TELLING OUR STORIES: Writer, Teacher and Publisher Jennifer Colville

Interview by Zoë Miller

When did your interests in literature and writing begin, and how have they grown over the years?

I come from an artistic family. My mom taught art and my dad is a musician. So, I started by drawing pictures that told stories, and by listening to music. This morphed into writing poetry, probably because I could funnel both musical and visual senses into that form. I had a spiral bound poetry notebook covered with stickers that I could hide away. I liked this private aspect of writing. I also liked that it was a form of expression that was different from what my parents did. Later, I started writing essays and short stories, but I think I’ve always kept the music and imagery at the forefront of what I do.

What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being really proud of?

When I was in the fifth grade, I wrote my first “book.” It was a knock off of Jim Henson’s movie “The Dark Crystal.” I was totally transported by that film’s atmosphere; all the fuzzy fantastical plants and creatures, even the decadent Skeksis with their rotting bodies and dripping jewels. Maybe it was the first movie I saw in which the set with all its atmosphere felt more important than the story. It ignited something in me, and I set out to recapture it with a different set of creatures, and lots of illustrations. It was the first thing I put a cover on, bound with a staples, and gave a title page. I was proud of it.

How long have you been in Iowa City, and how did you end up here?

We moved here from San Francisco 11 years ago. We had a couple different job opportunities, but I was curious about Iowa City. It had just earned its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, which gave me hope that there would be space for me inside the community. When we came we met so many really smart people who knew about literature from all different angels – scholars, book artists, intermedia artists. I thought it would be a great place to launch PromptPress.

What makes Iowa City a City of Literature to you?

A healthy literary city needs to support subcultures, and it needs to have accessible programming. By subcultures I mean groups of people who have different ideas of what it means to be a writer. I’m excited to see more spaces for the weird interdisciplinary projects that may not be block busters but that bring joy, innovation and careful thought. Mackie Garrett’s 508 Press, and Nina Lohman’s Brink come to mind. Mission Creek and Andre Perry’s The Witching Hour are important developments as well. I count my own press, PromptPress, among this group of quirky experimentalists.

As for access, I admire the work that Antelope Lending Library does to bring books and programming to underserved areas of the community. Lisa Roberts of Iowa City Poetry and Amy Margolis of the Iowa Summer Writers Festival and the free 11th Hour reading series have been instrumental to opening access to the community. These are just a few of the folks who are helping us live up to the UNESCO designation. We have an amazing public library, and anyone who puts up a Free Little Library is contributing.

Tell us about Porch Light. What was the inspiration behind it? What are some of your hopes and dreams moving forward?

In graduate school I became fascinated by salons in which different kinds of artists gathered and took inspiration from one another, salon’s like Gertrude Stein’s or the Bloomsbury Group’s. I envisioned my press as a floating salon; we put visual artists, book artists and writers together to create a collaborative publication, and to learn from each other along the way. But we needed a physical space. Somewhere to show the art firsthand, to mix, mingle and create. Around the time the opportunity became available, I was part of a cohort of orgs in the James Gang who were also looking for space. I started to envision PorchLight as a collective, similar to but much smaller than Open Book in Minneapolis. I wanted the space to be accessible, to have open community hours, to be on a bus-line, to be close to, but not inside downtown. I wanted the space to be quiet and to have a retreat vibe.

Right now, our signature program is the Free Generative Writing Workshop which was started by Lisa Roberts and became a collaboration between PromptPress and Iowa City Poetry. It’s designed to open community access to some of the amazing literary talent that passes through Iowa City thanks in large part to the many wonderful writing programs within the University. It now takes place every third Sunday of the month at PorchLight.

And then we have writers’ retreat and residency spaces. Right now, we’re in the middle of our first summer residency with Tameka Cage Conley. Jeff Alessandrelli the founder of Fonograph Editions will be up next.

Do you have a favorite program or event you’ve held there?

Our Writer Next Door reading series celebrates writers who live in the community, not those passing through. The variety of writers we have here in Iowa is remarkable. So far, we’ve featured UI professor Carrie Shuettpelz who is working on a book about the Indian Card, Lauren Haldeman who is working on a new graphic novel, Lynne Nugent editor of the Iowa Review, and Melissa Febos, whose book Girlhood is won National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism.

Where is your favorite place to write?

Well, this answer is quite boring. I need a door to shut, earplugs and no internet. The idea of writing in a café has always sounded romantic, but I’ve never been able to do it.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Either/Or by Elif Batuman. She is represented by Iowa City’s own Tuesday Agency. I loved her book The Idiot and I’ve heard the new one contains a critique of the Surrealist classic Nadja, a book that’s always stuck in my craw. I’m excited to read her take on it.

We also wanted to congratulate you on your 2022 Iowa Artist Fellowship! Can you tell us a little bit about what you hope to work on?

Thank you! I plan to write a follow up essay to “White Ink and the Great American Macho,” an essay I wrote for the Iowa Review. The follow up will focus on the ways traditional narrative traffics in hierarchical notions of what is feminine and masculine, and the ways in which feminist and queer formal innovators have shaken this up. I also hope to finish a coming of age novel set on a small liberal arts campus in Los Angeles.