FARGO — There is a popular adage English teachers pass on to their students: Write what you know.
The idea is that by writing about their experiences or what they’ve seen or heard, their words will be more honest and sincere and the writing more clear and believable.
Often for established writers, their voice is informed by a locale or region and their words a reflection of it.
Three writers whose works have deep roots in North Dakota, poets Mark Vinz, Debra Marquart and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louise Erdrich, will discuss the topic of sense of place in an online forum hosted by Humanities N.D. from 3-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12.
Vinz and Marquart will also present a reading from their new books, “The Trouble with Daydreams — New & Collected Poems” and “The Night We Landed on the Moon — Essays Between Exile & Belonging,” both published by North Dakota State University Press, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, at Zandbroz Variety.
Vinz and Marquart recently talked with The Forum about what sense of place means to them and their writing. An email request to speak with Erdrich did not get a response.
“American culture is so interchangeable, moving. The average American moves several times in their life. Sense of place means paying attention to where you come from,” says Vinz. “It means rootedness.”
For 40 years Vinz taught English, particularly poetry, at Minnesota State University Moorhead before retiring in 2007. Over the last 50 years, he’s published or edited about 20 collections of verse.
His latest book, “The Trouble with Daydreams,” includes a dozen new poems as well as some earlier titles. Now 79, he says this may be his last book of poems as he’s more recently been working on essays.
Whether prose or verse, his connection to the Upper Midwest is often at the center of what he’s writing. He dismisses the idea that the middle part of the country is flyover country.
“We don’t have a lot of picture postcard scenery. It’s slow to reveal itself, but it gives you something quite wonderful,” he says. “It’s not a place to drive by, it’s a place to stop and get out of the car.”
He compares that need for getting out and taking a closer look to writers diving into their words and reworking lines until the text clicks.
“Dig deeper in, go back and explore. That’s what writing is all about,” he says.
Marquart can relate. She points to a piece by Minnesota writer Bill Holm about “the prairie eye vs. the woods eye.” While the forest can be overwhelming with grandeur and majesty, the prairie experience requires looking through a smaller lens.
“When you’re used to looking at the prairie, you appreciate the nuanced experience,” Marquart explains. “It’s a more subtle, nuanced narrative. It’s slowing down long enough to observe and reflect.”
Marquart grew up in Napoleon, N.D., and felt the small-town experience was stifling and a need to escape, so she moved away at 17, one week after high school graduation. That was in the 1970s. After spending a couple of years on the road singing in bands, she settled down in Fargo-Moorhead and attended MSUM.
“When I started writing, my home ground was the first place I started writing about. My writing keeps returning to North Dakota,” she says.
She had Vinz for a teacher and was impressed that someone she knew was publishing poems.
“I didn’t really know living people were writing creative works,” she says. “This opened a whole world of expression to me I never knew existed coming from Napoleon.”
She recalls a poem she wrote, “And Who Do You Belong to,” inspired by being out on Halloween and having elders question who is under a mask.
“There’s an upside to that, you feel safe,” she says. “The downside is that it can be claustrophobic. It really was a close village. Now in my adulthood I realize what a gift it was to grow up in that.”
After MSUM, Marquart attended the writing program at Iowa State University, where she now teaches the MFA program on creative writing and environment. While the school has provided professional growth for her over the decades, including being named the state’s poet laureate, it still doesn’t feel as much like home as a place like Napoleon.
“I don’t feel the physical connection or love I do for North Dakota,” she says. “I compare all places to my home ground. The inexorable pull of one’s home ground. I feel my sense of belonging.”
If you go
What: Mark Vinz and Debra Marquart reading
When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11
Where: Zandbroz Variety, 420 Broadway, Fargo
Info: This event is free and open to the public
If you go
What: Online author talk on sense of place
When: 3-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12