Porch Light Literary provides resources for community creatives of all backgrounds

Porch Light Literary is an outreach-oriented arts center in Iowa City providing resources to community creatives not necessarily associated with the University of Iowa.


Matt Sindt

The front porch of the PorchLight building is seen Saturday Nov. 5, 2022.

Charlotte McManus, Arts Reporter

In the middle of Iowa City’s east neighborhood, the Porch Light house sits on top of a hill surrounded by pine trees and potted plants. The porch, sporting cafe tables and a swing, glows with string lights.

The Porch Light Literary Arts Center opened its doors a little over a year ago. Since then, the cozy vintage house on 1019 E. Washington St. has served as a space for literary programs and community outreach.

This is the spot where writers gather every Saturday for the “Community Salon,” which is open to writers of all ages and literary backgrounds.

The second floor of the house contains offices for Antelope Lending Library and Iowa City Poetry, which are other independent arts organizations. Their center also houses yearly writer-in-residence artists who receive affordable housing and a quiet space to work. There’s also a room upstairs that artists and writers alike can rent out as a studio space.

Jennifer Colville, the founder of Porch Light and the literary magazine Prompt Press, said Porch Light seeks to extend Iowa City’s literary tradition beyond the University of Iowa campus.

“We have a lot of artists graduating from wonderful MFA programs at the university, but they’re not staying in the city,” Colville said. “The question was: How do we create spaces that have cultural offerings outside of the university?”

Porch Light hosts several programs, including “The Free Generative Writing Workshop,” a collaboration between Porch Light and Iowa City Poetry, in which an established writer gives a prompt to attendees. After twenty minutes of writing, participants share their work and receive feedback.

Porch Light and Iowa City Poetry also host “The Fairweather Writing Sessions,” an outreach program creative writing workshops to people in the nonprofit Shelter House Project to provide shelter, support and education to people without housing.

Porch Light also hosts programming for kids.

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Last summer, they held a summer workshop called “Prompt for the Planet” where participants interacted with nature and responded to a creative writing prompt centered on the natural world. Afterward, its responses were compiled into a video that was played at the Englert in an “eco-cabaret” that involved writing, dancing, art, music, and film centered around nature.

Colville said Porch Light plans to continue these workshops next summer.

“We want to support interdisciplinary literary projects — those kinds of projects where literature bumps up against the other arts — and outreach-oriented literary projects,” Colville said. “I think those are two things that are harder to do in a university setting, so we wanted to be a space for that.”

Tameka Cage Conley, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate and an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Emory University, said she was grateful for the opportunity to live at Porch Light as a writer-in-residence from June to October.

“Being able to have access to the city and tranquility was exceptional for me,” Cage Conley said. “It was a serene experience in a very serene location, but I had access to all the things I love about Iowa City.”

Iowa City-based artists Jennifer MacBain-Stephens and Christopher Eck recently held “Devil’s Night,” a Halloween-themed poetry reading, at Porch Light. While they are not official collaborators at Porch Light, they reached out to Colville to reserve the space.

“It’s a beautiful, wonderful space,” MacBain said. “Jenny’s been really encouraging of local artists and local writers.”

MacBain added Porch Light offers a discount for mothers and caregivers.

“It’s important to women writers and writers who don’t always have time to carve out a space in their home to the arts,” she said. “[Porch Light] is a space where women and caregivers can go, and no one is knocking on the door and asking when dinner will be ready.”

Cassi Elton, founder of Antelope Lending Library, Iowa City’s first independent bookmobile, said she is glad to have the office space.

“When Jenny started Porch Light, we were really excited about the opportunity to have office space embedded in a literary community,” Elton said. “People think of libraries as just the physical space where the books are. But how the books get on the shelves — that all happens behind the scenes.”

Elton also mentioned Porch Light’s commitment to community outreach. “I love that [Porch Light] is really embedded within the community,” Elton said.