Iowa City: City of Literature

One Book Two Book Children's Literature Festival
© Iowa City / UNESCO City of Literature

In 2008, Iowa City was designated by UNESCO as the third City of Literature in the world. In this interview with Annika Depping, John Kenyon, the executive director of The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, reported about Iowas international connections and the development of the Creative Cities Network over the time.

What makes your city a City of Literature and since when does it have the title?

Iowa City was designated by UNESCO in 2008 as the third City of Literature in the world. Iowa City was designated in large part because of its role in teaching the world to write. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa pioneered the teaching of creative writing at the university level, and for more than 80 years, the Workshop and dozens of creative programs within the university and the city have continued to foster the creativity of writers. The city has become a place for writers: a haven, a destination, a proving ground, and a nursery.

More about the UNESCO City of Literature Iowa City

With which projects did your city apply for the title City of Literature?

When Iowa City applied, the process was very different. We created a dossier that outlined the reasons why our city was qualified for the designation, and because there was really no network at the time (we were among the first dozen cities to join the Creative Cities Network), we were among the cities that worked to unlock the benefits of connecting with creative cities around the world.

 


We often say that we didn’t need UNESCO to tell us that we were a City of Literature. That is something evident to anyone who spends time here.


What were your first steps after receiving the title?

The group that assembled to put together our application formed a non-profit organization to manage the designation on behalf of the city. That organization looked for ways to leverage the designation, created a slate of programs to celebrate our literary heritage and future, and connected with the other cities in the network. All of that work continues today.

How did it continue from there?

That organization is governed by a board of directors with members that represent various constituencies within the community. It meets regularly to oversee operations. Beyond that, we have a schedule of programs that are held annually.

Which international relations and projects emerged for your city after joining the Creative Cities Network?

There aren’t specific projects or partnerships that I would point to; the designation provides ongoing opportunities for our city and the creative people who live here to participate in programs and projects in and initiated by other cities. Our writers participate in residencies, have been selected for publication projects, have contributed to public art displays and more. We seek to partner with other cities when the project fits with our goals and when timing and budgets allow. We have created strong relationships with the City of Literature offices in the other cities, and these have led to a greater awareness of ways the designations and the resulting connections can be leveraged for our mutual benefit.


Ours is a world that benefits when we know more about one another. Cultural exchange is one of the best ways to accelerate this learning process.


Iowa City Book Festival
© Iowa City / UNESCO City of Literature
One Book Two Book Children's Literature Festival
© Iowa City / UNESCO City of Literature

In your opinion, what are the benefits of such a cultural exchange?

Ours is a world that benefits when we know more about one another. Cultural exchange is one of the best ways to accelerate this learning process. Artists and writers who travel become ambassadors on behalf of their own cities and countries, and teachers who can share their experiences elsewhere upon their return. The best way to learn about another country is to visit, of course, but the next best way is to see it through the eyes of someone skilled at recording, synthesizing and interpreting what they see and experience. Such exchanges are a significant benefit of our network.

What tips and suggestion do you have for Bremen’s application?

If Bremen earns the designation, I would encourage those leading the effort to spend time learning about the network and getting to know the other cities. Find out how others have approached this and learn from their successes and failures. At the same time, find ways to harness the energy and excitement around the designation locally to raise awareness in the broader community about the literary sector. Many people will have ideas of what can be done, so take the time to explore those and find those that make the most sense. No one has unlimited budgets or time, so choices will need to be made. This is not a fleeting thing; membership in the network is an ongoing commitment, so approach this work with that in mind.

What do you associate with Bremen?

I have never been to Bremen, but as a music fan, I know many of my favorite artists have performed or recorded there, particularly in the world of jazz. Thus, I know it is a city that embraces and celebrates culture. I do not know about literary Bremen, and look forward to learning more.

John Kenyon

is executive director of The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization. He grew up in Des Moines, graduated from the University of Iowa and lives in Iowa City.

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