Debra Marquart, poet laureate of Iowa, is the author of Small Buried Things: Poems (New Rivers Press, 2015) and a teacher in Iowa State University’s interdisciplinary MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment. In 2021, Marquart received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship to launch Sounding Our Place, a series of experiential literary events that pair an interest in place, the natural world, and environmental issues with poetry / storytelling, songwriting, and creative writing workshops. The events will be planned around the state of Iowa, with a focus on creating partnerships between young writers from local schools and environmental and conservation organizations, designed to reach communities in the rural corners and the urban areas of the state that do not generally receive attention in arts programming.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Iowa? What support do you hope future poets laureate have?
DM: Audre Lorde spoke most meaningfully to me about the importance of poetry in my life as a woman when she wrote, “Poetry is not a luxury, but a necessity of our existence.” I grew up in North Dakota, a rural agricultural state; so, poetry was not something that surrounded me. Yet, it found me. In fact, poetry called to me, living out there surrounded by the, sometimes harsh, but austere, beauty of the high plains. And poetry helped me find meaning in my environment and a way to express the profundity and even the tragedy that surrounded me on a daily basis. I want to suggest that the illumination that poetry offers—in its succinct articulation of something that’s often otherwise ineffable—offers relief and consolation to people who feel those powerful undercurrents of life, but don’t quite have the words to express those feelings. Poetry steps in to fill the gap of expression. In this way, poetry has both a utilitarian everyday use, but also a ritual use that makes it essential to life on so many levels.
In Iowa, we have many different landscapes, industries, and demographics, and therefore, we might have different relationships to how we perceive the world and express ourselves creatively. Within the state, I do see a longstanding love of, and respect for, the arts in general, and especially the literary arts. This might be, in part, because of the influence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on the ethos of the state, along with the designation of Iowa City as a UNESCO City of Literature. “Writers Grow Here,” is a slogan that we used to include on all the program materials here at Iowa State University where I teach in an environmental MFA program.
So, how does one bridge that gap between a general appreciation of the arts to a larger creative practice within the state? Early on, I perceived that many Iowans share a fierce love of place and attachment to landscape, no matter where we live in the state or how we make our living. My “Sounding Our Place” fellowship focus allows me to create events that invite Iowans into experiential events that promote conversations about the unique features and stories connected to the places where they live. I think these stories can work as glue in some respect, binding us not only to the places but also to each other in bonds of affection and understanding.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
DM: Above I mentioned the “everyday” versus the “ritual” uses of poetry. As laureate, I’ve been more aware of my honorific role as a representative of poetry—as someone who highlights and upholds the importance of poetry and creative expression in general for all those who might be called to engage with the art and craft of writing. That might mean that my own personal agendas as an individual artist have to be backgrounded at times in order to speak more generally in my encouraging role as poet laureate.
Having said that, I do believe that there is a time and place to bring one’s unique experience and perspective to the table, to offer insights and views that can inform the public discourse. So I’m not suggesting that poets laureate have to censor themselves, but that sometimes there’s greater value in holding one’s tongue and choosing carefully the moment and manner in which one speaks one’s truth. Our perspectives are important, and we need to add our authentic voices to the larger chorus of voices. Our current U.S. poet laureate, Joy Harjo, has been a model in this practice in my opinion, and I’ve learned much from watching her example.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
DM: Again, I think that it does require some discipline as a creative artist to maintain this commitment to finding common ground while also strongly holding one’s beliefs and gently bringing one’s own unique perspective to the conversation. The word “humble” comes to mind here—that we should approach the task of building community humbly. As poets, we often believe that expression (reading, talking, voicing, articulating) is the key to creating community. But I think the harder part of this work involves staying still, less talking, more patience, and keen listening.
In addition to my work as a poet, I’m also a performing musician, and I’m currently working on a memoir entitled “How Fish Learned to Sing,” about singing, performance, and my rather disastrous career as a rock and roll musician in my younger years. One of the emphases of the memoir is the art of listening. I started this listening project when I dragged my album collection upstairs from the basement and bought a turntable and re-engaged a practice of deep listening, spending time with my old albums. I remembered then how, when I was younger, I remember we used to sit in rooms surrounded by albums and just quietly listen to an entire album. I have been trying to incorporate deep listening back into my life, not only as a musician, but also as a poet and as a citizen. I have so much to learn from hearing about the experiences and perspectives of those around me. I am all ears.
Poets.org: What part of your project were you most excited about?
DM: It’s been so much fun to travel around the state and learn about the different landscapes in the state—everything from agricultural fields to rolling woodlands. The northeastern part of the state has an area that was missed by the last glacier, and it’s known as “little Switzerland.” There’s the Driftless Area in the eastern part of the state and the Loess Hills in the western part of the state, all of which are unique landscapes. The middle of Iowa where I live is known as the Des Moines Lobe, because it was the last reach of the last glacier, so it’s flat land, bordered by glacial moraines. My biggest regret is that I didn’t study geology as an undergraduate, but I’m getting an education in geology by traveling around and learning from naturalists and hearing the stories of those who live in and have fierce attachments to these lovely places.
I think the “sounding” of these stories and attachments is an important part of the process. When we acoustically release a story into the atmosphere, it takes up a solid place in the world. It creates the opportunity for ideas and feelings to attach themselves to the idea, for an ethos and history to be solidified. This is how we shape our ideas of place, of the value and importance of the places where we live. And it’s also the way in which we describe to other parts of the country who we are and why we value what we value. In other words, these articulations have the power to build understanding across barriers of silence and misunderstanding.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience with your project?
DM: While being appointed laureate has been an incredible honor, I do have some difficulty juggling the demands of my normal professional obligations as a distinguished professor in the MFA Program in creative writing at Iowa State University where I teach against all the things I’d like to do as poet laureate of the state. I find it hard to say no, and I often find myself oversubscribed. I studied improvisation a few years ago, and the first rule of improvisation is to say “yes, and,” which I have been trying to do in all my roles in life. This might fall under the category of “too much of a good thing.”
Poets.org: One event that you produced alongside Megan Jorgensen, Washington County naturalist, called “Hike and Write,” encouraged artists to go on a hike and find inspiration in nature. How did you come up with the name “Sounding our Place?” Would you be able to share with us what a few of the other literary events have entailed?
DM: Yes, I think I outlined some of the thinking behind the design of the “Sounding Our Place” project above, so I’ll just add that the Washington Public Library event was such a great chance to implement this design, and I was lucky to find a wonderful collaborative partner in LeAnn Kunz, the assistant director at the Washington Public Library. I usually try to create a grouping of events when I go into a community, so we started with a public reading/music performance at the Washington Public Library on Friday night, then followed up on Saturday morning with the “Hike & Write” at the Marr Park Conservation Center.
Megan Jorgensen, the naturalist at the interpretive center, took us on a walk around Marr Park and described their conservation efforts. I was lucky because there was a thriving writer’s group in the area, many of whom came out to be part of the event. So, we hiked around and “word collected,” as Megan described the conservation work, and then we went back to the interpretive center and did some generative exercises based on the words we’d collected and what we learned on the hike.
I have a growing list of generative exercises that I’ve developed over the years, including a “story you’ve told a million times” prompt, and a “smell tour” exercise that involves handing out mason jars with various scents inside that invite the participants to write about the sense memories that the scent within the jar invokes. I try to do around three to four generative exercises—allowing quiet time for freewriting—but then also reserving ample time for sharing and storytelling. I find the sharing portion of the session is always the most important because people open up in moving ways, and participants are generous in their responses to those who are willing to share. Sometimes tears are shed.
In the coming months, I have events planned at several libraries around the state, and I’m partnering with different facilities/organizations around the state to do experiential events. For example, the Plymouth County Historical Society in LeMars will be assisting me in leading a “treasure trove hunt” of their holdings, and a naturalist in Jackson County at the Hurstville Interpretive Center in Maquoketa, Iowa will lead us on a walk to view the spring ephemerals.Both of these events will be followed by a generative creative writing workshop. Similarly, I’m doing a generative event centered around a Plein Air Arts Festival in Mount Vernon, Iowa that will involve generating ekphrastic responses to the paintings that are created at the festival. In early June, I’m honored to have been invited to deliver a keynote address at the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar. In the keynote, I’ll highlight the important conservation work of Marlene Ehresman, who runs the Iowa Wildlife Center here in Ames, rehabilitating injured wildlife. At the Loess Hills seminar, I’ll be offering a generative workshop after a naturalist releases a raptor at the end of the conference.
Right now, I’m tentatively working on a summer laureate event at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Sioux City, Iowa, as well as a poet-in-the-schools event in the greater Des Moines school district in lateApril or earlyMay, right at the end of the school year. Information about these events and more, as details are finalized, can be found on the “events” page of my website.
Poets.org: Do participants have an opportunity to share the work they produced during the Sounding our Place events, with you and the other participants?
DM: As I mentioned above, the sharing part of the generative workshop always provides the richest and most powerful moments of the day for me. I always consider it a sign of good teaching when I’m talking less and my students/participants are talking more. In each person present at the event, there is an incredible wealth of stories, ideas, and experiences just waiting to be offered up. People are often reluctant to speak up, unless the opening is created for them to safely do so. My job is to offer the prompt, the opportunity for expression, then to create a safe listening environment.
Because we’re doing mostly generative work, it’s hard to forge the freewrites into polished and publishable work. Also, I don’t want participants to feel that they have to go too public with their freewrites. But I do make it a goal to talk about publishing and venues where their work can find a more permanent and public home.
For the poets-in-the-schools project, I plan to create a kind of online anthology of student writing that I’m hoping the teachers can help me organize, by working with their students to revise drafts after the poets-in-the-schools festival is over. For me as a writer, it was a powerful revelation when I realized that my drafts could find a home in a publishable form, so I think it’s important to provide that information to participants of my workshops.
Poets.org: Is there a specific poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in Iowa?
DM: Oh, my, so many riches. I look forward to my Poem-A-Day poem, which always comes over my email in the early hours. Also, I especially love the “Teach This Poem” feature offered by the Academy of American Poets, which offers teachers all the tools in one place to implement the reading, discussing, and analyzing of a grouping of poems on a particular, and often timely, subject. I’m excited, this year, to be part of the “Dear Poets” series, and I’m so looking forward to reading how students hearing my poem, “Lament,” will respond.
As a poet and a teacher of poetry, I rely so heavily on the “find a poem” feature on poets.org, and I especially appreciate all the anthologies that poets.org has created. I recently drew from a music anthology that was curated on poets.org, and I also taught a “making kin in the kingdom anamalia” workshop recently, about the depiction of animals in poetry, and the poets.org anthology on poems about animals was especially helpful in finding the best grouping of poems to use in my workshop. In other words, I seem to draw resources from poets.org multiple times each day in my work as a poet and a teacher of writing.