116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Debra Marquart was named Iowa’s Poet Laureate in the spring of 2019. Last month she was named one of 23 Poets Laureate Fellows for 2021 by the Academy of American Poets. The second award goes a long way toward addressing one of the challenges of the first. And it was likely made possible via the influence and resources of another poet — Elizabeth Alexander, who is both a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“(S)ome people suspect that she probably was sensitive to the dilemma that a lot of poet laureates have. These laureate positions, they’re kind of difficult because they’re wonderful honors, but a lot of times there’s no real financial support that goes with them,” said Marquart, 65, during a Zoom interview. “And so they created this Poets Laureates Fellowship. It’s a really amazing gift because the total of the fellowship is $50,000 and $15,000 of it is for a project you propose that will be a part of your formal laureate work … and then the balance of it is for the laureate to support their own work.”
In addition to being a poet, Marquart is an essayist, memoirist and musician. She is also a distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University where she teaches in the interdisciplinary MFA program in creative writing and environment, and she says her planned fellowship project draws on her approach to instruction.
“I’m going to choose maybe 10 locations across the state — really taking care to spread myself out geographically so I try to hit all of the corners of the state and try to reach into some of the places that have previously been a little underserved — and for each of these locations I’m going to find partners in the community,” she said. “Maybe an area library or some kind of community organization. And then I’m going to find somebody within that area who is a naturalist and works for one of the state’s environmental organizations.”
Those naturalists may have any of a number of specialties ranging from prairie conservation to water safety and more. Marquart envisions collaborating with the naturalists to create an experience for community members and students. For example, maybe they go on a hike or walk to someplace unique to that area of the state, learn about the local habitat and then use that experience to do some creative writing.
"We won’t really have time to refine anything that they write, but it’s more just to get them generating ideas and learning things about where they live. And I get to learn things about where they live, too,” Marquart said.
The experience also will likely help as she works on her current project.
“I’m working on a book of poems right now about different critters in the ecosystem of Iowa. So hopefully, I learn more about more critters,” she said.
All of this ties in with Iowa State’s MFA program, which combines creative writing and the environment.The program, which is coming up on its 15th anniversary, grew out of a realization that the school could offer writers something different from other MFA programs, including those at the University of Iowa.
“We started to think about what is unique about Iowa State,” Marquart said. “It’s a Research One university specializing in science and technology, and we’re surrounded by these scientists who are doing really world-class, cutting-edge, and in many cases, controversial research,” she said, noting Iowa State’s connection to the Manhattan Project. “And then we have all the agriculture, all the stuff about food systems, food safety — all of that is going on at Iowa State. So we created this three-year interdisciplinary MFA in Creative Writing and Environment.”
The program invites writers of all sorts — poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers and playwrights — to take a deep dive into issues, ideas and practices that are not part of more traditional MFA experiences. For example, Iowa State’s program requires writers to earn 12 credit hours in environmental classes outside of the English department tailored to their research needs.
“They figure out what they need to know more about. Is it botany? Is it agronomy? Is it geology? Is it economics? Is it ecofeminism? And then they fashion this 12-credit core of classes that they take … That feeds back to their writing,” Marquart said. “They get all of this disciplinary knowledge that’s connected to whatever they’re writing about, so they can find a way to filter it into their writing. This research serves as an underpinning of creative writing.”
Students earn three credit hours in an environmental field experience. All of this deepens the connection between the writer and the world they want to write about.
“We didn’t want to engage in just churning out more graduates. We were interested in people coming to do what we thought of as important work and then also work that gives back to the culture,” said Marquart. The program also give them hands-on training in the environmental field.
Her fellowship project will, in its own small but powerful way, replicate the connection between the natural world and the writer that can be found in the MFA program. In the end, Marquart is helping to develop writers who cannot only describe the world but who can change it as well.