Education

UI English program helps anthologize Iowa high school writing

Instructors, high school students and their parents unite in a virtual book launch Thursday evening for #x201c;Subject t
Instructors, high school students and their parents unite in a virtual book launch Thursday evening for “Subject to Change: An Anthology of Iowa High School Writing.” The project, spearheaded by University of Iowa undergraduates in the Department of English’s Publishing II course, features essays, stories and poems by Iowa high school students. (Ellie Zupancic)
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Twenty-nine Iowa high school students are now published authors, thanks to an anthology project from the University of Iowa English Department’s literary publishing track.

High school students from across the state submitted more than 70 original works of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction this winter, and 37 were accepted for “Subject to Change: An Anthology of Iowa High School Writing.” Most of the students came from Eastern Iowa, and several had more than one piece included in the 206-page book.

The writers, their parents, instructors and UI students participated in a virtual book launch Thursday evening. Originally slated for Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, the event moved online in light of coronavirus physical distancing protocols.

The Zoom celebration featured the authors reading their works, as well as the UI students discussing their editorial choices.

“What was really gratifying about (Thursday) night was getting the chance to see the high schoolers and even correspond with them,” said Julia Conrad, 28, of Brooklyn, N.Y. She is one of the project’s two graduate teaching instructors, both of whom earned an MFA this spring in the UI’s non-fiction Writing Program.

“It’s really meaningful when you’re starting out writing to receive a vote of confidence and to see your name in print — and also to have the opportunity to celebrate work in a group of other writers. They all received a free copy of the anthology and get to say they’re published in a literal book with an ISBN number (International Standard Book Number) and everything.”

Working on the anthology gave more than 40 UI publishing students a taste of real-world work, said fellow instructor Bryn Lovitt, 30, originally from Los Angeles.

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“What the publishing students really get out of this experience isn’t about them, it’s empowering the voices they’re choosing to include and celebrate,” Lovitt said.

“It was really amazing — the amount of dedication to a pretty selfless project, for the students to see that there’s more to getting published when it comes to actual publishing.

“It’s important to experience at the undergraduate level,” she said, “and that makes the publishing track at Iowa a unique opportunity and window into the potential projects you can do as a publishing professional.”

Both instructors gained that real-world experience working in New York City before coming to grad school. Lovitt came to the UI at age 18 to study English and creative writing, then wrote for magazines in New York before returning to Iowa City for her MFA. Conrad came from the book publishing realm, working as a literary agent and before that, for the smaller indie presses in New York.

Both will be staying in Iowa City and will continue working on their separate book projects. Conrad also will be finishing up another MFA, in literary translation.

Lovitt also taught the Publishing II class last spring, which produced the inaugural anthology, “Past Notes.”

“The publishing track is relatively new at the University of Iowa,” she said, describing it as an advanced certificate program within the school’s English major.

Process

Divided into two semesterlong projects, the UI students created a single-issue literary magazine in the fall, and in the second semester, organized the statewide anthology project, gathering, editing and designing a book that was printed at the UI printing shop.

“There were a lot of moving parts,” Lovitt said.

She and Conrad met with the non-fiction program administrators in December. Then the two instructors formulated the call for submissions and conducted mini-workshops at area schools, so students who may not have had a creative-writing class could get an idea of the kind of pieces to submit.

“It deepened the connections we have with local high schools,” Conrad said.

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The high schoolers had December and January to submit their works, but the initial deadline was extended into early February.

“There’s a lot of rolling with the punches with a project like this,” Lovitt noted, adding they saw a surge in submissions as the deadline loomed. “Deadlines can be a great muse,” she said.

“Writers tend to be really motivated by a countdown,” Conrad added. “We got quite a few in the last hours.”

The UI students began reading the pieces in February, dividing into groups to see what themes were emerging.

Conrad’s class saw “storminess” emerging, so that became an overarching theme.

“Each mini section took a different stage of being in a storm and introduced pieces that were paired together,” she said. “For example, ‘braving a storm’ was about empowerment, bravery. ‘The eye of the storm’ was the calm and joys of whatever their writers were taking as their subjects.”

“It worked out really nicely, because Julia’s section was a very specific concept, and it came after my class’ section that was a little more freewheeling,” Lovitt said. “Another cool thing about the anthology is that it teaches you how to read it as you read it, so it picked up its own momentum.”

A lot of the organizational plans were made before spring break in mid-March, when the UI announced classes would move online for the rest of the semester.

“The last time I got to meet with my class was one of most intense classes that I’ve ever taught,” Conrad said. “We had to emotionally check in. It was such an intense moment in terms of the virus. They said goodbye to each other, essentially while also getting as much done as possible while we were in-person.

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“So in an hour and 15 minutes, we did a lot. We had very concentrated discussions about ordering the pieces, pairing editors with the pieces, and who would be working on what. It all happened in a very efficient last class session.”

Overall, Lovitt enjoyed seeing what the Publishing II students accomplished over the course of two semesters, in-person and online.

“It’s been really fun to flex both sides of publishing — editorial and digital — but mostly collaborative,” she said. “That really is the way the publishing industry is right now — digital and collaborative.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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