Monday, 27 January 2014 10:53

How A Musician-Turned-Writer Found Her Natural Rhythm

Written by  Kyle Austin
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Debra Marquart Debra Marquart COURTESY PHOTO: THOMAS RICE

Debra Marquart - Aquinas College Contemporary Writers Series
Aquinas College, Grand Rapids
Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m., (616) 632-8900

Had her entire life not gone literally up in flames back in 1980, Debra Marquart would not be the writer she is today. In fact, she may have never even taken up writing at all. After dropping out of college just two courses shy of earning a degree in social work, Marquart embraced music, singing in a number of small bands and touring for several years until a freak accident burned her band's truck, along with $60,000 worth of equipment, to the ground.

"One day I was a traveling road musician with a big band, equipment and gigs, and then suddenly I was just stalled out in this little efficiency apartment in North Fargo [North Dakota] because we'd lost everything," Marquart said. "I had no money and I was just circling."

Faced with a choice between rebuilding and rebirth, Marquart chose the latter. She decided she would keep creativity at the center of her life by simply changing mediums.

"For some reason, writing presented itself, and I think it was in part because it was cheap," Marquart said. "I had a pencil and a piece of paper, so I thought I could write."

Now, as an author and poet, a professor of English at Iowa State University, and lead singer of the jazz/rhythm and blues/poetry group The Bone People, Marquart draws from both of her creative passions to produce a body of work that has won her a Pushcart Prize and The Faulkner Society's Shelby Foote Prize for the Essay, among others.

"Creativity contains a kind of nutrition that I can't get anywhere else in my life," she said. "I mean, it's something beyond love; it's part love, part passion, part obsession, part devotion. It's my most consistent and long-running relationship."

As a writer, Marquart's talent is incredibly fluid.

"I'm not as much concerned with genre," she said. "I'm much more interested in finding the right form of expression."

Regardless of how she chooses to manifest her ideas, Marquart identifies completely with the idea of the writer as an intuitive observer of events, emotions and experiences.

"I start with a notebook and I just throw stuff in there," she said of her writing process. "It's kind of a warehouse. I just have that feeling when I hear or see something that it's something to write about, but I don't know at that point if it's a song, a poem, an essay or a story."

Often, Marquart writes individual pieces at a time, and when she's accumulated enough, collects them into a book. Her first effort, The Hunger Bone, is a collection of short stories inspired by life on the road as a touring musician. She's also published two collections of poetry, From Sweetness and Everything's a Verb, as well as a memoir about growing up in rural North Dakota, The Horizontal World.

In all of Marquart's writing, there's a deep respect for language's musicality. As a singer, she became enthralled with the relationship between lyric and melody, and as a writer she says she focuses not just on the meaning of the words, but also on the way they sound.

"There's a moment when you read or perform where you begin to transcend that part of the language and you're living more inside phonemes."

That's why you're just as likely to see Marquart strumming a guitar and singing a song at one of her readings as you are to see her holding a book. She wields both with a sure-handedness that can only belong to someone who's found exactly what they were put on this earth to do.

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Feb. 16, 1-4:30 p.m., (616) 988-5400

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