Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

Debra Marquart

Debra MarquartDebra Marquart is a professor of English in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. In addition, her books include two poetry collections, From Sweetness (Pearl Editions, 2002) and Everything’s a Verb (New Rivers Press, 1995), and a short story collection, The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories (New Rivers Press, 2001) which draws on her experiences as a road musician. Marquart is a member of The Bone People, a jazz-poetry, rhythm & blues project, with whom she has released two CDs: Orange Parade and A Regular Dervish. Marquart’s memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere (Counterpoint Books, 2006) was awarded the 2007 PEN USA Creative Nonfiction Award. Marquart’s work has also received a Pushcart Prize, the Shelby Foote Nonfiction Prize from the Faulkner Society, the Headwaters Prize, the Minnesota Voices Award from New Rivers Press, the Elle Lettres Award from Elle Magazine, the Mid-American Review Nonfiction Award, the John Guyon Nonfiction Award from Crab Orchard Review, and a National Endowment for the Arts Prose Fellowship. Marquart is at work on two books: a novel, set in Greece, titled Among the Ruins; and a roots/travel memoir about her grandparents’ flight from Russia, titled Somewhere Else This Time Tomorrow.

Selected Publications:

The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. A Memoir (Counterpoint Books, 2006)

From Sweetness: Poems (Pearl Editions, 2002)

The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories ( New Rivers
Press, 2001)

Everything's a Verb (New Rivers Press, 1995)

How I Teach:

I didn’t set out to be a writer.  I started out wanting to be a performing musician.  Those plans were amended in 1983 when, after seven years of traveling with rock bands, I came off the road and faced the economic realities of life as a musician.  So much for Plan A.

I corrected my path.  I went back to school, but I kept playing music—this time in non-traveling bands.  I migrated to creative writing classes and to writing teachers.  I discovered that I had stories to tell.  I started teaching creative writing and publishing, eventually publishing books, but all the while I continued to perform music, for the last fourteen years with my jazz-poetry, rhythm & blues project, The Bone People.  These concentric circles of activity seem natural to me—performer, musician, author, teacher, researcher—and I can’t say that I could do without any one of them.  Each activity informs the others. 

As a working writer, I can assure my students that I am up late in the fever-dark hours of night and the dim hours of morning drafting my own poems, essays, and stories, and that I am spending the same long hours in the library or in front of the computer that I expect them to spend completing the assignments they are writing for my classes. 

As a teacher, I believe that good writers are voracious readers.  I expect my students to read widely and idiosyncratically, not just within their genre (i.e., novels, poems, memoirs) or within the research disciplines that drive their content (i.e., botany, architecture, music), but instead I imagine that writers should read like dogs, just following their noses, through the library stacks and bookshelves, through conversations about books over coffee with other writers, to wherever their wonder, their curiosity, and their research needs lead them.  One never knows where the missing piece is hiding.

As a teacher, I believe that writers should work with a full awareness of the body of existing literature that’s been written in one’s genre as well as an understanding of the theory, the expectations and formulas of that genre; however, my approach to critiquing and responding to student work is organic, rather than formulaic.  In other words, I don’t impose formulas or genre expectations from above.  Instead, I like to look at what is in the draft, what’s lurking, what’s waiting to be coaxed out.  At times, when critiquing a text, I have found that an image or theme that appears, at first blush, to be a mistake or out-of-place in a draft could possibly be the thread that, if developed, would lead to a richer completion of the draft.  Other times it’s not; other times it’s just an out-of-place thing that needs to be weeded out of the draft.  As an editor, I’ve learned to differentiate, and as a teacher I work to help my students develop that eye for differentiation—that skill for seeing what to keep and what to take out. 

Even though writing seems like a solitary activity, it’s actually a collaborative act, especially when one comes to the point of publishing.  The goal for any writer, I think, is to take on as many lenses or ways of seeing one’s text as possible.  So that when one comes to the next point of collaboration—with a teacher, a peer, an editor, and eventually a reader—one can arrive with the most refined, advanced, and beautifully-crafted text one can produce.