Faces of the City of Literature: John Kenyon

Many Iowa Citians know John Kenyon for his role as the Director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and his former positions as a journalist for The Daily IowanCorridor Business Journal, and The Gazette. His ardor for literature goes far beyond his professional life; Kenyon is also a crime fiction writer and the editor of Grift Magazine, which features crime fiction short stories, reviews, and interviews.

John Kenyon, Director of the City of Literature, graduated from the University of Iowa in 1992. As a journalism and political science major and former editor of The Daily Iowan, much of Kenyon’s undergraduate years were spent in the newsroom. It was a culmination of these early investigative experiences that led him to pursue writing professionally – in Ottumwa, Iowa, and then back in Iowa City. While it was not yet a City of Literature, Iowa City had a certain literary appeal that Kenyon found captivating.

“When I was here [in Iowa City], I fell in love with reading and books,” Kenyon says. During his yearlong stint as a journalist in Ottumwa, Kenyon often returned to Iowa City to, “replenish at Prairie Lights bookstore and Record Collector at least once a month.”

Kenyon, then, understands the draw of Iowa City. An oasis for comic book fans, literary scholars, and authors alike, this town has served as a launch pad and home to many creators, including Kenyon. His involvement in the literary community goes far beyond a background in journalism and his role with the City of Literature organization. As it turns out, perhaps rather surprisingly, Kenyon’s career as a journalist at The Gazette was precisely the ticket he needed to transition into the world of literary nonprofits.

Iowa City was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008, the third city to ever receive the honor (following Edinburgh and Melbourne). There was no template to follow in managing the designation, so the board got to work on creating a plan for Iowa City’s literary community. It was ultimately decided that structuring the City of Literature as a nonprofit would allow for the greatest freedom of collaboration with other community organizations, a decision that Kenyon ardently affirms to this day.

Kenyon was eager to help the Iowa City board shape a formal organization for the new designation. He joined the board as a media contact and effectively used his journalistic experience to increase both the reach and scope of the adolescent City of Literature. A few years later, in 2012, the call for a new City of Literature Director began to be advertised. Kenyon approached the board and asked for a chance to lead by leveraging his journalism background to expand the City of Literature’s visibility and networks of writers and creators. They approved.

Building on the groundwork laid by his predecessor, Kenyon worked to enhance and grow the organizational elements of the City of Literature we are familiar with today. In his public-facing role, Kenyon is integral in networking on behalf of Iowa City and helps the City of Literature organization fulfill its role as an informational source for the community. Kenyon is proud to serve at the helm of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization, where it is, “our calling to make the great literary culture here even better.”

When Kenyon is not at his desk on the second floor of the Iowa City Public Library, he can be found writing short stories or editing the latest volume of Grift Magazine, a publication devoted to crime fiction.