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Release: Sept. 29, 2000

UI launches annual Paul Engle Literary Festival with Oct. 11 reading by IWP veterans

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa will inaugurate the annual Paul Engle Literary Festival, honoring the long-time director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and co-founder of the International Writing Program (IWP), with a free reading by two prominent IWP veterans, Mexican fiction writer David Toscana and Czech fiction writer/screenwriter Arnost Lustig, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11 in the Richey Ballroom of the Iowa Memorial Union.

The Engle Festival reading was scheduled on the eve of the sixth International Conference on the Short Story in English, which will be hosted by the UI Oct. 12-14.

Lustig, who attended the IWP in 1970, is an exuberant elder statesman of Czech and Jewish literature; while Toscana, who attended the IWP in 1994, has emerged as one of the major younger voices of Mexican letters.

Toscana’s fourth book, "Tula Station," was released in English translation last spring. His work has been compared to the writing of Julio Cortazar, the young Carlos Fuentes and Umberto Eco. El Observador called him "the most original and enjoyable writer of his generation."

Lustig, a charismatic survivor of Nazi concentration camps, now teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written more than 20 novels, short story collections, novellas and film scripts, and he was one of the leading figures of the Czech New Wave Cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. He won the Karel Capek Book Award, was nominated for the American National Book Award and twice received the American National Jewish Book Award. He says of himself, "I still have the soul of a boy and I am proud of it."

The Paul Engle Literary Festival will annually honor one of Iowa’s most accomplished native sons. It will feature some of the dynamic and engaging literature worldwide, and in future years the festival will host outreach programs to all corners of the state. Christopher Merrill, the director of the IWP, hopes that it will become a major literary event, "building the kinds of cultural bridges dear to Paul Engle’s heart."

From humble Iowa roots, Paul Engle became one of the world’s leading cultural figures. Clark Blaise, the Writers’ Workshop alumnus who directed the IWP through most of the ‘90s, described Engle as "the most influential American writer of the century," for how he transformed the life of the writer in the United States. "He virtually created the literary community of America, and he was writers' ambassador-at-large to the rest of the world. . . He made the word ‘Iowa’ synonymous with writing and turned Iowa City into the narrative capitol of the world."

Engle (1908-1991) attended Coe College in his hometown of Cedar Rapids before enrolling at the UI, where he became the first student anywhere to obtain a graduate degree on the basis of a book of poems. That book, "Worn Earth," won the 1932 Yale Younger Poets award, marking Engle as one of the most promising poets on the American literary scene. A New York Times review of his second book hailed him as "a new voice of American poetry."

Soon after he returned to Iowa from study at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, Engle took over the UI graduate seminar in creative writing. Engle’s vision, enthusiasm and persistence built that course of study into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most prestigious and influential writing program in the world -- the blueprint for the many creative writing degree programs that now thrive on U.S. campuses.

In 1966 Engle retired from the Writers’ Workshop, but the following year he and his wife, Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh Engle, founded the International Writing Program, a unique residency program for prominent foreign writers. In more than 30 years, nearly 1,000 writers from 115 countries have completed residencies at the UI.

The importance of the IWP to international understanding was recognized in 1976 when the Engles were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Colman McCarthy wrote in the Washington Post, "Engle was doing what such groups as the United Nations and Amnesty International only dreamed of."

In 1995 the program was honored with the Governor’s Award for distinguished service to the State of Iowa.

Engle’s contributions were not confined to his work at the UI. He served on the National Council for the Arts 1965-71, and was a member of the Planning Committee for the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Although Engle devoted most of his energy to the UI writing programs, he managed to write 20 books, winning Guggenheim, Ford and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, and the Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets.

In 1990 Engle’s career was recognized with the Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1999 the Iowa magazine "Stand Alone" selected Engle as Iowa’s poet of the century.

Paul and Hualing Engle were on their way to Poland to receive that country’s highest honor to non-citizens, one in a series of awards they received from countries represented in the IWP, when he collapsed and died in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

In response to his death, Philip Roth said, "I think it’s accurate to say that with his Writers’ Workshop that Paul did as much for serious writing in America as anybody in American history." And Kurt Vonnegut added, "This man did more for other artists than anybody I can think of."

UI alumnus and faculty poet Marvin Bell, now Iowa’s Poet Laureate, said, "He made a place in the universities for writing. He was a man of stamina and commitment to writing. No one told him to do it. He just went and did it."

At his UI memorial, the tributes paid to him by former IWP participants illuminated the IWP’s ongoing importance in world affairs. Prominent writers from Eastern Europe and China spoke of the central role the IWP has played in democracy movements on both sides of the globe.

When Blaise visited Eastern Europe during the summer of 1991, Polish writers told him the IWP had played the galvanizing role for Polish intellectuals that Solidarity had played for the workers. And many former IWP participants assumed prominent governmental and diplomatic posts in several Eastern European countries in the wake of Communism’s collapse.

This fall, under the leadership of new director Christopher Merrill, the IWP is hosting 18 writers from 15 countries.

To learn more about the IWP, visit the program’s site on the World Wide Web: <>. The Writer’ Workshop site is <>. For UI arts information, visit this new address -- -- on the World Wide Web. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact <>.