Literary Boroughs #21: Iowa City, IA

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the twenty-first post on Iowa City, Iowa, by Joe Fassler. – Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

“Iowa City was a pleasant town, built in the shadow of the university along a slow river. Some of the straight, tree-lined, sun-splashed residential streets reminded Emily of illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post…”

—Richard Yates, “The Easter Parade”

 “‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it,’ they said, ‘but don’t tell anyone. They’ll spoil it.’ ”

—John Cheever, “An Afternoon Walk in Iowa City, Iowa”




Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, is a small college town set out deep in the corn. Thirty thousand people live here year-round, and the campus draws thirty thousand more during the year. The central waterway is a lazy, sun-bright river that snakes behind a clutch of campus buildings (though it’s too polluted with farm runoff to fill, like the gorges of Ithaca and lakes of Madison, with hollering students in swimwear.)

Downtown lies at the axis of Washington and Dubuque streets, and the storefronts tend to house bookstores, fashion shops, and bars. Iowa City also boasts a pretty, if small-sized, pedestrian mall where paved streets turn to walker-friendly brick. Tramps and loiterers tend to linger there: ragged hobos passing through, howling street guitarists, muttering homeless men with streaming Whitman beards. The students’ black-and-yellow sweatsuits do not hide their beer weight.

Iowa City’s literary centerpiece is the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (referred to around here simply as “The Workshop”). It’s the oldest graduate writing program in the country, and it pioneered the model most others use. The program’s many famous former students and instructors haunt this place like ghosts: Flannery O’ Connor, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Gail Godwin, Grace Paley, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Barry Hannah, and Richard Yates, to name a few. Over time, Iowa City has given rise to many other distinguished writing programs and institutions. UNESCO recently recognized Iowa City’s contributions by naming it an international “City of Literature” (the only one in North America).

Resident Writers

Iowa City is thick with writers: you’ll run into Marilynne Robinson shopping for produce at our local food co-op, say, or spot Ethan Canin riding his thin silver scooter across town.

Other full-time writers include Marvin Bell, Joe Blair, Lan Samantha Chang, John D’Agata, James Galvin, Robin Hemley, Daniel Khlastchi, Mark Levine, Stephen Lovely, Dora Malech, James Alan McPherson, Christopher Merrill, Chris Offutt, Jen Percy, Marc Rahe, Robin Schiff, Mary Helen Stefaniak, and Nick Twemlow.

A shifting cast of itinerant writers live in Iowa City to serve out Visiting Faculty positions (recent guests include Wells Tower, Kevin Brockmeier, and Paul Harding).

Distinguished living graduates who frequently return to town include Jane Smiley, Allan Gurganus, and ZZ Packer.

Literary references

Iowa City has been depicted many times by writers (notably the Cheever essay and Richard Yates short story quoted above).

Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five here while he was a visiting professor at the Writers’ Workshop—the novel makes a handful of oblique references to Iowa City. An original Vonnegut painting hangs in Jim McPherson’s office at the Workshop; in the inscription, Vonnegut calls Iowa City his “spiritual home.”

John Irving’s The Water-Method Man, about a University of Iowa wrestler, is largely set in Iowa City.

Many of the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son are set in and around Iowa City. Johnson was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa and a poetry graduate student at the Writers’ Workshop. Locals say the title of his most famous story, “Emergency,” was inspired by the huge, blood-red sign that announces Mercy Hospital on Gilbert Street.


Workshop graduate T. C. Boyle wrote a short story called “The Women’s Restaurant” featuring a restaurant in Iowa City that does not allow men. Boyle atteneded the Writers’ Workshop.

Nam Le’s “Love and Compassion and Sacrifice,” the leadoff story in his collection The Boat, is narrated by a fictional Workshop student and is set in Iowa City.

Lan Samantha Chang, who directs the Writers’ Workshop, wrote All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost about a fictitious writing program; the novel’s program and unnamed university town share (very) close parallels with the Workshop, several of its former faculty, and Iowa City.

John McNally’s novel After the Workshop tells the story of a poorly-employed Writers’ Workshop graduate living in Iowa City.

Earl M. Rogers has compiled a comprehensive list of literary references to Iowa City. Many references are oblique and/or trivial, and the list lacks more recent references, but it’s an interesting and thorough resource.

Where to Learn

In recent years, the University of Iowa has branded itself as The Writing University to highlight its many writing programs and literary resources. A full list can be found here.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the University’s oldest and best-known program, established in 1936. The workshop offers a two-year Master of Fine Arts in Fiction or Poetry.


The Nonfiction Writing Program is a top non-fiction MFA Program with an excellent funding package: students are fully funded, through teaching positions, for three years.

The International Writing Program is a six-month residency for writers who live outside the U.S. Every fall the program brings roughly 60 writers from across the globe. Founded in 1967 by Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle, the IWP was the first writers’ residency to reach out across national borders.

The Iowa Playwrights Workshop is a three-year MFA program for playwrights entering the world of professional theatre.

The Program in Translation, an MFA program offered by the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, is for students dedicated to the art of literary translation.

A new addition to the University of Iowa, the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing is for literary writers working in Spanish.

Students at the Center for the Book learn how to make artisan chapbooks and handmade bookish art-objects.

The University of Iowa has a selective-admission Creative Writing Track for undergraduate writers.

The Greenhouse Writers’ Workshop is a non-degree creative writing program with in-person classes and manuscript consultation. (Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder.)

High-school writers from all over the world come to Iowa City every summer for The Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, a two-week intensive program.

Where to Find Reading Material

Iowa City’s bookstores-per-capita ratio has got to one of the highest in the nation.

Prairie Lights (@Prairie_Lights), the city’s flagship store, is one of the best independent bookstores in the nation with readings every night of the week. It’s not uncommon for publishers to send their readers to New York, Chicago, LA, and Prairie Lights. Its terrific literary selection is curated by owner Jan Weismiller, a workshop graduate, and book buyer Paul Ingram. (His bookclub is first-rate.)


The Haunted Bookshop is the city’s best used bookstore. There are shelves and shelves to pore over here, not to mention an in-tune piano (you can play, but “Heart and Soul” or “Chopsticks” will get you banned) and a pair of cats.


Murphy Brookfield is another great used bookstore specializing in academic books and literary paperbacks.

The first floor of Iowa Book (@IowaBook) is devoted to Hawkeye paraphernalia, but don’t let it fool you: downstairs has a good literary selection, and great sales on overstock fiction.

The Book Shop is a well-kept secret, and definitely worth a visit. Off the beaten track on the far end of Dubuque Street, it’s located in the first floor of a house. If you like stores with the hoarder vibe, this one’s for you—books used and rare are stacked on every conceivable surface.

Uptown Bill’s, a local non-profit staffed by individuals with disabilities—and where delinquent undergraduates often serve their community service hours—has several used bookshops in town. The prices are unbeatable: dollar hardcovers, fifty-cent paperbacks.

Daydream Comics: bulk up on your Marvel and manga at Iowa City’s only comic shop.

The University of Iowa Library (@UILibraries) is near downtown. It’s cheery as a jail, but there are millions of volumes and some great special collections—including one of the nation’s best archives of handmade zines.

The Iowa City Public Library (@ICPL) is a distinguished institution with some great programming and an amazing children’s literature section.

Where to Get Published

In addition to the University of Iowa Press, our local academic publisher, Iowa City has a lot of great publishing companies and journals.

The Iowa Review (@IowaReview) is an esteemed literary journal staffed by students in the University’s graduate writing programs.

Canarium Press @Canarium Books publishes books of poetry by authors like Cole Swensen, Suzanne Buffam, and Anthony Madrid. It’s officially produced by the University of Michigan’s MFA Program, but two of the senior editors, Nick Twemlow and Robin Schiff are based and Iowa City and the press has a strong presence here.

The Examined Life is a print journal of literary medical-themed writing sponsored by Iowa’s Writing and Humanities Program at the Carver College of Medicine.

Rescue Press publishes beautiful books of poetry and short fiction.

Strange Cage and Lightful Press produce excellent poetry chapbooks.

The Claudius App (@TheClaudiusApp), a digital journal run by Workshop graduates, publishes print- and audio-format poetry by writers like Geoffrey G. O’Brien and Rod Smith.

Little Village (@LittleVillage), the city’s alt-monthly, published essays, reviews, and poetry.

Other local presses include Autumn Hill Press, Rescue Press, Ice Cube Press, Empyrean Press, Candle Light Press, FuturePoem Books, Catenary Press, Slim Princess Holdings, The Human 500, Anomoulous Press, Cosa Nostra Editions, Uncanny Valley, and Petri Press.

Other local journals include  LVNG, The Examined Life, The Wapsipinicon Almanac, 91st Meridian, The Daily Palette, and The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review,

Two student-run journals are earthwords and Ink Lit Mag.

Where to write

Most Iowa Citian writers spend at least a few writing sessions a week at the café upstairs in Prairie Lights.  The Stumptown coffee is served jitter-strong, the pastries (courtesy of Deluxe Bakery) are delicious, and shelves are stocked with a great selection of current literary magazines. It can be crowded, especially when school is in session, so go early.


The Java House (@TheJavaHouse) is an Iowa City institution—a huge cave of a place that serves decent coffee, lots of heavy wood chairs and tables, writers and students bent over laptops.


Hole up in a both at The Hamburg Inn, a greasy-spoon on Linn St. The Hamburg’s wild popularity with locals makes has made it a major Midwest political stopover: walls are lined with photographs, going back to Carter and Reagan, of the national politicians who’ve stopped in to meet and greet the folks. Food and coffee are dirt cheap. Get some work done and treat yourself to a pie shake (which is exactly what it sounds like).

Food is an afterthought at the Bluebird Diner, but the space is sunny, the servers are friendly, and the coffee flows freely.

I’ve had a good time writing mornings at the Deadwood, a downtown bar on Dubuque Street. It’s a dark oak bar that’s crowded at night but largely empty when they open at 9 AM. The terrible coffee is free for students with ID, and the antics and conversation of early morning boozers sometimes provides material. Get some work in before the jukebox starts blaring (most days, around 2 PM).

If you like your writing space Spartan and unfancy, there are hordes of depressing little carrels in the University Library. The Iowa City Public Library is a little brighter.

The Iowa River, as I mentioned above, is too polluted for swimming, but it makes a nice backdrop for writers with the discipline to work outdoors. Take a lawn chair and a book or notebook.

College Green Park, up a small hill on Washington Street, inspired some good poems during my time in the Workshop. There are benches and a pavilion and little sparrows flit about.


You can catch some local literary talent almost any night of the week in Iowa City. The University of Iowa and the Englert Theatre frequently bring distinguished guests, but there are several local showcases that occur regularly. The Writers’ Workshop’s series, Talk Art, features two 2nd year students every Wednesday. The Anthology Series, which pulls readers from the University’s graduate writing programs, assembles a lineup of eight writers every other Friday. The Strange Cage Reading Series is a good poetry-only series that runs Fridays. Local artspace Public Space One also hosts regular literary performances.

Prairie Lights’ first rate reading series, Live at Prairie Lights, takes place in the bookstore’s 2nd floor every day at 7 p.m. Catch your big-name touring authors here.

The Iowa City Book Festival, a collaboration between the University of Iowa Press and the University Libraries, takes place in July every year. Dozens of writers come to town for readings; recent guests include Jane Smiley, Donald Ray Pollock, and Dean Bakopolous.

The Lit Show (@thelitshow), a literary interview/performance show run by graduate writing students, is broadcast weekly on KRUI Radio. Past guests include Nicholson Baker, Lydia Davis, Chuck Klosterman, and Wells Tower, as well as many local Iowa City writers. (Full disclosure: I founded the program).

April’s Mission Creek Festival (@ MissionCreekIC) brings amazing writers and musicians to town for a week in late March and early April. In the past, the Fest has brought writers like Sam Lipsyte, Benjamin Percy, and John Waters (not to mention musicians like Thurston Moore, Jeff Tweedy, and The Magnetic Fields).

Joe Fassler, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and Stanford University. His fiction and nonfiction appear in The Atlantic, The Boston Review,, Third Coast, and other publications. In 2010, his investigative journalism for was a finalist for The James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.  He founded The Lit Show, a literary interview show broadcast on KRUI Radio Iowa City. You can find him in Brooklyn, New York and on Twitter, @joefassler

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