Connecting Writers Worldwide--Iowa’s unique residency program thrives on ‘shrinking world’

The International Writing Program at your fingertips:

• For general information about the program, check out The site includes biographies and photos of each of the post-2001 participants, a listing of courses, news and events, a program history, and links to a variety of IWP special projects and blogs.

• For timely info, subscribe here for a series of IWP news and events updates. Follow the IWP Twitter feed, or become a friend of the IWP on Facebook. Videos also are accessible here on YouTube.

• For those who want mobile access to the IWP and all the literary resources in Iowa City — the only UNESCO City of Literature in the United States — there’s an app for that! The “City of Lit” smartphone application provides a literary tour of Iowa City and is regularly updated with local literary events.

91st Meridian is a free, literary journal edited by multilingual IWP staff member Natasa Durovicova. It includes a variety of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and interviews, much of it featuring past IWP participants.

The late Paul Engle (M.A. ’32) used to delight in recounting how he won approval to found the International Writing Program (IWP) in 1967.

As the story goes, the recently retired director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had made himself such a nuisance to University of Iowa administrators that they finally told him to go ahead, so that he would stop bugging them, on the assumption that the idea was impossible. After all, there was no residency program anywhere that created a community of writers from across the globe.

And in the mid-1960s, this assumption of impossibility was entirely reasonable. International mail was slow and unreliable, and where telephones were available, calling was expensive and unreliable. And then there was that stubborn barrier known as the Iron Curtain, behind which communications of all sorts were viewed with suspicion, but especially contacts with the decadent West.

In fact, it was Paul himself who declared the IWP concept the craziest idea he had ever heard when it was first suggested by Hualing Nieh Engle (M.F.A. ’66), a well-established writer from Taiwan who had come to Iowa to join the faculty. (She became one of the rare international students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and, in 1971, Paul’s wife.) The outburst of his response, he claimed, startled a great blue heron into flight by Lake Macbride. How would they find the writers? How would they get the money? Crazy!

Nearly 45 years later, this “impossible” residency program can boast that it has hosted more than 1,400 writers from more than 135 countries, including Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. Largely funded through the U.S. Department of State — and still one of a kind — the IWP offers its international participants access and exposure to American literature via talks, readings, and visits with well-known and emerging visiting American writers. The guests spend three months in Iowa City honing their craft and collaborating with others.

With today’s technology, potential participants are just a few clicks away from publishing their work or connecting with like-minded individuals — and IWP administrators have a much easier time pulling together each year’s cohort.

Determination and a manual typewriter

While the IWP proved not to be impossible, its birth and nurturing was a testament to Paul and Hualing’s dogged determination. At first, they traveled the world, visiting funding agencies and foundations, turning over literary rocks for potential participants, and building a network of author allies who could identify other residency candidates.

“We met writers through embassies, and literary friends such as Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Literary Prize winner,” Hualing explains. “We knew him before he won the prize. He suggested some very good Polish writers. I knew the Chinese literary scene, so we had quite a few major Chinese writers. The IWP participants would also suggest writers. All wanted to have their countries well represented in the program.”

Back in Iowa City, IWP central was Paul’s manual typewriter, on which he pecked out correspondence with funding sources and writers in distant lands.

“The old, beaten-up typewriter is still on the desk in his study,” Hualing reports. “The IWP came out of it. He raised money from foundations and wealthy individuals, corresponded with writers, wrote embassies, UI administrators, the State Department ... Out of that typewriter, he brought the Writers’ Workshop to distinction and the IWP to the world.”

The impact of the IWP was so dramatic that by the mid-’70s, Paul and Hualing were nominated for the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize.

IWP advances with technology

Nearly five decades after its improbable beginning, the IWP thrives on the technology that has transformed and shrunk the world. Some technologies that arose and were crucial — the fall of Communism, for example, was described as “revolution by fax” — have now fallen into disuse, while new ones (think Facebook and Twitter) have come to the fore.

Residency coordinator Joe Tiefenthaler explains that the entire process of applications and manuscript submissions is now accomplished online. And social media has emerged as the communications method of choice.

“When I need to communicate with a writer, I send an email and then I send a message on Facebook,” he says. “Increasingly, I get a response more quickly on Facebook.”

Technology also has proved handy when preserving the program’s past. From the beginning, the IWP accumulated an archive, which for years lay in storage like layers of geological strata bearing fossils of technological evolution — paper manuscripts, reel-to-reel tapes, films, VHS tapes, floppy disk. But now, decades of recorded interviews, panel presentations and readings — both audio and video — have been digitized through the UI Libraries and can be accessed through the Writing University website. Participants’ writing samples also are accessible online at

In another sign of the times, the IWP has welcomed in the last couple of years its first writers who initially made their reputations as bloggers. In fact, the 2011 community of 37 writers included 18 bloggers in a variety of languages.

“The Internet makes it possible for the IWP to be in touch with its vast network of writers around the world — instantaneously,” says current IWP director Christopher Merrill. “We like to say, ‘Only connect,’ and with Facebook, Twitter, digital videoconferencing, and online classes, we can connect more writers and readers, students, and lovers of literature.”

Preparing for the future

After 45 years of dizzying and accelerating technological innovations, what does the future hold? IWP staff member Natasa Durovicova wagers an opinion.

“It’s fair to say that though we’re still completely devoted to the ‘classical’ idea of writing,” explains Durovicova, “an increasing number of participants are not only involved in but evaluated on the basis of their work in a variety of AV or trans-media production, from stage and opera to filmmaking and collaborative digital forms. For example, 2011 resident Oonya Kempadoo has a project that combines her sci-fi novel-in-progress with a video game.”

That forward thinking, she adds, also is important at the funding level.

“Our grant applications now routinely seek to include funds to capture writers and ideas in moving image and sound, as an inevitable complement to inert print. Also, we just published our first e-book, with more ahead, and we have a new website in the works, reflecting all these new functions, as well as much of on-the-road of programming that increasingly characterizes the program.”

Stay “tuned.”

Winston Barclay

Bookmark and Share

© The University of Iowa 2009