Professor of poetry among few at UI to receive prestigious honor
Thursday, April 15, 2021

To the world, she’s a writer, vocalist, actress, professor, scholar, critic, author, and more.

tracie morris
Tracie Morris

But University of Iowa Professor Tracie Morris says she’s first and foremost a poet—a poet who was named a 2021 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship recipient.

“I was very much shocked because there are so many wonderful people deserving these honors, and I didn’t feel entitled,” says Morris. “I was in a few days of shock, but also gratitude of the support and outpouring of congratulations.”

Established in 1925, the Guggenheim Fellowship aims to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting individuals who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for creative arts. The fellowship provides six to 12 months’ funding for artists, scholars, and writers to pursue creative projects.

Morris wears many different hats and has such a diverse background that she says she thought it would hinder her chances of being considered. Instead, it may have raised them.

The Brooklyn, New York, native earned an MFA in poetry from Hunter College and PhD from New York University before studying acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Morris has presented her work in more than 30 countries, and her poetry, books, and recordings have been featured in museums around the world.

She also has spent more than 20 years teaching at institutions of higher education, including at Iowa where she teaches poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

And while she has experience in a variety of subjects and genres, she says she always thinks of herself as a poet first.

“It’s not, ‘I’m a poet and I do these other things.’ It’s, ‘I’m a poet; therefore, I do these other things,’” says Morris. “I think and feel like a poet does. Then I apply my ideas about poetry to different things. I apply it to scholarship, voice, song, and even the way I support nonprofit artwork as a volunteer and advocate. I consider all of it an aspect of my poetic self.”

Morris says poetry is the bedrock of everything humans understand about the world around them—from the creation and naming of things to explanations of grandiose topics.

A few years ago, her unique and innovative way of approaching poetry led her to Iowa City. In 2018, Morris first joined the faculty as a visiting professor of poetry before being invited as the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Professor of Poetry at the Writers’ Workshop. She spent three semesters in that role before joining the faculty as a fulltime, tenured professor in 2020. She is the Workshop’s first permanent Black professor of poetry.

For a New York native who has spent time in dozens of countries, Iowa City might seem like an out-of-the-way place. But Morris says Iowa is, in fact, “an extraordinary place.”

“My relationship to the Workshop is quite profound,” she says. “I have felt welcomed and supported by my colleagues. Being in the company of my students, colleagues, mentors, and writing workshop leadership has meant a great deal, and has encouraged me to cultivate my relationship with poetry more deeply.”

The fellowship will allow Morris the flexibility to work on a book about thespian Ira Aldridge that has been 10 years in the making. In addition, Morris will also develop a play, heavily influenced by poetry, on Aldridge’s life. The play has been workshopped at the UI’s Poet’s Theater series.

“He was one of the most extraordinary people to live on this planet,” says Morris. “He was so extraordinary that I think people just couldn’t deal with him, so they pretended he never existed. Among many things, he revolutionized acting techniques all over the world, and he he achieved these feats as an African American, later Afro-Briton, during slavery times.”

This year’s Guggenheim Fellowship recipients represent 49 scholarly disciplines and artistic fields from 73 academic institutions. Since its establishment, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has granted my than $400 million in fellowships to more than 18,000 individuals.

University of Iowa recipients of the Guggenheim Fellowship since 2010


  • David Gompper, School of Music, piano concerto, triple concerto, orchestral piece
  • H. Glenn Penny, Department of History, Beyond Colonial Questions: Being German in Guatemala from the 1880s through the 1980s


  • Christopher Merrill, director, International Writing Program, The Trials of Roger Williams: A Biography


  • John D’Agata, Department of English, three essays


  • Phillip Round, Department of English, A Listening Ear: The Collaborative Practice of Early Native Literature


  • Judith Pascoe, Department of English, Wuthering Heights in Japan
  • Steven Ungar, Cinematic Arts, Social Documentary in France, 1927–1962


  • Ethan Canin, Creative Writing, untitled collection of short stories
  • Paula Michaels, Department of History, Lamaze: An International History