In Class With Professor Debra Marquart of Iowa State University

A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Professor Debra Marquart, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University and Iowa’s Poet Laureate.


What features do you believe define contemporary poetry today?

Debra Marquart: I would say that voice has emerged as a defining feature of contemporary poetry, along with an elevated performative style that is tight, rhythmic, attentive to the acoustic value of words, and that honors cadences and, sometimes, utilizes a plain spoken level of diction that allows the poem to be accessible. This tight performative style can be seen in live readings as well as on the page. I’m thinking immediately about poets like Terrance Hayes, Patricia Smith, and Danez Smith, to name a few.

Also, in terms of subject matter—everything is fair game for poetry now. Perhaps these are the qualities in the contemporary poets that I’ve been reading and teaching, and that I most admire, but I think it’s also a truism about contemporary poetry—it’s become more a part of mainstream life now. Again, maybe I just think that because I’m a poet and it’s everywhere in my life? But it’s also possible that because Facebook and Twitter have gotten everybody in the habit of writing in short bursts of language, everything feels a bit more like poetry now. The subtext and subterranean layers of contemporary poems are just as complex in poetry as they always have been, but I feel that—again, perhaps this is in the poetry that I most love—there’s an effort to make the surface of the poem accessible, so that the reader can get in.


What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?

I never think of any piece of writing as problematic. You sometimes hear this in workshop, “I had a problem with…” I never think or talk about writing that way, because a draft of a poem cannot possibly be a “problem,” because language and drafts of poems are so malleable and changeable. Nothing is irrevocable in writing; everything is subject to revision, improvement, added texture, enrichment. This is the blessing and the curse of writing. When do you know when you’re done? As writers, we all have to go through that phase with our drafts where the language is flaccid and dull or there are big parts of the poem missing—the parts that we’re still waiting for the poem to show us. This is the beauty of writing—the freedom to keep adding in layers, to go back and rethink, improve, try something else.

So I would say that one possible pitfall for young poets might be the need for patience in letting the poem come into the world. With online publishing, everything has gotten to be faster—faster drafting, faster responding to current events, faster publishing, which might work in opposition to the idea of letting poems develop over time and letting them rest so that the true poem can develop over time. And maybe I’m just thinking about myself as a young poet now, but I remember reading Adrienne Rich poems that I so admired, and Rich had this practice of dating her poems at the end to document so indicate what year or years they were written. I’d read a powerful Rich poem like “A Woman Dead in Her Forties” from The Dream of a Common Language, and at the end of the poem the composition dates for the poem would be listed as 1974-1977, and I’d think—man, I don’t have that kind of time. Of course, Rich wrote many poems between 1974 and 1977, but she let this one poem develop and percolate and gain material during those years. That’s something I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older—to let the poem come to me rather than tracking it down and wrenching it onto the page. It makes for a different poem, in my experience.

I often tell my students that you have to cultivate a patient tenacity when writing. It sounds oxymoronic, but the “tenacious” part of that stance is that you have to grab on to an idea and stand in the middle of the process and let it unfold, no matter how uncomfortable and messy the unfinished-ness of it feels. You must hold it in your jaws like a terrier and refuse to abandon it. But in addition, you have to be patient and not let your own strong-arming impulse and desire to finish the thing take over and ruin the creation.


What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?

One thing I often advise writers to do is change the point of view of their work for at least one draft in order to see what develops in the writing when you tweak the narrative lens. This is especially true with poems. It’s often the case that poems, in early drafts, are written in the “direct address” point of vice—that is, a poem written in first person utilizing the “I” pronoun, but directly addressed to a “you.” This is pretty natural, because, in my own experience, my poems are often written because I have something to say to somebody—something that didn’t or couldn’t get said and the poem becomes the place where I can articulate those silences. But once I get that articulation on the page in the “I à you” direct address, then I set to work reframing the point of view, either trying straight first person (not directed to a “you”) or converting the piece of writing to third or, less often, second person point of view. I often describe the direct address POV as a closed room outside of which the reader peeks in through a small opening.

In first person direct address, the reader is reduced to a window peeper and voyeur, and maybe that’s okay for the poem. But a few of the disadvantages of the “I” speaking directly to the “you” are that 1) the you doesn’t get a chance to speak back, so it’s a monologue, and 2) the “I” and the addressee, the “you.’ presumably know everything about the subject the poem is narrating, so there’s no need to mention the green couch and the car with the dented fender, and the orange cat with opposable thumbs, etc. There’s no need to add the specifics of the situation because everyone in the poem know these things. But the reader needs these things in order to access the poem. So running the poem through a POV change or shift will often fix these things—to get some furniture into the poem. Once you accomplish this, then you can always put the poem back to any POV that seems best.

I’d say the other piece of consistent advice I give about writing is for the writer to create some kind of capture methodology for their creative ideas. I use a notebook that’s kind of an overloaded warehouse of all my ideas for things that I want to write about. I do lots of my first messy drafts in the notebook, then eventually go over to typing. But I often start with handwritten notes. Also, at the back of the notebook, I keep lists of writing ideas in keyword phrases that are like memory prompts about things I want to write about. So I can look through that list of keyword phrases when I have writing time to see if anything is ready to light up. Any one of these keyword phrases might result in a poem or a 5,000 word essay or a big section of a story, etc., but they are all stored there efficiently at the back of my notebook so they don’t get lost amongst all the pieces of paper that I handle every day. More recently, I’ve taken to putting lots of notes in my iphone, but I try to bring them back to my notebook, too, so that I have the ideas collected there as well.


What poets are you teaching this semester? (and, how do those collections fit into the overall curriculum and educational objectives?)

I have some books by poets that I return to again and again, like The Dead and the Living (Sharon Olds), The Country Between Us (Carolyn Forche), Grace Notes (Rita Dove), and, more recently, Citizen (Claudia Rankine). I also really love teaching Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. But I try to introduce new books into my lineup every year.

I teach in an interdisciplinary environmental writing MFA program, so last semester for my graduate poetry workshop I chose five collections that were all environmental and/or political: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Terrance Hayes); Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard (Jenna Butler); Cold Pastoral: Poems (Rebecca Dunham); WHEREAS: Poems (Layli Long Soldier); and Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Ocean Vyong).

A few years ago, I taught a special topics creative writing course, Where Social and Environmental Justice Meet, and the poetry collections I taught were Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter. Next year, I’m going to teach Indigo Moor’s Through the Stonecutter’s Window; Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50, and Diane Seuss’ Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl. I also really love Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic and Anders Carlson-Wee’s The Low Passions, so I’m going to try and fit those in sometime soon.


What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?

I guess I pinch myself a lot, because I didn’t have much of a plan in life. I started writing poetry and nonfiction after a rather catastrophic music career left me stranded. The writing ended up saving me, and it created this path that I just followed, mostly by instinct. The writing led to the coursework, which led to the degrees, which led to publishing, which led to teaching. In the best situation, all of this works together—the teaching, the writing, the publishing. Sometimes things get out of balance, and I find myself teaching too much, perhaps. Then I have to pull myself back and focus on finishing my own work. I believe it’s important, as a teacher of creative writing, to also be actively publishing and practicing the craft and art that I’m endeavoring to teach.

So I suppose, to answer your question more directly, the best thing about teaching creative writing is getting to spend every day thinking and talking creativity with creative people—to be part of someone else’s process, to serve as a kind of guide, listener, encourager, coach, midwife and to help someone else bring something strong, good, and important into the world.


What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets? (And why?)

Oh my, there are so many. One book I really love using is Steve Kowit’s poetry text, In the Palm of Your Hand. I use it, in part, because it’s not super-expensive, and it’s a valuable primer with all the tenets of good writing included in the chapters, along with lots of examples of good poems and exercises. I find myself recommending Sven Birkerts’ book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again to so many nonfiction writers because it’s hard to find ways to navigate time when one is writing autobiographically, and Birkerts does a beautiful job of peeling the temporal layers back and showing writers how to do it in their own work. In fact, the entire “Art Of” Series from Graywolf is really good.

Beyond craft texts, I always encourage writers to read widely and deeply. And by that I mean, don’t just read poetry books is you want to write poetry or novels if you want to be a novelist. But read history, anthropology, economics, design theory, astronomy, physics, biology, natural resources ecology, wildlife management, etc. Every one of my own books has a text from another discipline that provided me with disciplinary knowledge or provided a theoretical underpinning for my initial creative idea. Right now, the non-craft book that I’ve been recommending to everybody for the last year is Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, because it contains so many stunning revelations about trees, roots, and fungus. Highly recommended.



Debra Marquart is a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University and Iowa’s Poet Laureate. Her work explores the relationship between the spoken word, the literary arts, storytelling, and music. Marquart has published six books, including Small Buried Things: Poems, and The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, and she continues to perform with her jazz-poetry, rhythm & blues project, The Bone People, with whom she has released two CDs: Orange Parade (folk/rock) and A Regular Dervish (jazz-poetry). Her work has received over 50 grants and awards including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a PEN USA Nonfiction Award, a New York Times Editors’ Choice commendation, and Elle Magazine’s Elle Lettres Award, and has been featured on the BBC and National Public Radio. She is the senior editor of Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, and she teaches creative writing in ISU’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment and in the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.

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