Paul Engle Day and Prize

The annual Paul Engle Prize from the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature honors an individual who, like Paul Engle, represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts. The Paul Engle Prize is made possible through the generous support of the City of Coralville, which is home to 11 permanent sculptures with artistic and literary ties to Iowa. The sculptures all have ties to work found in The Iowa Writers’ Library, housed in the Coralville Marriott, which features about 800 books written by former students, graduates and faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Paul Engle (October 12, 1908 – March 22, 1991), though best remembered as the long-time director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and founder of the UI’s International Writing Program, also was a well-regarded poet, playwright, essayist, editor and critic.

This prize does not recognize one work, nor is it solely limited to reflecting literary achievement. Rather, the award seeks to recognize a writer, like Engle, who makes an impact on his or her community and the world at large through efforts beyond the page. It also seeks to raise awareness about Engle and his works.

Past recipients: James Alan McPherson, longtime instructor at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Elbow Room; Kwame Dawes, Chancellor Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, and Editor of Prairie Schooner; Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil’s Highway and Queen of America, Sara Paretsky the author behind the bestselling Chicago-based V.I. Warshawski mystery series, Roxane Gay, professor, editor, commentator and author of the short story collection Ayiti, the novel An Untamed State, and the essay collection Bad Feminist, and novelist, activist, essayist, and professor Alexander Chee; novelist and essayist Dina Nayeri; poets and co-founders of Cave Canem Toi Derriocotte and Cornelius Eady; poet and essayist Dr. Eve L. Ewing, and writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit.

As of 2023, the winner receives a $25,000 cash award and a one-of-a-kind work of art. Note: Because of the pandemic, our 2021 prize winner, Rebecca Solnit, was recognized during the 2022 Iowa City Book Festival. A separate prize was not awarded in 2022.

Nominations for each year’s prize run from Nov. 1 through March 31. Nominations may be submitted to, and should include the authors name, a list of work highlights, and a statement about why the author meets the unique criteria for this award. Self-nominations are not accepted. Please note: The prize is not awarded for a specific work, nor does the prize involve publication. Winners are selected by a panel assembled by the City of Literature board of directors and are recognized at a ceremony in Iowa City, typically during the Iowa City Book Festival.

2023 Paul Engle Prize

Joan Naviyuk KaneJoan Naviyuk Kane has been named the 12th recipient of the Paul Engle Prize, presented by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization.

The prize, established in 2011, honors an individual who, like Paul Engle, represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts.

The prize includes a $25,000 award and a one-of-a-kind work of art. Kane will receive the award at a ceremony at 7 p.m. on October 19, at the Coralville Public Library. It is free and open to the public.

Kane is Inupiaq with family from Ugiuvak (King Island) and Qawiaraq (Mary’s Igloo), Alaska. She is the author of several collections of poetry, including 2017’s Milk Black Carbon, 2021’s Dark Traffic, and the new chapbook, Ex Machina. She is the recipient of several awards, including Whiting Writer’s Award, the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, the National Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, the American Book Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

She has held faculty appointments in the department of English at Harvard University, in the department of English at Tufts University, and in the graduate creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has also served as a lecturer in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora at Tufts University, teaching courses in Native American and Indigenous Studies. She raised her children in Alaska and Massachusetts and now lives with them in Oregon, where she is a visiting associate professor at Reed College.

Kane was awarded the prize for the breadth of her work as a poet, teacher, and advocate for her own communities and the world at large. In his nomination for Kane, Jon Davis, founder and former director of the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA in Creative Writing, discussed the wide range of Kane’s work. “One week she might be on the threatened strip of land that is Sitnasuak, Alaska, without electricity or running water, and the next on a panel in a Finnish city.”

Kane said she was honored to be selected for this year’s prize.

“When a person experiences a major trauma, one’s entire systems defer everything but survival. When a person experiences an ongoing succession of major traumas, replenishing the soul falls away while the impulse to protect and advocate for the most vulnerable takes priority. Like so many other single mothers during these last years, like so many Indigenous people, like other survivors, the mundane world displaces my energy and flags my spirit time and time again. Hard work has been asked of us on every front; intention and necessity have kept us in community with other Indigenous people globally, with allies, non-Indigenous and Indigenous alike, who offer protection, refuge, restoration, and an urgent sense of shared responsibility.

“In these aspects—affirmation of literary cultures and artistic expression, connection to the highest and best aspirations of human relations, and the mettle, courage and labor required to make opportunities available for transformation and survival—I reflect on the legacy of Paul Engle and the remarkable ways in which one literary life and its works can alter and challenge public discourse and inflect even the most private of ruminations. I’m beyond honored, and consider it first and foremost the honor that belongs to my mom while she is still alive, my grandmother who raised us both along with many other Inupiaq individuals, and the women in my communities who continue to guide, celebrate, and hold each other collectively.

“All of these women have survived a whole host of systemic and structural violences, and all of them have never given up, have never stopped fighting to make this world, and this time, one of urgency and immediate action. I’m always grateful. To be recognized as part of Paul Engle’s legacy restores my hope and reminds me that there’s no end to my responsibilities as a writer, a teacher, and a mentor to others: for this continuation, I am most thankful.”

2021 Paul Engle Prize

Rebecca Solnit is the eleventh recipient of the Paul Engle Prize, presented by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization.

Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist who has written more than twenty books on feminism, environmental and urban history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, including Whose Story Is This?, Call Them By Their True Names (Winner of the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction), Men Explain Things to MeThe Mother of All Questions, and the recent memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence.

She has received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a columnist at the Guardian and a former “Easy Chair” columnist at Harper’s.Speaking about the award, Solnit said she was honored to be recognized.

“Finding out, while still on the first cup of tea, that you’ve won a prize, and it’s named after a poet, editor, and teacher passionately devoted to internationalism and the literary community, is a very good way to start the day,” she said. “To receive a prize that has gone to writers I admire so much—Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay among them—deepens my sense of the honor of being invited into the community of writers, past and present, and it encourages me to keep trying to do the kind of engaged work this prize recognizes.”

2020 Paul Engle Prize

The 2020 Paul Engle Prize winner is Eve L. Ewing. Dr. Ewing is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. She is the author of the poetry collection 1919 and the nonfiction work Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. She is the co-author (with Nate Marshall) of the play “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks.” She also currently writes the Champions series for Marvel Comics and previously wrote the acclaimed Ironheart series, as well as other projects.

2019 Paul Engle Prize

Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady were named recipients of the Paul Engle Prize, presented by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization. Derricotte and Eady become the eighth and ninth winners of the award. This is the first time the award has been presented to two people in one year.

Derricotte and Eady co-founded Cave Canem in 1996 to remedy the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape. What started as a gathering of 26 poets is now an influential movement with a renowned faculty, high-achieving national fellowship of over 400 and a workshop community of 900.

Speaking about the award, Derricotte said she knows and admires Paul Engle’s poetry and his work in the world of literature.

“Receiving this award—considering that when Cornelius and I started Cave Canem all we wanted to do was to create a safe space for black poets—makes me think about (and question) many things, especially, how our writing connects us and leads to changes in the world.  Cave Canem seems to be something that just wanted to happen, something that, while it needed quite a bit of heavy lifting, attracted just the right people to keep picking it up.  Thank you so much for recognizing Cornelius and me for our parts.”

Derricotte is a poet and memoirist who is a professor emerita of writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of six volumes of poetry. She won a 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. More than 1,000 of her poems have been published in magazines and journals Her latest book is I: New and Selected Poems.

Eady is the author of eight books of poetry. His second book, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, won the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1985; in 2001, Brutal Imagination was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has taught at Notre Dame University and the University of Missouri. He is currently at SUNY Stony Brook Southhampton.

2018 Paul Engle Prize

Dina Nayeri is the author of the acclaimed essay “The Ungrateful Refugee,” published in The Guardian as a Long Read in 2017, and a book of the same name from 2019. Winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (2015), the O. Henry Prize (2015), Best American Short Stories (2018), and fellowships from the McDowell Colony, Bogliasco Foundation, Yaddo, and several other artist residencies, her work is published in over 20 countries and has been recognized by Granta New Voices, Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writersand others. A finalist for the 2017 Rome Prize, her stories and essays have been published by The New York Times, NYT Magazine, NYTBR, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, New Yorker, Granta, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Vice, Guernica, Electric Literature, Conjunctions, Marie Claire, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, was released in 2013 by Riverhead Books (Penguin) and translated to 14 foreign languages. She holds a BA from Princeton, an MBA and Master of Education, both from Harvard, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow and Teaching Writing Fellow. Dina’s second novel, Refuge, was released in 2017 and was a New York Times editor’s choice.  She lives in London.

2017 Paul Engle Prize

Alexander Chee was the sixth recipient of the Paul Engle Prize. Speaking about the award, Chee said, “I am stunned by this news, and honored to be this year’s recipient. It’s an award I hope to live up to.”

Chee, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a Korean-American writer, poet, reviewer, and renowned essayist who writes honestly and fiercely on subjects such as race, gender, and LGBTQ+ issues. He is also a veteran of the AIDS advocacy organization, ACT UP. He lives in New York City.

His debut novel, Edinburgh, was praised for its careful handling on the difficult subject of sexual abuse. It was the winner of the Whiting Award, the James Michener/Copernicus Society Fellowship Prize, Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s Michener Copernicus Prize in Fiction, and was the recipient of the Lambda Literary Foundation Editor’s Choice Award.

His second novel, Queen of the Night, a historical novel about a female opera singer, was published in 2016, and was met with high praise. It was named “epic” by Vogue, and The Washington Post wrote that it is, “extraordinarily beautiful and dramatic, a brilliant performance.”

2016 Paul Engle Prize

Roxane Gay was the 2016 recipient of the Paul Engle Prize. Gay has emerged as one of the strongest voices in American letters in her various roles as a writer, professor, editor and commentator.  She is the author of the short story collection Ayiti, the novel An Untamed State, and the essay collection Bad Feminist. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2014Best American Short Stories 2012Best Sex Writing 2012A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. In addition, Gay has been chosen as one of the writers of the forthcoming Marvel comic, “World of Wakanda.” She and the poet Yona Harvey will work on the project, becoming the first black women to write for Marvel. She is a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times, founder of Tiny Hardcore Press, and co-editor of PANK, a nonprofit literary arts collective.

2015 Paul Engle Prize

Sara Paretsky was the 2015 recipient of the Paul Engle Prize, presented by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization. Paretsky is best known as the author behind the bestselling Chicago-based V.I. Warshawski mystery series, including the new novel, Brush Back. She revolutionized the mystery world when the series debuted in 1982 with Indemnity Only, a book that challenged the stereotypes of women in fiction as victims or vamps. Over the course of 17 Warshawski novels, Paretsky has crafted a tough, street-smart yet feminine heroine who allows her creator tackle social issues. The author has spent much of her career opening doors for other writers – particularly women – and assisting those without a voice. That work includes the creation in 1986 of Sisters in Crime, a group that has evolved into a worldwide organization that supports women crime writers. She currently serves as president of the Mystery Writers of America, a post she says she took to help address the issue of diversity in the genre.

2014 Paul Engle Prize

Luis Alberto Urrea was the 2014 recipient of the Paul Engle Prize, presented by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization. Urrea, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, is a prolific and acclaimed writer who uses his dual-culture life experiences to explore greater themes of love, loss and triumph. The critically acclaimed and best-selling author of 13 books, Urrea has won numerous awards for his poetry, fiction and essays. The Devil’s Highway, his 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize.

2013 Paul Engle Prize

Kwame Dawes, Chancellor Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, was awarded the 2013 Paul Engle Prize. The prize, established in 2011, honors an individual who, like Paul Engle, represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts.  Dawes received the prize, which includes a special plaque and $10,000, during a special ceremony at the Iowa City Book Festival.

2011 Paul Engle Prize

The first Paul Engle Award was presented to noted author and essayist, James Alan McPherson. McPherson is the author of Hue and Cry, Railroad, Elbow Room, Crabcakes, Fathering Daughters, and A Region Not Home. Elbow Room won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1978.

The celebration also featured, Leaner than Light: 12 Frames of Paul Engle, an audio/video adaptation of a stage play. The play was written by Lisa Schlesinger; the video was created by Lisa DiFranza and mastered by Ben Schmidt.

Click here to download the program for Leaner than Light.

“Leaner than Light” is made possible by Humanities Iowa and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Additional support provided by Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, The University of Iowa International Writing Program and The University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts.

To continue Paul Engle’s tradition of inspiring writers and celebrating the rich culture of Iowa, the City of Literature organization annually solicits essays from Iowa high school sophomore about an “Iowa experience,” drawing on a specific memory to capture the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of the day. The author of the essay judged by reviewers to be the best receives one year of free tuition to the University of Iowa. A select number of runners up receive a $500 scholarship from the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature.

The contest is based on Engle’s writings, particularly his memoir, A Lucky American Childhood.

The deadline for submissions for the 2024 contest has passed.

To view the rubric used by judges to evaluate submissions, click here.


Past Overall Winners

These students each were offered one year of free tuition to the University of Iowa as the top prize winner in the annual contest.

2013: Swing Tree by Emma Holmes of Iowa City
2014: The Trail Of Senses that Leads Me Home by Palen Stream of Bedford
2015: Beneath a Green Sky by Natalie Homes of Iowa City
2016: Adrift, by Jackie Olberding of Dyersville
2017: A Walk in the Woods by Lydia Hecker of Iowa City
2018: The Call of the Creek by Elizabeth Ayers of Iowa City
2019: The Wonders of the Willow by Natalie DeGabriele of Cedar Falls
2020: The Effects of Fog at Dusk by Kenna Prottsman of Iowa City
2021: The First Morning by Johnnie Each of Cedar Rapids
2022: Of Flags and Friendship by Lulu M. Newhart-Roarick of Iowa City
2023: Love Letter to an Iowan Backyard By Judith Williams of Dyersville

About Paul Engle

Paul Engle (October 12, 1908 – March 22, 1991), was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on October 12, 1908, and grew up in a frame house in the Wellington Heights area. After graduating from Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Engle attended Coe College and the University of Iowa where he was one of the first students to earn an advanced degree based on a thesis of creative work—a collection of poems.  His first published collection, Worn Earth, went on to win the Yale Series of Young Poets. His best-selling second book of poetry, American Song, was heralded on the cover of the New York Times Book Review in a headline declaring him “A New Voice in American Poetry”.  After Iowa, Engle travelled as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University in England.

Though Engle did not found the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, he built its reputation as the top graduate writing program in the United States. During his tenure as director, he was responsible for luring some of the finest writers of the day to Iowa City: Phillip Roth, John Berryman, Kurt Vonnegut, and many other prominent novelists and poets served as faculty under Engle. Additionally, Engle increased enrollment and oversaw numerous students of future fame and influence, including Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Raymond Carver, William Stafford, and Robert Bly.

After directing the Writers’ Workshop for twenty-four years, Engle and future-second-wife Nieh Hualing co-founded The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, which invited dozens of published authors from around the globe to visit the University of Iowa to write and collaborate. For their work with the IWP, Engle and his wife were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.  Engle died at the age of eighty-two, having published fourteen books of poetry, a novel, a memoir, and an opera libretto, and his literary legacy lives on in the lives and works of those authors he helped to educate and inspire.

In 2000, nearly a decade after his death, Paul Engle was declared Iowa’s “Poet of the Century” and then-Governor Tom Vilsack declared that Engle’s birthday, October 12th, would hereafter be known as “Paul Engle Day” to honor this life of creativity, mentorship, and generosity.

Learn more about Paul Engle by watching our documentary, City of Literature

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