Acclaimed Mexican poet, translator, and fiction writer reaches out
Monday, October 19, 2015

At age 9, Karen Villeda made up her mind: She wanted to scare people.

Villeda had just read a collection of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and was fascinated by the author’s ability to manipulate his readers’ emotions. She resolved to write a story that would terrify people as much as Poe's work had frightened her.

Karen Villeda’s events

What: Spanish MFA Reading: Conversación y Lectura con los Escritores del IWP
When: 6 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 20
Where: 315 Phillips Hall 

What: An Evening with Latin@/Hispanic Writers in Residency 
When: 6:30 to 8 p.m., Monday, Oct. 26 
Where: Latino–Native American Cultural Center on the UI campus

What: IWP/UI Department of Dance Collaboration
When: 7:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 30
Where: Space Place Theater

Hoping to capture the author’s magic, she modeled her short story after one of Poe’s most famous tales, “The Black Cat.” But despite her best efforts, Villeda was disappointed in her story and abandoned the project.

Her discouragement didn’t last long, however. Soon Villeda was reading and writing as much as she could, determined to improve her craft. 

In her hometown of Tlaxcala, Mexico, about an hour and a half from Mexico City, Villeda, by then 16, began attending a literary workshop for young writers. Before long, her first poem was printed in the local newspaper. By 18, her first book of poetry was published. Eventually, she went on to study International Affairs at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education's Mexico City campus. 

Today, Villeda is a fall resident in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. She is the author of four books of poetry, most recently “Dodo.” Her work in poetry and multimedia, widely anthologized and translated, has received recognition through several awards, including the 2014 National Fine Arts Prize for Children’s Fiction and the 2013 Elías Nandino National Award for Youth Poetry. 

This year, Villeda was also selected to be the IWP’s Outreach Fellow.  

“The Outreach Fellowship was launched in 2013 as a way for the IWP Fall Residency to engage the larger Iowa community,” says Samantha Nissen, program coordinator for IWP’s Outreach and Special Programs.

That first year, Outreach Fellow Patrícia Portela, from Portugal, organized a sound installation project called HORTUS at the Iowa City Book Festival. Last year, Andra Rotaru, of Romania, created a short documentary film during his tenure as Outreach Fellow.  

Like those who came before her, Karen Villeda is working to make a difference—in this case through two main projects. The first is creating an interactive website where users can choose their own adventure through digital narratives provided by IWP Fall Residents. 

“The main strength is that this project will be available not only for the community of Iowa City, but the whole world since it will be online,” says Villeda.

The website is expected to be up and running in November or early December. 

Villeda’s other focus is teaching bilingual poetry to local elementary students through the Iowa Youth Writing Project, an initiative of the UI’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing. She is also working with the university’s Master of Fine Arts degree program in Spanish Creative Writing and with the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, as well as the local Spanish-speaking community.  

What Villeda values most, however, are the daily lessons learned from interacting with her fellow writers. She says living and working with writers from 33 different cultural backgrounds has opened her eyes and made her a more tolerant person.

When she isn’t busy with her Outreach Fellow duties, Villeda is working on her first novel. The project hasn’t been easy for someone who has spent most of her career writing poetry. But Villeda welcomes the challenge, facing it with the same fearlessness she once used to emulate Poe all those years ago.