Calling all poets: Poetry in Public project seeks submissions from Johnson County's amateur scribes

A decal for the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature on the door of the Iowa City Public Library in Iowa City on Thursday
A decal for the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature on the door of the Iowa City Public Library in Iowa City on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Being a UNESCO City of Literature is about more than hosting a writing program, it’s wrapped up in the entire Iowa City community, according to city Public Art Coordinator Marcia Bollinger.

“Our whole city culture in some ways rotates around the literary component,” she said. “I can’t help but believe Iowa City has a very high percentage of avid readers and writers.”

Some of those community writers have their work on display each year in the Poetry in Public project, which showcases poetry by children and adults on city buses and around town.

Bollinger helped create the project 18 years ago, after city improvements to Iowa Avenue in downtown Iowa City included public art installations along the Literary Walk, which displays poetry and writing by people connected to the city.

“I started getting feedback from people saying it would be nice for amateur poets to get a chance to show off their work,” Bollinger said.

The project also displays poetry in unexpected places, like the buses, the city recreation center and the senior center.

Now in its 18th year, the project is accepting submissions for 2020. Selected poems will be turned into posters to be posted around town from May through the fall. Some poets also will have the opportunity to read their poems publicly during the Iowa Arts Festival in June. Submissions are due by 5 p.m. Feb. 7.


The number of poems chosen by a panel of local judges each year varies, depending on the number of submissions and also how many buses are in the city’s fleet, as each bus gets two to three poems to display. Last year, 56 poems were chosen, and in previous years there have been up to 84 poems. Submissions from adults and children are considered separately.

“We have lots of submissions from children and encouragement from teachers and schools,” Bollinger said. “The kids get excited about participating, and if their poem is selected, we send them a poster with their poem on it.”

Entrants must be residents of Johnson County and can submit one poem per author. Poems must be no more than seven lines in length, not including the title, and can be either new or existing work. Poems will be judged on quality of writing as well as accessibility and suitability for public display before a general audience. Special complex formatting, layouts, “work art” and non-standard typefaces should be avoided. If reprint permissions are required, they should be acquired before submission.

Entries can be submitted online at, where previous winning poems are also available to read. A printable submission form is also available online or by request. Email or call (319) 356-5237 for a form or with questions.

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