NEA Literature Fellowships

Debra Marquart

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(2008 - Prose)

From the memoir The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere

Farmboys. How we avoided them when they came around, their hands heavy with horniness, their bodies thick with longing. Be careful of farmboys, we warned each other. They know how to plant seeds.

And who could say where their hands had been? On pitchforks, mowers, inside swathers, combines. They were patient boys, those long hours in the saddle of the tractor, plowing dark furrows in the fertile earth. They might be grasping the teats of milk cows at sunrise, killing gophers in the afternoon, and be on you by nightfall. No, no. Best to stick with townboys, their soft saliva mouths, their round corduroy shoulders, their talk of plans for college.

We were farmgirls running tall through pastures. We had long shiny hair and peach-fresh skin. Born to carry the milk bucket, the alfalfa bale, our hands soon mastered the manual transmission. We learned to speed shift, double clutch. Our feet never knew the brake. We roared down the section lines in our fathers' pickups, empty gas cans clanging in the truck bed. We left trails of dust behind us.

This was no little house on the prairie. We smeared musky blue shadow on our eyelids and raspberry gloss on our lips. We wore platform shoes and bell-bottom jeans. It was the times. We were hip-huggered, and tight-sweatered, and navel-exposed. We walked around town like the James gang, tossing this and flashing that.

We came in pairs sometimes, first cousins, second cousins, double cousins - it thrilled the imagination. Some were brunette with delicate features, some had hair that hung heavy as gold down the angle of a jaw line. Some of us had wild laughs that never led to wild actions. Some had older sisters who got in trouble and had to get married or had to be sent away to homes for wayward girls.

We had strong white teeth. We shone them on the world. We spoke the international language of beauty. All the immigrant grandparents gossiped in German about us. We were wayward girls looking for the untroubled way. We were best in show, the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop, too good for this place, everyone agreed. We were programmed for flight. We farmgirls lived north, south, east, and west of town. In the middle of all this was me - the girl that I was then - the watcher, leaning toward the periphery.

Copyright (c) 2006 by Debra Marquart; reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.

Debra Marquart is a professor of English in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University and the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.  Marquart's work has appeared in numerous journals such as The Threepenny Review, New Letters, The Sun, Southern Poetry Review, Orion, Mid-American Review and Witness. A performance poet, Marquart is the author of two poetry collections: Everything's a Verb and From Sweetness. Her memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, was published by Counterpoint Books in 2006. It received the "Elle Lettres" award from Elle Magazine and the 2007 PEN USA Creative Nonfiction Award. Marquart's work has received numerous other awards, including the Minnesota Voices Award, the Shelby Foote Prize for the Essay from the Faulkner Society, and a Pushcart Prize. Her collection of short stories, The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories draws from her experiences as a female road musician. Marquart continues to perform with a jazz-poetry rhythm & blues project, The Bone People, with whom she has released two CDs: Orange Parade (acoustic rock), and A Regular Dervish (jazz-poetry).

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

I devised a chaos board while I was writing The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. During one long artist residency at the Ragdale Foundation, I went through every notebook and file, unfolded every napkin and matchbook on which I had scrawled an idea over the years about something I needed to write about - someday. Most of these notes to myself had been jotted down while driving in my car, or eating in restaurants, or sitting in meetings, so they were written in short, keyword phrases, like memory prompts. 

At Ragdale, I finally had the gift of time to sort through them and consider what it would take to write each one into the world. I quickly became overwhelmed. One keyword phrase, for example, might say "elevator burning down," which I knew would take about five thousand words to write into prose. And I had hundreds of these prompts. To calm myself down, I walked to downtown Lake Forest and bought a large poster board from an office supply store. Then back in my writing studio I set to work transferring the keyword phrases onto the poster board in no particular order (hence, chaos), so that they could all be seen in one glance. 

Many of those generative phrases found their way into fuller articulation in the chapters of The Horizontal World, but many more remained untapped and unexplored, like small seeds sitting dormant on the chaos board. They wait, and multiply with each day, while I go to appointments, and grocery shop, and take phone calls. This gift of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts comes as a sign and a generous guarantee that the someday I so often hope for has finally arrived. With gratitude and thanks, I look forward to returning to the quiet room where all good things are made.