Marvin Bell, 1937-2020

When I heard of Marvin Bell’s passing this morning, my first thought was of unrealized plans. Every time I spoke with Marvin over the past few years, he reminded me of the idea he had shared to erect a statue of Paul and Hualing Engle in Iowa City. If we could put up a statue of Irving Weber, we could do this, too.

To the end, Marvin was thinking of others. So, when I scrolled through social media this morning, I was not surprised to see so many writers with ties to Iowa City sharing their Marvin stories about his teaching and mentorship, his poetry and his friendship, the influence he had on their work and their lives. Through his teaching at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and elsewhere, his lectures, his writing, his interviews and more, he had an outsized impact on the world of letters and on this community.

As part of my career in journalism before I became director of the City of Literature, I wrote about the arts for The Gazette. In that role, I was paid to read and interview authors. One of the pleasures of that time was becoming familiar with Marvin’s poetry, and having the chance to interview him about that work. The first time I spoke with Marvin was in 2000 when he was named the state’s first Poet Laureate. “I hope to show by example that poetry is a natural human activity,” he told me, something I’m sure my younger self thought of as a throwaway line, but which seems today, looking back on his life and career, to encapsulate so much of who he was.

Later that year, his collection Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000 was published. Later than planned, as a matter of fact. Because of the popularity of Harry Potter, printing presses were backed up printing one of those books, and authors like Marvin were forced to wait. An August publication date became November, and scheduled readings were postponed into the next year. Marvin seemed to take it in stride and was self-effacing about this selection from his life’s work up to that point. “It’s a pretty tight selection given all that I’ve published, but it’s still big enough to hold open a small door.”

With Nightworks in hand I became familiar with, and a fan of his work. His poetry was always thought provoking, occasionally a barometer of the times, more often a sort of time capsule. Marvin landed on lines that he loved, and he loved to share them. He told me in 2000 that when he thinks of his older poems, “They seem to me to have been written by someone I used to know well, but he didn’t know me.” I don’t remember a reading that followed where he didn’t utter this same line. And he closed every reading I attended with his poem for his wife, “To Dorothy,” which begins

You are not beautiful, exactly
You are beautiful, inexactly

If I had written something that perfect, I would have read it every time I had the chance, too.

And Marvin had more to say. Though a collection like Nightworks often signals the end of a career, he published two more solo collections and a handful of collaborative works in the years that followed. These books included Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems, a collection of his poems featuring The Dead

Man, a sort of Everyman chronicled in endless ways in Marvin’s verse. This may how he is best remembered in the wider world of poetry, but in Iowa City, we will remember him for many other things as well.

In this job, I went from reading and interviewing to actively working with writers, and every time we asked Marvin to participate in something, he said yes if he was able. He took part in readings to protest wars, to raise money, to dedicate things. We will remember him every time we pass the plaque with his poem, “This Library,”  in the foyer of the Iowa City Public Library, when we stop at the wall in the Pedestrian Mall that bears his poem, “Writers in a Cafe” — written to celebrate Iowa City’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature — or stroll by his spot on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk.

A few weeks ago, a Zoom reading was arranged that featured dozens of writers reading their favorite of Marvin’s poems, people from all over the world gathering together on computer screens to celebrate the man. Marvin was there, a small square in the bottom of my screen, ailing but smiling, constrained by that little box in a way he never was in the real world. He seemed to be everywhere, and his own words and those of the many he influenced and taught, will carry on.

-John Kenyon

2021 One Book Two Book student writing guidelines released

Though the festival will be scaled back and held online in 2021, the core component of the One Book Two Book Children’s Literature Festival remains: soliciting creative writing submissions from area students.

Students in grades 1-8 in Iowa City-Cedar Rapids Corridor area school districts, or home school students in those equivalent grades, are encouraged to submit one page of writing for the 2021 One Book Two Book festival from the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature. The festival will be held Feb. 26-28, 2021.

The guidelines for submissions can be found on the One Book Two Book website. As in past years, students can submit any original writing — a story, essay, poem, song lyric, graphic novel page, etc. — and all submissions will be evaluated by a team at ACT.

Recognized students will be honored at virtual events during the festival. Two grade level winners will be chosen, one in each of the following categories:

“The Write Stuff”:    For language, clarity, structure, and emotional impact.

“From the Heart”:    For creativity, passion, and expressiveness.

These students will be invited to read their winning submissions. In addition, a percentage of all students whose submissions are deemed to be of outstanding quality also will be honored with a “certificate of distinction.”

Other programming is being planned for the weekend.

Next community read with Barker: Gilgamesh

After successful community reading projects where participants made their way through The Decameron and Paradise Lost, the City of Literature joins with Anna Barker for a shorter project: Gilgamesh.

“I am happy to announce our next reading – welcome to Ten Days of Gilgamesh, November 1-10!” Barker writes. “I absolutely adore the Stephen Mitchell translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is muscular, fresh, modern, and vibrant – with an excellent introduction!”

Barker, an assistant adjunct professor at the University of Iowa, will will lead discussion as participants make their way through the work. An introduction will be posted on the City of Literature website, and Barker will post daily on the Gilgamesh group on the City of Literature’s Facebook page.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the oldest known literary text, will transport readers to the world of Ancient Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, and take us on a journey to the ancient city of Uruk.

“In Books Eleven and Twelve of Paradise Lost, we encounter the stories of Noah and the Great Flood and meet Abraham, who hails from the Mesopotamian city of Ur,” Barker writes. “The Epic of Gilgamesh predates these Old Testament stories and by one thousand years – the earliest sections of the epic are from 2000 BCE.

“The main character of the epic, Gilgamesh, is the arrogant, brutal and all-powerful king of Uruk who must confront the limitations of his power and come to terms with his human vulnerability. It is a story about a great love and a great friendship, a story of the development of agriculture and flowering of city life, a cautionary tale about the interactions between gods and humans, and a devastating tale of loss and sorrow. As so many of us mourn the loss of dear friends and loved ones, I would like to dedicate this reading to the memory of everyone who departed in 2020. On a personal note, this reading is honoring the memory of David Lee Nelson who left this world too too soon.”

Barker’s introduction to the project will be posted in the days before the Nov. 1 start.


Dr. Eve L. Ewing named 2020 Paul Engle Prize Winner

Photo: Nolis Anderson

Dr. Eve L. Ewing has been named the 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.

Dr. Ewing is the tenth winner of the award. The award will be celebrated during a special online event at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 12, as part of the Iowa City Book Festival. Oct. 12 is “Paul Engle Day” in Iowa. To register for the free event, visit

The prize includes a one-of-a-kind work of art and $15,000. The City of Literature will work with Dr. Ewing to schedule a visit to Iowa City after the pandemic to present the award in person.

Dr. Ewing is a sociologist of education whose research is focused on racism, social inequality, and urban policy, and the impact of these forces on American public schools and the lives of young people. Her writing also addresses these issues. Her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism & School Closings on Chicago’s South Side explores the relationship between the closing of public schools and the structural history of race and racism in Chicago’s Bronzeville community. Her poetry collection, 1919, tells the story of a race riot in Chicago in the summer of that year. With Nate Marshall, she co-wrote the play No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, produced by Manual Cinema and commissioned by the Poetry Foundation. She also currently writes the Champions series for Marvel Comics and previously wrote the acclaimed Ironheart series.

Dr. Ewing is an assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. She often uses public platforms to discuss social issues, particularly Twitter, where she is a well-recognized commentator with nearly 200,000 followers and tens of millions of views each month.

Speaking about the award, Dr. Ewing said she was “incredibly moved and honored” to receive the award.

“Against everything about the world that seems to be crumbling around us, I still believe in poetry not only as a means to find strength within ourselves, but as a means to organize, to speak truth to power, and to create the world we believe is possible,” she said. “Thank you so much to the judges and I can’t wait to celebrate with you in Iowa someday.”

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.

The Engle Prize itself is a one-of-a-kind work of art created by M.C. Ginsberg in Iowa City. The piece is crafted to reflect the work and impact of the recipient, while tying it to the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature.

Paul Engle (October 12, 1908 – March 22, 1991), though best remembered as the long-time director of the Writers’ Workshop and founder of the UI’s International Writing Program, also was a well-regarded poet, playwright, essayist, editor and critic. In addition to recognizing a writer, like Engle, makes an impact on his or her community and the world at large through efforts beyond the page, the award is designed to raise awareness about Engle and his works.

Previous winners of the prize are:

  • James Alan McPherson, was a longtime instructor at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Elbow Room
  • Kwame Dawes, a professor at Nebraska University, editor of the journal Prairie Schooner, and author of the poetry collection, Duppy Conqueror
  • Luis Alberto Urrea, a multi-genre author whose works include the novel Into the Beautiful North, the non-fiction work, The Devil’s Highway, and the poetry collection, The Tijuana Book of the Dead.
  • Sara Paretsky, author of the bestselling V.I. Warshawski mystery series. She also created Sisters in Crime, a group that has evolved into a worldwide organization that supports women crime writers, and is a past president of the Mystery Writers of America.
  • Roxane Gay, a writer, professor, editor and commentator. She is the author of the short story collection Ayiti, the novel An Untamed State, the essay collection Bad Feminist, and the memoir, Hunger.
  • Alexander Chee, a writer, teacher and activist. He is the author of the novels Edinburgh and Queen of the Night, as well as the memoir How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Chee is renowned essayist who writes honestly and fiercely on subjects such as race, gender, and LGBTQ+ issues.
  • Dina Nayeri, a novelist, essayist and activist who has written extensively about the life and challenges of refugees. She has published two novels, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, and Refuge. Her latest book, The Ungrateful Refugee, was released in 2019.
  • Toi Derricotte a poet and memoirist who is a professor emerita of writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her most recent book is i: new and Selected Poems. She is the co-founder of Cave Canem.
  • Cornelius Eady the author of eight books of poetry. In 2001, Brutal Imaginationwas a finalist for the National Book Award. He is the co-founder of Cave Canem.

Iowa City Book Festival moves online for October events

Events for the 12th annual Iowa City Book Festival will be held online with original programming and partnerships with co-presenters that celebrate authors from around the block and around the world.

Because of coronavirus restrictions, the festival, which usually is held at various locations throughout the area, will be available to anyone with access to the Internet. All events will be streamed live and recorded for later viewing. This year’s festival partners include the One Community One Book program and the Examined Life Conference, among others.

Because we are not limited by needing to have authors physically present in Iowa City for the festival, we will continue to build programming, so the festival website,, will be the place to find the most up-to-date information about the schedule.

The festival will begin at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 5, with James Autry of Des Moines, who will discuss his new book, The White Man Who Stayed. The book, from North Liberty’s Ice Cube Press, tells the true story of Autry’s cousin, Doug, who did important work related to race in his native Mississippi after World War II.  Access at:

We continue at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 6, with a virtual event featuring Thomas Frank. The author of What’s the Matter with Kansas will discuss his new book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism. In the book, Frank dispels commonly held beliefs about populism and discusses its history. Access at:

Wednesday, Oct. 7, the One Community One Book project from the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights welcomes Fatima Farheen Mirza at 7 p.m. Mirza, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, will discuss her novel, A Place For Us. The community is encouraged to read the book and then to watch Mirza’s presentation. Access at:

On Thursday, Oct. 8, festival partner the Examined Life Conference presents author Dr. Rana Awdish, author of the critically-acclaimed, best-selling memoir, In Shock, based on her own critical illness. In the book, Dr. Awdish tells of being a young critical care physician who is transfigured into a dying patient. The presentation will be at 5:30 p.m., and like the rest of the programs at the Book Festival, is free and open to the public. Access at:

Friday, Oct. 9, brings a pair of best-selling authors, with Jill McCorkle in conversation with Ron Rash. McCorkle, author of the New York Times bestseller Life After Life, will discuss her new novel, Hieroglyphics, while Rash will talk about his new collection, In the Valley, which includes a novella and stories set in the world of what is perhaps his best-known book, Serena. They will appear at 7 p.m. Access at:

Saturday, Oct. 10, features a look at award-nominated works of literary translation by former participants in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. Anja Kampmann, a German poet and novelist was a part of the IWP in 2010. She will discuss her novel High as the Waters Rise, which was translated by Anne Posten. Pilar Quintana, a Colombian novelist and short story writer who participated in the IWP in 2011, will discuss her novel The Bitch, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman. The two novels were longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature. Both authors and their translators will participate in the panel at 2 p.m. Access at:

At 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, authors with recent books on North Liberty’s Ice Cube Press will present. David Bluder, will discuss his novel, The Great Gamble; Thomas Cook, will share Clubfoot: The Quest for a Better Life for Millions of Children; David Perkins, will read from his poetry collection, I May or May Not Love You; and Barbara Feller will discuss her book, The Creation of an Artist: Grant Wood’s Boyhood Story. Access at:

Sunday, Oct. 11, features two local University of Iowa Press authors. Erika Billerbeck, an Iowa DNR officer from Solon will read from her new nonfiction book, Wildland Sentinel, 2 p.m. Billerbeck takes readers along for the ride as she and her colleagues sift through poaching investigations, chase down sex offenders in state parks, search for fugitives in wildlife areas, haul drunk boaters to jail, perform body recoveries, and face the chaos that comes with disaster response. Access at:

At 4 p.m., Charles Connerly, professor and director of the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, will discuss his new book, Green, Fair and Prosperous: Paths to a Sustainable Iowa.

At the center of what was once the tallgrass prairie, Iowa has stood out for clearing the land and becoming one of the most productive agricultural states in the nation. To become green, fair, and prosperous, Connerly argues that Iowa must reckon with its past and the fact that its farm economy continues to pollute waterways, while remaining utterly unprepared for climate change. Access at:

Monday, Oct. 12, which was declared as “Paul Engle Day” in Iowa by Gov. Tom Vilsack, brings the celebration marking the award of the City of Literature’s annual Paul Engle Prize. This year’s winner is Dr. Eve L. Ewing. She will receive her award during a special event at 7 p.m. 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. Access at:

Friday, Oct. 16, will feature a conversation at 7 p.m. between author Hope Edelman and writer Kelly Carlin. Edelman will discuss her new book, The Aftergrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss, a book she describes as “Motherless Daughters all grown up.” Carlin, a writer, actress, producer, monologist, and Internet radio host, is the daughter of the late comedian George Carlin. Access at: