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Iowa City, lit city, gets some advice

BY MARY HARRINGTON | APRIL 08, 2009 7:30 AM

Iowa City caught global attention more than five months ago when its writing community became one of just three official Cities of Literature in the world.

Working from the only place in the United States to boast the elite title given by the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Iowa City officials will now begin to plan literary projects to further shape the UNESCO vision.

Ali Bowden, the director of Edinburgh, Scotland, City of Literature, spoke to Iowa City residents Tuesday night about the program. She shared suggestions for potential projects in Iowa City and hailed successes that came from the program in her home city.

Because the UNESCO title is not a lifelong designation, selected cities must show a devotion to the advancement of local literature-related programs.

“This is not just a trinket or a badge,” Bowden said. “It’s something that has to have actual meaning to the people of Iowa City.”

Local leaders are interested in pursuing some projects Bowden said her city had success with, including a major book festival, literary tours of the county, and a One Book, One Reader program aiming to get every community member to read the same book at one time.

International interaction away Iowa City and the two other literature cities — Edinburgh and Melbourne, Australia — was at the top of the group’s agenda. Wallace Chappell, the former director of Hancher Auditorium, said working with these sister cities could include writer exchanges or readings across borders.

“We will start small, and our first task is just to set up a structure that will allow for these projects to really work,” said Christopher Merrill, the director of the UI International Writing Program.

Merrill said local officials will select a director to head the UNESCO initiative by early July. New projects will, officials hope, be funded by a combination of public and private contributions, he said.

So far, interest has come from a variety of groups, including the UI, city officials, Iowa City Public Library employees, and the writers themselves.

“It’s continually appropriate that the literary image of Iowa City receive attention,” said Marvin Bell, Iowa’s first poet laureate.

On Tuesday night, following favorable comments from UI President Sally Mason and City Councilor Ross Wilburn, Bell read from a poem he wrote to accompany Iowa City’s petition to become a City of Literature. An audience of local writers and literature fans smiled at glimpses of the writing community’s potential future with this program.

Bowden said three more cities are currently being considered for the UNESCO City of Literature designation: Dublin, Vancouver, and Calcutta.

“The more I hear about this project, the more excited I get,” Mason said. “Even in the midst of gloomy news here, bright spots emerge. And this is one of those bright spots.”


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