Iowa City

Jan Weissmiller

Jan Weissmiller was Prairie Lights Books’ first full-time employee after it opened in 1978 and has been the co-owner (with fellow poet Jane Mead) and poetry buyer since 2008. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1984 and was awarded the Loess Hills Poetry Award for her collection, In Divided Light (Mid-Prairie Books), in 1999. She occasionally teaches at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and reviews poetry for the Boston Review.

Iowa City is a very different place from the one it was when I first arrived as an undergraduate transfer–student from the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1977, thirty-one years before UNESCO designated it the third City of Literature. The downtown area—which spans about six blocks southeast of the original campus buildings that sit atop a hill overlooking the Iowa River—featured two university bookstores, Iowa Book and Supply and the Iowa Memorial Union; numerous coffee shops and bars; three movie theaters; three drug stores, two with soda fountains; as well as men’s and women’s clothing stores; hardware stores; tobacconists; and a small, full-service grocery store. The city was only beginning to see signs of urban renewal, but there was virtually no urban sprawl, and the only restaurant that served a full-course dinner was part of a local Italian American chain called the Brown Bottle.

Since 1847, the city had been home to Iowa State’s first public institution of higher learning, the University of Iowa. And the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing program in this country, had been there since 1931. The fame of the program was already well established: Wallace Stegner had received one of the first degrees in 1932 and was followed over the years by Flannery O’Connor, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, John Irving, James Tate, and T. C. Boyle, to name just a few. John Berryman, Philip Roth, Robert Lowell, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver had all taught there. The town’s literary history was astounding, but the world of academic creative writing outside of it was still small, and an uninformed youth such as myself could still exit the interstate, sixty-five miles west of the Mississippi River, having heard nothing of its history.

I came to the University of Iowa on the advice of a former teacher to finish a BA in history. My first day in town, sitting on the steps outside my academic advisor’s office, I met an undergraduate from Brown University who was spending her junior year “abroad,” not in France but in Iowa City. She had come to study with Frank Conroy, who was teaching in the Workshop that fall, on the recommendation of John Hawkes, who was teaching in the English department at Brown. She explained to me what the Workshop was. I picked up my schedule of courses, went into that meeting with my advisor, and enrolled in a poetry writing class taught by Jorie Graham, who was a graduate student at the time. The following semester I took an undergraduate class offered by the Workshop with Donald Justice and changed my course of study.

Two years later, when I was finishing my BA in history and English, a friend of mine ordered a gift for me—the biography of Maude Gonne titled Lucky Eyes and a High Heart (Bobbs-Merrill, 1978)—from Prairie Lights Books (15 South Dubuque Street), then located in a small space at 102 South Linn Street. When I picked it up, the original owner Jim Harris asked me to work there and then took me to lunch at the Sheepshead Café (long gone now) to convince me. 

The store’s beginnings were modest—Jim’s carpenter friends built all the shelves, which displayed handmade jewelry and hand-thrown pots in addition to a winning combination of classic and contemporary books of fiction, poetry, philosophy, political science, and history—but it quickly gained a reputation among Iowa faculty, becoming a place for a meeting-of-the-minds. In 1983 it moved to its current location at 15 South Dubuque Street, and in 1990 it expanded to the second floor of that building. In 1993 Jim added the café, which, as it turns out, already had a long-standing history: The Iowa State Historical Society alerted us that a literary salon called the Times Club was held there in the 1930s. Grant Wood, the famed painter of American Gothic, was involved in hosting it and brought in speakers such as Robert Frost, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, Stephen Vincent Benet, and Gertrude Stein.

In 2008 I, along with my friend and fellow poet Jane Mead, became the co-owner of Prairie Lights, whose story continues to evolve, its ghosts hovering over the laptops that occupy the Times Club from 9 AM until 9 PM. Yiyun Li, who wrote there almost every day while she was in the Workshop, says it’s where she composed her first collection of stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Random House, 2005). When Dean Young lived in town, he could be found most mornings—no matter how late he had been out the night before—writing poems in the Times Club. The store now houses three full floors of books and has a staff of thirty-four—many of whom are seasoned booksellers who love to hand-sell. Paul Ingram, who’s been an employee since 1989, is the most ubiquitous of these. His fervor is infectious—if you’re in the mood for fervor. It has been suggested that we should have a Paul In/Paul Out sign in the window. If you need some good ideas but happen to hit a “Paul Out” moment, his book-talk videos can be seen on YouTube.

The Workshop is nearly twice as old as it was when I first arrived in Iowa, and larger. The International Writing Program, founded by Paul Engle in 1967, has since been joined by an MFA program in creative nonfiction, an undergraduate creative writing track, and the Iowa Center for the Book, which offers an MFA in book arts. As the program has expanded, so too has the city’s literary offerings, bringing writers from all over to Iowa City throughout the year. The population, as it was in 1977, is still less than one hundred thousand, but the percentage of writers visiting the city has increased exponentially, mainly due to the influx of those attending the several annual festivals that take place.

Each April the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, publisher of the Examined Life—a journal of literary prose and poetry that “intends to deepen and complicate our understanding of healthcare and healing, illness, the human body, and the human condition”—hosts an annual three-day conference of the same name. Featuring keynote speakers such as poet laureate Philip Levine and offering workshops and seminars, the conference focuses on the links between the science of medicine and the art of writing and draws hundreds of people, many of whom have self-published their fiction, essays, and poetry.

The twenty-two-year-old Iowa Summer Writing Festival, which will be held throughout June and July of this year, brings one hundred fifty writers per week to town to take classes in a revolving schedule that spans seven weeks. Amy Margolis, the festival’s director, is a quick-witted woman who coordinates many events with Prairie Lights, which promotes and sells the books by all the writers teaching at the festival and invites those writers to read there during their stay.

Mission Creek Festival features hundreds of participating musicians and artists and draws an audience of over five thousand every spring. The literary arm, dubbed the Mission Creek Literary Series, includes a small press and literary magazine fair, a Lit Crawl, and readings. This year, as part of Mission Creek’s outreach initiatives, the poet and actress Amber Tamblyn worked with high school poets throughout the state of Iowa and—in conjunction with poet Dora Malech of the Iowa Youth Writing Project—spent an afternoon teaching a group of them performance technique for “Was the Word: Poetry Pro-am,” an event featuring master poets and youth poets at the beautifully restored Englert Theater, located on Washington Street around the corner from Prairie Lights. 

Events, such as readings series, are one of the components of being a City of Literature, and while Iowa hosted readings long before the UNESCO designation, it didn’t host nearly as many. When I first came to town, the Workshop sponsored two or three readings per semester. Now, the Workshop and Prairie Lights host four or five weekly readings between them. The Workshop’s reading series, featuring authors such as Nathan Englander, Cathy Hong, and Gary Shteyngart, are held at various venues on campus or at Prairie Lights.

Live From Prairie Lights, an internationally known reading series, takes place upstairs in the bookstore, in a space that accommodates audiences of one hundred to one hundred fifty. Over the years readers have included Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen, James Galvin, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Bharati Mukherjee, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, and David Sedaris, to name a few. For eighteen years those readings were broadcast over Iowa Public Radio; now they are streamed live on the Writing University site. Archived readings can be heard on the Virtual Writing University Archive. Paul Ingram and I schedule the readings in conjunction with publishers who are sending their authors on tour. With the rise of self-publishing, we have begun to schedule local authors more often, too.

Of course Iowa’s literary scene branches out beyond the Workshop and Prairie Lights, whose traditions and histories are deep, to newer establishments and series. In recent years students have begun series such as Talk Art and Anthology. Talk Art is hosted at the Mill (120 East Burlington Street) each Wednesday night, and Anthology, which begins at ten in the evening, moves from venue to venue. 

Around the corner from Prairie Lights, on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Clinton Street, is Iowa Book (8 South Clinton), which hosts readings during the Iowa City Book Festival, held in July, and holds signings throughout the year. If you wind your way past the myriad racks of Hawkeye T-shirts and take the stairs down to the trade book section, you’ll find another one of America’s greatest booksellers, Matt Lage. Paul and I regularly regale Matt with our newest opinions only because we welcome both his tributes and his tirades. 

On the way from Prairie Lights to Iowa Book, are two bars and two restaurants that surely contain either writers or ghosts of writers. The first is Micky’s Irish Pub (11 South Dubuque Street). The antique bar at Micky’s was moved from the original Donnelly’s Pub on Dubuque Street, now at 110 East College Street, where Workshop writers Robert Lowell and John Berryman met in the 1950s, followed by John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut in the sixties. If you order a Guinness, be assured that Dylan Thomas had more than one there before you. Just past Micky’s is Atlas (127 Iowa Avenue), a relatively new restaurant that can be a great midday escape. In between boisterous mealtimes, its dark booths afford a good place to write—or at least to hide. When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain came to Prairie Lights in 2000 to promote his debut, Kitchen Confidential, he spent an anonymous night closing the bar there.

Next to Atlas is a brand new restaurant named Basta (121 Iowa Avenue) that features wood-fired pizza with homemade mozzarella cheese. If there is one thing that Iowa City has more of than writers it’s pizza, and Basta is the best place to get it. Basta’s interior is relatively cavernous and can easily accommodate writers who want an entire table for a laptop and a glass of wine.

From there you can walk to the Pentacrest, a collection of five buildings on Iowa’s campus that includes the Old Capitol (21 Old Capitol). (Iowa City was the original state capital before Des Moines was deemed a more central location.) Built in 1840, the Old Capitol building has been beautifully restored. The first-floor museum often features exhibits related to the Workshop. A gorgeous spiral staircase leads to the original Senate chambers, where literary events are frequently held. Recent events include a retirement celebration for long-time Iowa Review editor David Hamilton and an evening with Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey, sponsored by the Derek Project, a nonprofit organization that introduces students from the Iowa City Community Schools to a well-known author.

West of the Old Capitol toward the Iowa River is the University of Iowa’s Main Library (100 Main Library). The Special Collections and University Archives are well worth a tour. Gregory Prickman, the director of Special Collections, will show you the Writers Archive, which contains the works of some of the great letterpress artists that have printed here. Among them are books from Carroll Coleman’s Prairie Press, founded in the 1930s to publish the work of contemporary writers in well-made volumes. Editions from Kim Merker’s Windhover Press include the first published works of poets Denis Johnson and Mark Levine. After perusing the archive, make your way up to the second floor where the thesis of every MFA recipient of the University of Iowa is shelved. It is a rite of passage for Workshop students to go there to read the student work of Mark Strand, Allan Gurganus, and James Tate. 

Shambaugh Auditorium, also in the library, is one of the main venues for readings hosted by the Workshop. When Live From Prairie Lights was broadcasted on the radio, we often held readings there too. J. M. Coetzee and Susan Sontag read there. I have heard John Ashbery read there on more than one occasion, and it was where I first heard Donald Justice read. That, for me, was a life-changing event. I felt “the top of my head coming off”—before I’d heard Emily Dickinson’s famous phrase—and the experience remains the standard by which I’ve measured all other readings. I would recommend or, if I may, insist that everyone go the Academy of American Poets website to hear Donald Justice read. In addition to being a perfect poet, his voice is an instrument. I’ve never heard a poet read with more nuanced control of the speaking voice. 

Just west of the Main Library is the English-Philosophy Building. From the time it was built in the late 1960s until 1997 it housed the Workshop. Its gray, utilitarian classrooms were the location of much beauty and heartbreak. Its small lounge on the third floor was the space where visiting writers for all those years endured the question and answer sessions that take place the morning after heralded readings. I have heard Robert Hass, Louise Glück, James Tate, James Merrill, John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, and Helen Vendler all answer questions in that room. Brilliant questions from brilliant students as well as questions such as, “Do your ideas just come to you or do you make them up?”

If you exit the north entrance of the English-Philosophy building and cross Iowa Avenue, you can walk along a river path, the setting of James Galvin’s poem, “I looked for Life and Did a Shadow See,” that eventually leads to the Iowa House Hotel (125 North Madison Street), where John Cheever and Raymond Carver both lived while they taught at the Workshop in the fall of 1973. No biography of either of them neglects to mention the degenerate drinking they engaged in when they lived there.

Just north of the Iowa Memorial Union is North Hall, home to the Iowa Center for the Book (216 North Hall), founded by Merker, a student—along with Justice and Levine—in Berryman’s 1950s workshop. Tim Barrett, the MacArthur award–winning papermaker who was recently the subject of the New York Times Magazine article “Can a Papermaker Help to Save Civilization?” works there, preserving, documenting, and demonstrating centuries-old hand-papermaking practices, alongside former Iowa Center for the Book teacher Shari DeGraw, who does beautiful work with the Empyrean Press. 

Across the river from North Hall is 100 Kuhl House, home, since 1997, to the University of Iowa Press. Built of limestone from the river cliffs in the area, it is one of the oldest buildings in Iowa City. Inside are shelves upon shelves of the books director James McCoy and his talented staff have published. I am, of course, partial to the poetry series, which includes writing by some of the best poets around: Michele Glazer, Robyn Schiff, Emily Wilson, Susan Wheeler, and Cole Swensen, among them. The Sightline Books series in nonfiction is also remarkable. We at Prairie Lights are waiting with bated breath for July 25 when Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French are scheduled to read from their stunning newly released collection, Essayists on the Essay

After leaving Kuhl House, walk east on Park Road past City Park and its glorious Oak Trees—I promise you poems have been written beneath those—cross the river, and follow Dubuque Street to Church Street. There, if you turn right, you’ll pass the University president’s mansion and come upon Dey House, set on a grassy knoll overlooking the river. In 1997 the Writers’ Workshop relocated from the English-Philosophy building to this nineteenth-century house. The Frank Conroy Reading Room, which was completed in 2006, has vaulted ceilings and a magnificent library. A host of memorable readings by authors such as Robert Hass, Gurganus, D. A. Powell, and Dora Malech have taken place there.

Catty-cornered across the street from the Dey House is the Shambaugh House, home to the International Writing Program. Founded in 1967 by Paul Engle, it currently brings in forty writers—recent visitors include Hans Castellanos Moya and Etger Kerret—from countries all over the world for ten-week residencies each fall. Prairie Lights hosts readings by the fellows each Sunday afternoon during their tenure. 

The Haunted Bookshop (219 North Gilbert Street) is an Iowa City institution, and has had a number of owners and a number of locations, but is currently owned by Nialle Sylvan. Expect not only a great selection but also a lively conversation when you enter the Haunted Bookshop’s doors.

The Haunted Bookstore is located in what’s referred to as the Near North End, an up-and-coming neighborhood home to bars and restaurants frequented by local writers. Dave’s Fox Head (402 East Market Street), on the corner of Market and Gilbert streets, has been the “Workshop bar” since at least the 1980s. From the outside it appears to be little more than a shack, and its interior has remained completely unchanged since I first stepped foot inside in the late 1970s. It’s a simple tavern—a couple of rows of scarred wooden booths, a jukebox, and a pool table. It could be 1945 or 2012 or, judging from the jukebox selection, 1967 onward. Being inside Dave’s is a little like being inside a Raymond Carver story, and although it’s often full of writers, I don’t think anyone ever actually writes in Dave’s.

Half a block west is George’s Buffet (312 East Market Street), another bar that hasn’t had a makeover the entire time that I’ve been in town. It, too, is a hangout for writers, although it is more apt to include a mix of blue-collar and academic regulars than Dave’s is. There’s no pool table in George’s, but there are hamburgers and cheeseburgers that have quite a reputation. I haven’t had one in a couple of decades, but from all appearances they haven’t changed: a soft white bun and a piece of juicy (greasy) meat with your choice of condiments wrapped in wax paper, no sides allowed. Recently I picked up a friend in town from L.A., and the first thing he wanted when he stepped off the plane was a hamburger from George’s. 

Around the corner from Dave’s at 214 Linn Street is the Hamburg Inn, an Iowa City institution since 1937 famous for pancakes and eggs. The Hamburg is open twenty-four hours a day and has a long history with writers. On April 24 a local historian, Marybeth Slonneger, released The Burg, a history of the inn with essays by a selection of writers, including poet Marvin Bell and novelist Mary Helen Stefaniak.

Half a block south of the Hamburg is a cluster of more elegant restaurants: The Motley Cow Cafe (160 North Linn Street), where I recently had one of the best meals of my life with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of National Public Radio’s The Splendid Table, who was in town to host a benefit for the Cedar Rapids Opera. The owner and chef prepared for our party of eight an eight-course lunch made with local food, which included a salad of freshly picked fiddlehead ferns, asparagus with braised morel mushrooms, and freshly butchered roast pork. I tried not to think about that while eating with my fingers, which Lynne encouraged us all to do. For dessert we had compote with chocolate, whipped cream, and two kinds of rhubarb. Who knew there were two kinds of rhubarb? 

Across the street from the Motley Cow is Devotay (117 North Linn Street). Devotay, serves dishes created with locally grown food—it was the restaurant we took Bourdain for dinner before he read at Prairie Lights.

Even the sidewalks surrounding these stops contain history, some of which has been turned into art. In 1999 the Iowa City Public Art Advisory Committee suggested to the Iowa Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project that it create a series of bronze relief panels with phrases from the work of forty-nine writers with Iowa City connections. The panels were completed and embedded into the sidewalks in 2001. Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, John Irving, and forty-five others now speak beneath our feet. Hovering over the bronze words, hundreds of new conversations—between voices that have not yet made it into American letters—are just beginning.