Gardner



Well, in the same way the double self-portraits in The End of Beauty were written out of literally being “double” while pregnant—being a person housing another, trulyother, person—another soul than one’s own, another body, another destiny, a different heart.


This was in Iowa City?


Yes. The early years in Iowa City. Getting up at night to feed her, put her back down, and then going to my typewriter with the terrible postpartum fear that I would never write again, not truly or deeply, and then feeling the black windowpanes holding the sleeping town and all its dreamers. It was as if I could feel all the dreams floating over the bodies in all the rooms in that town—and that silence full of dream beginning to pull that book out of me, beckoning, allowing me back into the ancient stream via dream and myth and listening while others slept. A roving consciousness over a sleeping world. That’s what Iowa was like, for me, in those years. It was not merely “not Washington,” or “not Rome.” It was the unimaginably mysterious life of mothering.


You began teaching at Iowa?


Yes. I had taught elsewhere, but at Iowa I began learning to be the teacher I became. I made some mistakes. But I loved teaching.


In Iowa I still felt very attached as a citizen—a mother scribbling notes on drafts as I waited in the car to get whatever group of kids I was responsible for to their next activity—and God knows I wrote a couple of books sitting in the car waiting for this or that lesson to be done: sports, math, music, Latin.

Gardner, Thomas. “Jorie Graham, The Art of Poetry No. 85.” The Paris Review. N.p., 30 Nov. 2018. Web. 03 Dec. 2018.


Margaret Walker lecture on Richard Wright, July 30, 1971

In this archive in the Virtual Writing University Archive, Margaret Walker gives a lecture on Richard Wright at the University of Iowa in 1971.

She starts off her talk expressing her joy at being back in town:  “I’m delighted to be in Iowa City again, if only for one day. And to spend two nights in that house, where I was able to finish Jubilee. I’m very happy to see so many Iowa friends again, before I begin this long sojourn across the water. But I’m also very happy to be a member of the very distinguished company of scholars, and lecturers who have been here talking to you in the last two weeks about Richard Wright.”

Listen to the archive here

“Margaret Walker Alexander lecture on Richard Wright, July 30, 1971.” Virtual Writing University Archive, http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/ictcs/id/26851/rec/1.


Marquis Childs Commencement Speech

Marquis Childs gave the 1969 commencement speech at The University of Iowa. The picture accompanies a Daily Iowan article about the commencement, printed in June, 1969.

The University of Iowa Special Collections


Mo Yan in Iowa City

NEH Chairman Jim Leach interviewed author Mo Yan in October during the Second U.S.-China Cultural Forum at the University of California–Berkeley.

MO YAN: I stayed in Iowa for two weeks. I knew every street, and I went to every restaurant there. I met Paul Engle and his wife, Hualing Nieh Engle, who is my good friend. Iowa is a lot of cornfields. While I was there, I misbehaved by American standards, I think. I went to a cornfield, and I picked up some corncobs, and I brought them to the hotel and boiled them and ate them. Iowa feels warm and familiar because it’s a lot like my home village. So I think my work will have friends in Iowa who will recognize the similar background and environment.

“The Real Mo Yan.” National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), www.neh.gov/humanities/2011/januaryfebruary/conversation/the-real-mo-yan.


Notley on Poetry in Iowa City

I started writing poems as soon as I started meeting poets and hearing poets read their work, immediately after I arrived in Iowa.

When I got to Iowa and began to write poems, I think I had finally discovered how to compose on some level; I was composing the poems.  They proceeded harmonically and were both emotional and abstract.  I of course would never have said this at the time.  The second poetry reading I attended was by Bob Creeley, and I was tremendously impressed by his musicality and the fact that I couldn’t understand him and didn’t at all mind that.

Brown, Laynie. “A Conversation with Alice Notley on the Poet’s Novel.” Jacket 2, 15 Mar. 2013, jacket2.org/commentary/conversation-alice-notley-poets-novel.


Philip Levine & Sam Hamill reading, Iowa City, Iowa, 1984

Philip Levine & Sam Hamill reading, Iowa City, Iowa, 1984.


Iowa Digital Library, Virtual Writing University Archive


Robert Lowell in Iowa City

In a letter to Allen Tate on March 15, 1950, Lowell describes his life in Iowa City:

All has turned out very well. We are living in a large light room and kitchen, furnished with borrowings, pick-ups, and two packing trunks–our own, and large as garages. The Macauleys are a block down the street, and the Wests a few blocks to the south in a frail brick Wormwood house with urns on the lawn….Every afternoon a pack of very harmless and sorry-looking stray dogs settles on our pathway. This is one of the marks of Iowa City; the others are high-brow movies, the new criticism, a quarter of an inch of ice, and the Benasek murder trial, which Elizabeth is moving heaven and earth to enter as an accredited reporter.

Doreski, William. The Years of Our Friendship: Robert Lowell and Allen Tate. Ch. 3 “Literary Peers.” The University Press of Mississippi: 1990. p 93. Print.