The University of Iowa International Writing Program:
Welcoming the World
Take a page, any page, from the International Writing Program’s busy schedule and you’ll begin to realize the IWP’s essential role – promoting literary expression and cultural exchange that begins within a university community and carries to nations abroad. The IWP assembles multinational groups of accomplished writers who at any given time may be presenting their work, serving in panel discussions, participating in translation projects and workshops, attending arts festivals, visiting with farmers, interacting with scholars, or speaking at schools, colleges, and universities. One day a group of Korean visitors may be attending a dinner in a nearby Amish community. Another day a Mongolian poet may be setting his work to music performed by American jazz instrumentalists. It is an amazing mix of outreach, interaction, and exchange of literature, community, and culture, enriching the visiting writers and host communities alike.
Founded in 1967 by Iowa poet Paul Engle and his wife, Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh Engle, the International Writing Program was the first university-based writers’ residency program and remains the largest multinational writing residency in the world. IWP writers are always well-established, often leading figures, in the literary community; between them they have won every major prize except the Nobel. Over the years, the IWP has hosted nearly 1,000 writers from 115 countries, 25 or so at a time. The 2003 program includes accomplished poets, translators, essayists, editors, critics, journalists, scholars, and fiction and non-fiction writers from Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Burma, Chile, China, England, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Korea, Lithuania, Mongolia, Norway, Poland, Romania, Vietnam, South Korea, and Ukraine.
The IWP holds a unique role in international exchange and, within that role, plays an important part in world affairs. During the Cold War, for instance, the IWP proved a vital tool of diplomacy, promoting an intercultural exchange and understanding that otherwise would not have been possible. Visiting writers came from every continent and numerous nations, some with strained relations, and left with new work, new friendships, and new views of the United States and other countries and cultures. The IWP’s role remains just as vital today, promoting that same intercultural exchange and understanding in our post-September 11 world.
The IWP’s excellence has been acknowledged at various times throughout its 36 years. In 1976, UN Ambassador Averrill Harriman recognized the IWP’s importance to international understanding and nominated the IWP founders, the Engles, for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1995, the IWP received the Governor’s Award for distinguished service to the state of Iowa. And in 2000, the governor proclaimed October 12 Paul Engle Day.
The IWP’s current director, Christopher Merrill, is taking steps to extend the IWP’s reach and ensure its continuing vitality. Merrill is working, for instance, to promote every possible link and interaction between IWP participants and mediums, programs, and people at the University of Iowa, within the state of Iowa, throughout the Midwest, and across the United States. Merrill is working also to preserve and present the IWP’s treasures – files, tapes, and boxes containing profiles and works of writers past and present – by transferring them to a Web-based format that will be widely and continuously accessible. Finally, Merrill is working to ensure the IWP’s financial support, seeking and solidifying crucial funding through the U.S. Department of State; bilateral agreements with various countries; cultural institutions and governments abroad; and American corporations, foundations, and individuals.
The IWP began as a global glimmer in the Engles’ eyes. It was from the start, and continues to be, a first-of-its-kind, one-of-a-kind venture, a unique program of international distinction. The IWP welcomes and celebrates writers from all parts of the world, promoting literary expression, facilitating intellectual and cultural interaction, and fostering global understanding, acceptance, and appreciation. In the words of its director Christopher Merrill, the IWP makes for “the sort of creative breakthroughs that endure.”