Iowa State University’s distinguished professor of English, Debra Marquart, was recently named the new Iowa Poet Laureate. However, her journey was not an easy or typical one. In fact, it started, she said, when her dreams went up in smoke.
“It’s a long story, and it’s quite complicated,” the North Dakota native said. “It was a moment in my life where, for one single, small moment, all of the stars were aligned. We had everything. And then, in that summer of 1980, we lost everything.”
That summer, Marquart had been traveling with a band, writing original music and singing on-stage when a gasoline fire destroyed her band’s equipment truck. The loss of $60,000 worth of guitars, microphones, drums and other equipment sent Marquart’s rising musical career into a downward spiral.
“It’s interesting how drastically your life can be changed by one event, and what happens to your dreams after something like that happens. How do you live with yourself? I always point to that time of my life as a major correction in my path,” she said.
After that, the band limped along for a year with the help of a bandmate’s parents and donations from other area musicians. Eventually, however, the band broke up, and Marquart returned home.
Marquart, who grew up on a farm in the small German-Russian community of Napoleon near Fargo, N.D., always considered music her “first and most consistent love affair.” For awhile, prior to starting her life on the road, it seemed she would never be able to pursue her musical dream.
“When I graduated from high school, I knew I would go to college. I didn’t know what I would go to college for, just that I would go. I ended up choosing social work as my major because my parents said that I had to graduate in four years and choose a major where I would get a job after graduation,” she said.
She was two courses shy of graduation when she worked as a state hospital intern. It was an eye-opening experience, she said, that made her realize social work would never make her happy.
“I realized that I made the wrong decision and I was travelling down the wrong path. That left me, as a senior in college, kind of confused, panicked and depressed,” she said. “Somewhere in that desperate state, I made an irrational decision to drop out of college and it led me back to music.”
She joined a band, scraped together just enough money to get by each month and everything was, according to Marquart, going well. That was when the fire became yet another fork in what was becoming a jagged road.
For a few years, she was able to join and travel with another band in Rapid City, S.D., but it, too, eventually fell through and her career as a touring musician came to a close. That, she said, is when she turned to writing.
“After I came off the road and wasn’t singing professionally anymore, I started transitioning into writing poetry,” she said. “I started off just writing poems and lyrics in notebooks, then I started really writing in earnest.”
She finished her undergraduate degree and then continued on to earn a master’s degree at Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minn. Then, she received a one-year fellowship in 1991 at Iowa State University, where she went on to earn a master’s degree in creative writing.
“I thought I would come, stay here for one year to write and then move on. Instead, I ended up staying here all these years. Every year, something good has happened,” she said. “Ames is just a really nice place to live, and it’s easy to live in Ames.”
Marquart jumped head-first into creative writing during this time, using her experience in music and her newfound love of poetry to create a fusion of the two. She adapts many of her poems into jazz poetry, which she performs with The Bone People, and performs her poetry like she would perform a song.
“There is a really natural connection between music and poetry, so I started using what I knew about lyrics, meter, time and rhythm” she said. “I wanted to make my poems just a little bit more like a performance. It was a natural progression.”
Today, Marquart is a professor at ISU, where she began working in 1995, and an award-winning author of six books. She has delivered more than 250 invited readings and keynotes at universities and conferences around the world. She is also a recipient of more than 50 grants and awards, and is working on two books, one focused on the oil boom in her home state and a memoir about her journey.
More recently, Marquart was appointed as Iowa’s new poet laureate by Gov. Kim Reynolds, a two-year honorary title making her a voice for Iowa’s poetry communities.
“When I found out that I was selected (as the new poet laureate), I just felt really welcomed to the state. I really still thought of myself as a North Dakotan, even though I’ve lived in Iowa since ‘91. I had a new feeling about being an Iowan after I got the word, and had a feeling that I’m really a citizen now,” she said.
As poet laureate, Marquart hopes to travel to rural communities, not unlike the one she grew up in, and hold creative writing workshops in schools, libraries and community centers for both children and adults across Iowa.
“I was a dreamy, imaginative child growing up in a small town, and I can’t imagine what it would have been like if a poet had shown up to school one day. I want to do that,” she said.
She also hopes to show those interested in writing, or those who aren’t sure what to do with their lives, “one thing will just lead to another, and it eventually turns into a path.”