Interview by Linda Mahal
A beloved faculty member of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing since 2007, Debra Marquart is a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Iowa State University, where she teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment and is Senior Editor of Flyway: Journal of Writing & the Environment. Named Iowa’s Poet Laureate in 2019, an honor she continues to hold, Marquart is the author of seven books. Her most recent book, The Night We Landed on the Moon: Essays Between Exile & Belonging, was published in 2021, and her poetry collection Gratitude with Dogs Under Stars: New & Collected Poems is forthcoming from New Rivers Press in 2022. In 2021, Marquart was awarded a Poets Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets.
In this wide-ranging interview, Marquart reflects on the Stonecoast MFA community, her recent and upcoming publications, and her deep knowledge and experience as one of North America’s preeminent writers of the environment.
LM: How has being a member of the Stonecoast MFA community informed or inspired your writing over the past few years?
DM: I feel so lucky to be a part of this community of writers. The semiannual recharge that is the residency (virtual or in-person) is something that’s been a lifeblood for me. I’m equally fed and inspired by my students and colleagues in the traditional MFA program at Iowa State, but there’s something about the Stonecoast community—maybe it’s the fact that the residencies are so intense and compacted—that always feels like a kind of infusion of energy and ideas. I always go away with mile-long booklists and new ideas. Also, I think that because we see each other only twice a year, we are so happy to be together. We don’t have to slog through all those boring faculty meetings as we do in residential MFA programs, where you’re talking about tuition and budgets and classroom size. So the Stonecoast experience is more about pure creativity, rarified craft ideas, cutting-edge topics within the field of creative writing. It’s challenging; I’m always exhausted by the end of the residency, but exhilarated to get back home, order all the books, and get started with a new group of writers for the semester. The conversations are gold.
LM: Your newest collection, The Night We Landed on the Moon: Essays between Exile and Belonging, gathers together pieces published in a variety of nonfiction journals, beginning with your essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Weather.” When you wrote this essay, had you anticipated that extreme weather would become so ubiquitous a part of our lives?
DM: Yes, that’s right. The collection brings together pieces that I wrote and published, as stand-alone pieces, over the course of about twenty years. In the middle of that, I published a memoir, so there are touches and intersections in some of the essays with the ground I covered in The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, but the subjects vary quite a bit. A number of the pieces were written for anthologies, so they have a topical approach, as is the case with the weather essay. I was approached by the editors of the anthology Prairie Weather (Ice Cube Press, 2005), to contribute a piece. When I started collecting my weather stories, I found I had an abundance, so I struck on the idea of writing prismatically about weather as Wallace Stevens does in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
But to get to your deeper question about climate change, I would say that back in 2005 I didn’t have a personal understanding of what climate change might mean. In the essay, I do connect weather patterns I’ve experienced back to those experienced by Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s, when the Corps of Discovery wintered over with the Mandan people in what is now North Dakota. Naturally, there are tornado stories in the essay and fantastic thunderstorms. I also have a little section about El Niño and La Niña. But, no, I’d say that at that time, I couldn’t have imagined what we’re experiencing now, even in North America—longer hurricane seasons, tornados in Kentucky in December, wildfires throughout the American West. And the most severe climate change effects are not apparent in this part of the Northern Hemisphere yet.
LM: In “Losing the Meadow,” an essay that pivots on the loss of pastoral landscapes to real estate development, you write, “It seems we name things after what was destroyed to create them . . . .” And in “Mrs. Schumacher Busts a Nut,” an old church is torn down and supplanted by a modern renovation, paving over one person’s paradise in the process.
In your view, is nature writing now inseparable from the necropastoral, defined by Joyelle McSweeney as “a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects”?
DM: Again, both of those essays are based on stories that I experienced. I seem to have an instinct for finding nice semi-pastoral landscapes in which to live, mostly because I grew up on a farm, so I like having a view that goes on out my windows. I seem to choose places on the edge of the city, but the problem is that the beautiful meadow with the grazing horses eventually will be sold off to build multi-million-dollar houses. Similarly, “Mrs. Schumacher Busts a Nut” is a story from my childhood, a memory of events that occurred when the local Catholic parish was trying to drive a woman off her property to extend the church parking lot. I suppose that’s another form of imperialism.
I find McSweeney’s idea of the necropastoral extremely useful for making sense of what we are experiencing now, because it’s based on the idea of collisions of things from various zones that are forced or collected or just scooped up and dropped together into a kind of collective refuse. So the South Pacific Gyre, for example, is a necropastoral zone.
The image that accompanies McSweeney’s seminal essay on the subject, “What is the Necropastoral?” features Chris Jordan’s photo of an albatross that has fallen onto a sandy beach and is decomposing. We can still see the shape of the bird’s head and beak, along with the wing feathers, but the contents of the stomach are exposed, and those contents are small bits and pieces of colorful plastic, and possibly some fishing line, etc. So we can see what the bird has been taking into its body.
An important part of McSweeney’s theory is based on the British poet Wilfred Owen’s idea of “strange meetings.” Owen conceived of this idea within the context of World War I, where fresh-faced young men marched to war announcing they’d be back home in a fortnight, but whose bodies were soon dissolving in trenches and mustard gas. In our own time, we can see these “strange meetings” occurring in our environment on a frequent basis.
LM: It’s been your project to “bring story back to an unstoried landscape,” and in your essay “Not All There,” you assert that the place where you grew up in North Dakota is a “true place full of open secrets, most of them delicious and horrifying.” Do you think all landscapes offer such secrets to the writer keen enough to listen for them?
DM: I do think that all places have unstoried layers. I’m reminded of the wonderful Infinite Cities atlases of San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York by Rebecca Solnit. The books have a succession of maps that show the same geographical area of the city, but then each section has an overlay map on a particular subject: gay rights, women’s rights, political fights, ethnic migration patterns, etc. So the compilations of all those maps, when you put them on top of each other, creates this stew of stories, a bit like geological layers. But because they are human stories, they still exert an influence. So, for that reason, I feel confident there will always be an unsung story for writers to find in a place.
The piece of mine that you reference, “Not All There,” is a kind of funny story about when I bought the Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer for Wyoming and the Grand Tetons for a friend who was going there to do some research for a book. I was stunned to find that all those high, rarified peaks bore the names of people. I wanted to see what names were on the curves and acres of my home territory, so I bought the North Dakota Atlas & Gazetteer and was discouraged to find that my home ground was not as linguistically loved as some of the grander and more dramatic landscapes of the country. This is a fairly typical Midwestern experience.
LM: In your essay “Postcards from Boomtown,” you provide a series of subversive sketches countering the economic miracle narrative of shale oil mining in the Bakken Formation. When you wrote this essay, one million barrels a day were being extracted from the Bakken. Have you been back to the Bakken since then? Is there more to say today?
DM: I’m working on a book-length poem about the oil boom in my home state of North Dakota. I started working on the book, in part, because I had just published The Horizontal World, a memoir that grapples with the following ideas: “I grew up in the most boring place on earth. Nothing ever happens or changes there. From birth, I conspired to flee the place as soon as humanly possible. Yet, in adulthood, I cannot break the tether of affection this place holds on me.” I was interested in that strange approach/avoidance attachment that the place exerts on me, and that I know it exerts on many people from North Dakota.
But right after I published the memoir, the U.S. Geological Survey announced that there was approximately 1.3 to 7.3 billion barrels of undiscovered and recoverable oil (by means of fracking) in the Bakken and the underlying Three Forks Formation. At the time, I think it was the largest inland oil find in U.S. history. Combine that abundance of oil with an extremely permissive, conservative political party governing the state, and you have an open invitation to the well-practiced juggernaut of the oil industry to move into the state, along with criminal elements following the free-flowing money. So that’s when the boom began, and the stories that were coming out of the region were like Wild West mythology.
I received grants in 2013, 2014, and 2017 from Humanities North Dakota to travel around the Bakken and teach creative writing workshops in towns impacted by the boom. I logged about 6,000 miles with each grant, so I had the chance to meet a lot of people—farmers, ranchers, truck drivers, oil workers, teenagers. It was such a valuable experience to be there, on the ground, and hear their stories.
LM: I’m reminded of the title-poem of your collection Small Buried Things (2015), which describes North Dakota as ground zero for the nation’s nuclear warheads—“grain silos above missile silos below”—now coexisting in terrifying proximity to the vast oil extraction projects, with their earthquake and explosion risks. That poem strikes me as a kind of last stand for sanity in a world where even the ice cap mentioned therein, once a seemingly fixed geographic barrier, is now fast disappearing.
DM: Yes, that multipart titular poem in Small Buried Things was my first attempt to try to pull all these layers of horrifying ironies together into one poem. Because North Dakota is a remote state, lightly populated, and populated by people who like people to mind their own business. They don’t make it a common practice of asking other people their business, so then you have a kind of ideal environment for ruthless corporations and maybe even the military to just go about their own business, unimpeded by troubling questions from the locals. This is how, perhaps, North Dakota came to be the home, during the Cold War, of an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—around 1200, by some accounts—buried throughout the top northern tier of the state and flanked on either side by air force bases.
Most of these warheads have been decommissioned since the end of the Cold War, but when I was traveling around the Bakken researching the oil boom, I realized that around 150 ICBMs are still active. They curve around the city of Minot in a kind of crescent-moon shape, and they coexist with the fracking industry, which is actively drilling in the same territory. I found a newspaper article with the head of the Petroleum Commission and the military commander from the air force base commenting back and forth about how successfully they were “sharing the territory,” and my first thought was to wonder how the people who live there must feel to be included in the category of “territory.”
LM: “Carte Blanche,” the final, profound essay of The Night We Landed on the Moon, tells the story of how something that had felt like “the end of the world” to you during college was actually “the beginning of resource management, of life stewardship, of understanding limits, of maturity.” Could you say a little bit about this essay? It might be my favorite one in the book.
DM: I feel a bit sheepish about this essay, because I reveal the fact that I was horribly underprepared for dealing with my own finances. I didn’t understand how checking accounts worked when I went to college, even though my father gave me a checking account to “buy whatever I needed.” Clearly, he didn’t understand the extent of what I might consider “necessary.” In the essay, I compare my own season of “carte blanche” with the oil industry that is now running through the natural resources of the state of North Dakota, quite a bit unchecked, largely because of the aforementioned permissive state government that encourages the oil industry to stay.
This essay, I think, is really a love letter to my father, a way of saying that I’m glad he’s not alive to see what is happening, because I believe it would be devastating to him. The essay is also about how we have to undo our civilities and our manners sometimes—all those things our parents told us about getting along in the world—and ask the second question, the third question about what this is all costing, even if one’s own government doesn’t seem to want to bother to ask that question or enforce their own policies, fines, and penalties for egregious violations of environmental protections and safety rules.
LM: Do you think humanity is learning the lesson that there is no such thing as “carte blanche” when it comes to ecosystems?
DM: I’m not sure whether humanity is learning the lesson. Covid and climate change have smacked us with some serious dilemmas and questions, and I think that I do see movement—a humbling effect, a quieting in so many people, as we struggle with illness, loss and isolation. There are more stories in the media about climate change, habitat loss, and extinction, and such a proliferation of really sophisticated books about these subjects. One obstacle, I think, is that the general public has got to see these things as an emergency in order for governments to truly act, and the general public is not reading these books.
LM: What advice would you give to aspiring nature writers of the late Anthropocene?
DM: Oh, my, I think I’m still seeking advice, so I’m not sure whether I’m qualified enough to give advice. But, humbly, I would say that it’s first important to look at the term “nature poetry” itself and address all the romantic notions that go along with it—notions that allow it to be dismissed. Some people want to blame it on Thoreau: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a Freedom and Culture merely civil, – to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” Often, when I hear people talk about “nature poetry,” I assume that they are thinking of that sweet, sometimes sentimental poetry, a poetry shaped by American Transcendentalism that speaks of the consoling effect of the sea and butterflies and grass growing. (I don’t think there is a clear linear evolution here, because some of Mary Oliver’s poems venture across the line from sentiment to sentimental, but then her next poem hits you like a two-by-four to the forehead. And Whitman wrote fiercely about grass.)
Ecopoets have been bumping out those notions of “nature poetry” over the last few decades, and now we have some murkier categories to work with, including environmental poetry and ecological poetry. A good source is the Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street. I also like Camille Dungy’s anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry and a really exhaustive anthology, The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep. I guess my first advice is to read widely and deeply, and also to keep an eye on things around you, things changing, situations that you can authentically enter and find ways to observe, track, and eventually narrate.
LM: In “Those Desirable Things,” you describe the steps you took to hew out a place for yourself as a writer in the world. What did your experience teach you that might be helpful to beginning writers?
DM: I was a road musician when I started writing. My band lost everything in a truck fire, and that severely altered my career path. Eventually, I kind of crashed and burned and ended up back in Fargo-Moorhead, where I had gone to college before I went on the road. I was living with my guitar-player boyfriend, who had lots of gear and who gave guitar lessons at home to make some money, so, naturally, he needed the second bedroom for his music studio, and our space was limited.
The essay meditates on Woolf’s theory that just having the room—a room of one’s own—is the start to finding voice. I chronicle how I struggled to find a writing space, eventually moving my writing desk into a crawl space that ran under our living room floor. I had to duck walk to get to the part of the crawl space where the ceiling rose to the point where I could sit up in a desk and write. But I wrote there for some time because it was the only place where I could put a desk that would sit undisturbed waiting for my return.
I’m not sure whether this is encouraging or discouraging for emerging writers to hear, but I kind of marvel at my determination when I think back at this time. In the end, I wrote most of my first book in the middle of the night—against the grain of a very difficult home and work life. I was working a full-time day job as a receptionist/bookkeeper, then going to night classes to finish a graduate degree. I would come home after class and just crash into bed at about 9:30, then I would automatically wake up at about 3 a.m. and go to my writing desk (in the crawl space) and write madly in my notebook. This was before I had a computer at home.
I’d go back to bed at about 5 a.m. and sleep a few more hours, then get up, shower and rush to work at 8 a.m. I’d always take my written notes to work, because I had a computer at work, and I’d type up my poems when my boss was out of the office. Sometimes I’d be completely shocked by what I had written, because the poems had been written in an almost unconscious fugue state. I suppose the advice there is that you’ll never have an ideal environment to write, so it’s best not to wait for it. And I do think there’s something to be said for writing under duress and writing while exhausted. All your topside, conscious-mind prohibitions are too tired to object, and the good stuff can get out.
LM: What’s ahead for you in 2022?
DM: Well, first, I’m looking forward to more Stonecoast goodness, all around. And I’m teaching a graduate course on travel writing at Iowa State University. I’ve taught the course several times, but this year I worked at decolonizing the reading list and factoring in the complication of Covid on questions of travel. Along with a dedicated group of graduate students in our MFA program at ISU, I’ll continue to serve as senior editor for our national literary journal, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment. (Please send us some work.)
In 2021, I received a Poets Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets to create experiential poetry events around the state of Iowa in my role as Iowa Poet Laureate, so I’m collaborating with local history experts and naturalists from different parts of the state who will take groups of writers out on experiential events to teach us about their home places, and then, after that, we’ll go back to the school or library or museum and do some generative workshops. This is modeled a bit on the workshops I taught for Humanities North Dakota in the oil boom zone. I’m looking forward to getting to see more of my adopted home state.
I mentioned above the book-length docu-poem about the oil boom, which I’m hoping will grow in the cave-like quiet of winter, which is the season when I get most of my hardest writing done. And my more joyous project is my book about music, How Fish Learned to Sing: Notes on a Life in Music | An Acoustic Ecology, which is a story of my rather unsuccessful career as a female road musician—an autobiography of dreaming and catastrophe—but which is also, more importantly, a meditation on the pleasures and privileges of singing, a treatise on the art of listening, and a cultural analysis of the musician as the centerpiece of live performance and auditory spectacle.
I have about one hundred pages of that project finished or already published, with another one hundred pages in draft. The book is starting to take on a gravitational field, pulling missing parts of itself from my notebooks into the manuscript, so I’m hoping that it will reach the point of critical mass soon. We must remain hopeful and patiently tenacious in our approach to craft.