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MPR’s Bill Siemering interviews poet Mark Vinz, editor of Dakota Territory. The interview is broken into three segments. Vinz talks about the use of regionalism in writing, young writers, and conflict/war. Vinz also reads numerous poems.

Interviews recorded summer of 1973 at KCCM in Moorhead, Minnesota.


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BILL SIEMERING: Mark Vinz is the editor of Dakota Territory, a poetry magazine published in Moorhead, Minnesota, and a poet who has been published himself in a number of magazines.

Mark, today let's talk about some of the poems that have grown out of this particular region and out of your own experience. I guess that's one of the problems that sometimes when you say that word region, some people tune off and think that that doesn't apply to them if they live in New York City or something like that.

MARK VINZ: I think that's been always one of the problems with any kind of writing that is located or tied to a particular place. And I think in most people's mind regionalism is a negative thing, maybe rightly so.

But there's another kind of use of region, use of place in the sense that all poetry, really all art is made up of the particular and perhaps something implied beyond the particular. Some people have called it universal.

I'm not sure that's a very good word, but that sort of mixture takes place. And I think most writers are tied in some way to the particular. And one of the most obvious ways to be tied to the particular is through a particular region or place.

BILL SIEMERING: And yet it is the job of the poet, as you say, to generalize from the specific to strike those universal feelings and experiences if they can.

MARK VINZ: Yes. Yes, I believe so.

BILL SIEMERING: Maybe you could read a couple of those that would illustrate that.

MARK VINZ: This is a poem, called Heartland, which was written, again, it's a very Midwestern poem. It deals with experiences that I've had and many people have had driving in the Midwest and the feelings I get, especially from the sort of things one sees. This poem deals especially with the dead and dying animals one sees at the side of the highway. It's called In The Heartland.

"Who can say where the birds in this country crash so hopelessly against the windows of passing cars. The ditches by the highway are filled with their broken wings. The intestines of rotting rabbits, raccoon fur, a calf trying to rise from the pulpy mound that used to be his hind quarters.

Three dogs, one without a head. A cat hanging from a thin wire noose on a dead Elm tree branch. All along the main streets, TV sets are turning off. The houses look like old men squatting in long rows ready to pitch forward into the Earth as easily as pebbles slipping into still water."

BILL SIEMERING: That is a pretty grisly kind of imagery, but it's one that certainly people find wherever they drive these days with the kind of incredible speed that one finds on the Super highways.

MARK VINZ: Yeah. As I said, it's a Midwestern poem in the sense that it's a specifically Midwestern landscape. Yet, I would hope, and I think that as anybody who uses particular landscapes in their writing, that there's something there that goes beyond to an experience, to a condition, maybe to a kind of implicit statement about something larger.

BILL SIEMERING: I think you have some others that deal with the area as well that you might share.

MARK VINZ: This is a poem, called Line-storm, and it deals with, again, a personal experience I had as a child visiting a farm and a fascination I always had for the different varieties of farm machinery, which seemed to me as a child to have mythic animal qualities. And so I wrote the poem as a sort of fantasy invoking that quality.

Line-storm. "Only the wind is moving now. The grass turning in upon itself. The boots of the farmer stand empty on the front porch. Even the windows sleep. Suddenly, the eyes of the clouds are open. The lightning stalks. The wind rose five miles down closer and closer.

Out in the fields, all the abandoned machines began to awaken. Corn pickers, combines, balers, circling in a heavy dance rooting the ground with their snouts. An ancient John Deere tractor is leading them westward toward the conspiracy of clouds, the iron voices of the lightning. And now, they are waiting, steaming, and shuddering in the first assault of rain."

BILL SIEMERING: Certainly anyone that has spent any time outdoors and seeing the farm machinery at harvest particularly would be-- find that a particularly meaningful poem I think.

MARK VINZ: I don't know. I see mythic qualities in many machines. Again, not limited to farm machinery. And I think that our culture is something we have to take into account constantly is the way that machines influence us, the way they touch upon our lives in both good ways and bad ways.

This is a poem that, again, has something to do with war. It's tied to-- and also to the past. It's tied to both. It has to do with Custer and the Custer Monument in Montana, the Little Bighorn. It's called At The Battle Monument.

"There are a few signs of the enemy now. No one thought to mark his passing on that day. Tourists wander by the chain link fences dreaming out their own imperfect histories alone. All the lost children beneath this futile monument, locked forever in each other's arms.

But when the morning struck their eyelids for that last long time, how they must have wondered, their God, their battle song, the precious country they wore on their backs like a robe of light. In the distance, they marked the soldiers where they fell, an army of white stones camped on the hillsides, where there will soon be darkness invading the sacred houses of the prairie grass where a man may still drown in his own sweet blood."

BILL SIEMERING: I noticed that there is a reenactment of the Custer Battle that takes place out there [? yet. ?]

MARK VINZ: I didn't know that.

BILL SIEMERING: Every year they pay the Indians to take part in the-- there's a descendant I think of Custer who is active in perpetuating that.

MARK VINZ: It sounds like a good thing to keep away from, especially considering the present situation with Native Americans in this country. That would seem to be an acting out of exploitation on several different levels.

BILL SIEMERING: And that's connection between the different wars I think in that poem. You have some others that--

MARK VINZ: Yeah. This is a poem that deals more directly with an experience I had. Again, I grew up in cities, but I had relatives in small towns and farms. And it was-- writing in this region is something to do, I suppose, with discovering a personal identity for myself.

This poem deals with a recollection to childhood in a small town in North Dakota and to a train that I was very attached to that used to roar through the town. It was called the Oriental Limited. And that explains--

BILL SIEMERING: A very romantic title to go through the prairie.

MARK VINZ: There are many romantic things in the prairie. In fact, probably too many. Anyway, this is called First Summer, A Reckoning. "They told me it was my home town, but I had never lived there. My eyes were for cities. Conspirators from a land of great brown buildings, not this place with its one post office, one hospital, garage, greenhouse, theater.

I had seen them all before, seen them in quadruplets no one here could even dare to conjure. But I had never seen a meadowlark or weeping birch. I had never tasted the infinite cold water from a neighbor's well, nor heard the crickets underneath the immense darkness devouring the car sounds and street sounds until there was nothing at all.

Peonies and raspberries gossiping beneath the windows. Acres of gardens, straight and proud. And never again the Oriental Limited galloping those far Dakota fields. That thin green streak of Windows deep within the most secret midnight forever growing fainter in my ears."

BILL SIEMERING: That's very nice. We all have that growing experience I guess whether it takes place in the prairie or the city. And that's a common one.

MARK VINZ: And it's something that always has to be returned to I suppose. Again, many writers, maybe even most, at some time have to-- have to always perhaps go back to those sources and examine them, see what they mean and see what changes they take on.

BILL SIEMERING: Yeah. Is it going back that you see the change? Is that the reason that you would like to recall some of those things?

MARK VINZ: That's part of it, yeah. I think it has to do with what one is as an individual, in a sense looking. I think this is one of the whole things in the so-called regional movement in American poetry. Many people are searching for lost ties.

They may be the ties of their own background. They may be the ties of the land, the new interest in American Indians, the new interest in the west, both the mythic west and the real west. And I think always that sort of backward search for meaning.

It's a point of stability in a world that seems to provide very few points of stability. It's a home. It's a sense of roots that perhaps our mass culture and mass technology tend to deny us.

And I think that's one reason that many writers are returning, or leaving the cities, or aligning themselves with one particular region or another. And I have to qualify this in saying, I don't think the Midwest has anything over any other part of the country. This is a process that is going on all over.

BILL SIEMERING: Good. Thank you. We've been talking with Mark Vinz, a poet who lives in Moorhead, Minnesota. This is Bill Siemering for KCCM in Moorhead. Mark Vinz is a poet who lives in Moorhead, Minnesota, and is editor of Dakota Territory, a poetry magazine.

Mark, in recent years, a lot of people have been trying their hand at writing poetry. And you teach a course in creative writing. And particularly, when it comes to poetry, it seems to come from small personal experiences frequently.

MARK VINZ: Well, I think the point can be made about poetry that anything can become the subject of poetry. To the beginning writer, and to the young writer especially, maybe the single most important thing is a direct personal experience.

The problem there always becomes the separation between an experience which is personal and yet, which is shared, which is representative, let's say. And an experience which is personal in the sense of being only private, a kind of diary entry thing.

And I would suppose that that's the greatest problem for the young writer is trying to take writing beyond the level of a very private diary entry sort of thing and give it a sense of something beyond, something shared, something more representative.

BILL SIEMERING: Certainly writing about an experience tends to deepen it for a person too. It adds a dimension to life. Perhaps some of our listeners right now try their hands at writing or would like to, they might find that.

MARK VINZ: I think almost everybody is a secret writer of sorts. I mean, this is-- being labeled a creative writing teacher, I'm constantly running into people who-- the strangest variety of people, all of whom have some interest in writing. Maybe it's simply a fantasy, but it always sparks a kind of interest.

And I think all over the country, we're finding now that writing programs of one variety or another are gaining a great deal of popularity and a great deal of interest on the part of students especially.

BILL SIEMERING: Maybe you would share some of your poetry that touches on these kind of personal themes. [INAUDIBLE]

MARK VINZ: Yeah, this is a poem-- this is a poem of something, again. If you're applying for a job, for instance, you fill out a personal resume or curriculum vitae. And I've done many of these. And I wrote this poem, called Curriculum Vitae. It's sort of my-- what I felt was my real vitae, although, the sort of thing that one could never write to get a job.

Curriculum Vitae. "Age, irreversible. Occupation, apprentice learner and a sometime teacher of the young. Experience, constantly changing. Interests and hobbies, writing small poems, mostly with the pencil.

But too often, I spend time looking for places to be naked in, and finding far too few or none. I pray for more snow, enough snow to bury us so we could rise in the spring heavy bears shaking the long dead winter from our coats and knowing then what all bears know, we'd pack our houses on our backs and run."

BILL SIEMERING: It's pretty fine. I don't know what an employer would say, but I think maybe we have to hope that the world will change enough so that you can get a job that way--

MARK VINZ: I think--

BILL SIEMERING: --and be rewarded for it.

MARK VINZ: Yeah. I think one of the--

BILL SIEMERING: [? There's no ?] shortage of creativity [INAUDIBLE].

MARK VINZ: That's true. One of the things that I think is tied in with what you said is there's a very high premium right now in writing, I think in all areas of our life, on honesty and directness. In literature, for instance, if you go back to the days of JD Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, that extremely high premium on sincerity.

And I think that's being reflected in many writers today. The poetry has a kind of intensity, a kind of honesty, and a kind of directness that maybe has not been around at least to that degree previously. I'm not trying to say that the themes and concerns of poetry have changed, because I don't think they have, but I think approaches have.

And I think the whole mood of writing has changed. The whole idea of the confessional, especially, has become much more predominant in American writing. And I think that's a healthy thing.

BILL SIEMERING: You have some more that might illustrate that perhaps?

MARK VINZ: Yeah. One of the things, of course, that provides me constant source for poetry is my children. And I find children, whether my children or somebody else's children, really coming into my poems again and again. And sometimes from the standpoint of experiences I've had.

Here's one that is called, simply, The Children. And I try to get into the idea of youth versus age. "Hand-in-hand, they are marching along the hallway looking for cats and seagulls, the footprints of the troll, speaking to rocks of a new home for angels, herding butterflies and far mountain meadows, teaching skyscrapers how to swim. And they are watching always.

Like rows of turtles on a riverbank, their eyes look out from deep within their shells, where we cannot see them. Growing old, we tell ourselves, growing old as we are inside our own gnarled skins."

BILL SIEMERING: I think that anyone that has children has some of those feelings. That certainly strikes a universal feeling.

MARK VINZ: Here's another poem very much in the same vein. And again, it's a poem I set out to write based on a personal experience that I think went beyond it. It's called simply, Variations On a Theme. And it's in three parts.

One. "This morning, my child dances naked in front of the mirror unashamed, unafraid of growing old. Her face is as thin as her breakfast egg shell looking toward me huddled between my sheets. When she leaves the room, the image keeps dancing in the mirror."

Two. "Important decisions today, clean sheets, the price of hamburger, where the line is to be broken. How to continue? At the supermarket, I watch a woman beat her child with a package of celery. He has broken a jar of applesauce while dancing in the aisles."

Three. "This evening there are fireworks and dancers in the park. Behind the crowd, the old ones who cannot leave their benches clap their hands together even though they cannot see, even though they cannot be heard."

That is another area, of course, in my poetry, and again, in the poetry of many people. The whole idea of domestic life and being a homeowner, being a citizen. I wrote a poem, called-- it was sort of a parody of another poem I'd seen, called Fishing With Worms, which talked about a perfect kind of fishing experience.

And I wrote a poem as a kind of counter to that, called Fishing With Dead Worms, which has to do with a very imperfect kind of domestic experience, which I see as someway indicative of my own life.

"My television is broken. It will not regenerate itself. The radio plays only one station over and over, steel guitars and sad songs. I will give it to the children. They will understand. Let it be known that this is my home.

I am surrounded by the leaves I have not raked, the grass I have not disturbed, dreams of blizzards and the fish I have not caught. My fingers are disguised as rocks. My clothes are messages I do not understand. When they come for me at last, this is where I want to be discovered, harvesting the marigolds that never bloomed with a piece of broken glass."

BILL SIEMERING: I think you've given a good example of the way in which your own personal experience can be the source of really fine, sensitive poems. Perhaps some of the people that have been listening so far might feel inspired to try to do that themselves. Do you any little bit of advice? If you're so inclined.

MARK VINZ: Yeah. I think that, in many ways, poetry comes down to the whole idea of perception. The ancient word for poet was that of seer. And not seer in the sense of being a prophet, although there certainly is a prophetic voice about-- in poetry, but rather seer in the sense that the poet sees things that other people don't see or sees the same things, but simply sees them in a different way, endows them with a particular kind of sensibility.

And I think that the secret of beginning in poetry, anyway, is a matter of perception, of allowing oneself to see in different ways. I think that is this one important source, anyway, of the whole idea of creativity.

It involves breaking down restrictions in the sense that we're all conditioned and we condition ourselves to see things and to accept things in certain patterns. And I would say, that's the beginning. And going back to the earlier point that really anything can become the subject of poetry.

BILL SIEMERING: It certainly adds immeasurably to one's fulfillment of living too I think.

MARK VINZ: I think they go very much hand-in-hand.

BILL SIEMERING: Thank you very much. We've been talking with Mark Vinz, a poet living in Moorhead, Minnesota. And this is Bill Siemering for KCCM in Moorhead. Mark Vinz is a poet who lives in Moorhead, Minnesota, and is the editor of Dakota Territory, a poetry magazine from the area. Mark, in recent years, the war and social upheaval in the country has caused a good deal of political poetry and political writing. You've done a little of this.

MARK VINZ: Yeah. I think some distinctions have to be made. First, there are political poets in this country. They really are very few. Political in the truest sense. In other words, that have maintained a political point of view rather than the politics that comes out of a reaction, a moral outrage, an aesthetic outrage, whatever you want to call it, concerning some specific event. Whether it's Vietnam, whether it's the Civil Rights movement, and so on.

And I think there's a great frustration on the part of some writers, especially the older political poets in the truer sense, that once the war is forgotten, what is left for these people to write about?

BILL SIEMERING: Does conflict-- is conflict necessary for political poetry? It seems to be.

MARK VINZ: Well, political poetry is seeking to define the realities of life, seeking to protest certain things from that aspect. Yes, a kind of conflict--

BILL SIEMERING: [INAUDIBLE] broader-- there's two kinds of political, then there's a general political view of life generally, and then there's the occasion--


BILL SIEMERING: --of a political act or [INAUDIBLE].

MARK VINZ: And I think-- and I think what we've seen most recently has been the latter, a kind of occasional political poetry, although by another definition. If you really want to open this up, it has been said, and I think with some truth, that the whole act of writing poetry today is a kind of political act because one is, in a sense, bucking certain norms or certain standards simply by writing poetry.

BILL SIEMERING: Some say that all artists are outside of the mainstream, that that's their function in society is to stand outside and-- McLuhan, I guess, has called it the role of a criminal almost in society.

MARK VINZ: It's certainly been true in modern art and contemporary. I think we could look back to a day where the artist was much more harmonious in terms of being at home in the society at large. I think this was certainly true of writers in Shakespeare's day, for instance.

But since that time, I think with the whole emergence of the modern world and the whole emergence of a sense of alienation, the artist has been forced more, and more, and more to take the role of an outsider to the point that some critics have said that a kind of alienation is really in the mainstream of American life. And I think that, again, tapping that can be seen as a political act.

BILL SIEMERING: Have your poems been tied to the war or have they been a more generic kind of political?

MARK VINZ: I think probably the latter. I've written really very few things tied directly to the war. Feeling-- well, feeling the need to do so, but also in some ways feeling the inability to do so. I found frustrated in the sense that my poems ceased to be poems that pleased me in any sense as poems.

Maybe I found them interesting as outrage or as documents, but I thought that the art had to be sacrificed. I don't think the two, by the way, are mutually exclusive. I think our finest political writers are those who have been able to bridge that gap between art and protest.

BILL SIEMERING: Perhaps you could give us a sample of your poems in this form?

MARK VINZ: This is a poem, which again, has something to do with Vietnam. Although, the point has to be made I think, and it's been made by many people, that Vietnam was not an isolated thing. It's a symptom of what writers, anyway, talking from the standpoint of a writer, see as much larger symptom within our society of something that's wrong.

Or rather, Vietnam is a symptom of a larger problem. And I think the poems I've tried to write involving the war in any sense have been directed more in that way than actually dealing with the war per se.

This is an example. It's a poem, called Target. "It is a good day for dying. The air is heavy with sunlight. Gorged caterpillars hang from the trees. No one is standing on Main Street to ask questions about the planes. There are no armies here, no harbors to be mined, no rice paddies, no hungry people to obscure the pavement. From 30,000, even the air conditioners are invisible."

In my own writing that I can consider political, quite often, I found that it's become tied to particular landscapes, especially living in the upper Midwest in the Minnesota and Dakota landscapes, trying to locate the-- to align the particular in the regional in that sense.

This is a poem which was very important to me to write, called Primulas. It involves a sense of the Midwest, but I think it also involves some very simple realities of life. And it's couched in the terms of a child's primer.

"We are driving through South Dakota looking for buffalo, looking for wildflowers and monuments. In the car radio, the president announces that the war is over. It is really over this time, a peace with honor this time.

Everything in South Dakota is moving, station wagon loads of tourists in search of stone faces, pickups, Semis, tandems, old men in tennis shoes on motorcycles, a bicycle troop of girl scouts. Even the dust clouds have wheels.

On the car radio, the president announces that poverty has been devalued, that the military budget has been cut back to $150 billion. We are driving through a small town in South Dakota, the 30th small town we have driven through today. All the small towns in South Dakota look alike. All the roads in South Dakota look alike.

This is the same small town we've been driving through all day. It has 62 gas stations, 13 McDonald's stands, two liquor stores. We have stopped at all 77 locations at once. The name of this small town is Custer. Every small town in South Dakota is called Custer or Luther. Some are called Wounded Knee.

On the car radio, the president announces that the economic crisis has been a complete success. We cannot stop driving through South Dakota. We cannot turn off the car radio bristling with salvation music and the presidential sacrament. We cannot find the buffalo or the wildflowers, only the gateway to the West Drive in Theater filled with Conestogas and hostile dropping eternally from their ponies like cardboard ducks.

And John Wayne, 30 feet tall who signs the treaty. Speaking impossible sign language above the car radio, he waves to us as we drive past into the roads that unroll suddenly before us, into the long Dakota night."

BILL SIEMERING: That's certainly an example of a more generic kind of political poem I think that holds up very well.

MARK VINZ: And I think the political realities of life, whether tied to the war or whether tied to any place in the country, tend to be the same. This is another poem that draws on a prairie landscape to make a political point I suppose. It's called Detour, North Dakota. Heading East.

"It might have been the Mekong, Salerno, Pusan, Verdun, someone else's landscape. The dead oak tree rises from the prairie like an old man's hand, some grandfather who lived here once when there still was love.

Children without voices play beside the empty stock tanks. Stagnant ditch water slowly freezes under November winds. On the way towards home at last, I drive past two women staring into the fields as if all the suns of the Earth had eclipsed behind their eyes."

And one last poem. This is-- as an editor of the magazine, I'm always getting poems-- political poems. And most of them aren't very good. I became interested in a definition of America because many of the poems that I happen to be getting at this one time all seemed preoccupied with defining America. And as a result, I wrote a poem which I think tries to define one kind of America. It's called Proposition.

"In America, is the way the poem begins, it makes me think of tired old Parsons beating their hands together in boredom or paper dragons constructed to scare the children of shopkeepers who don't even know what dragons are.

Write me a poem instead about silence or teeth. Write me a peasant poem about mattresses and dry bread. Better yet, write me a poem that is a silver bullet to kill that famous masked avenger, who is America. That independently wealthy dude riding off across the [? last reel ?] with the best girl, the best horse, and all the goods."

BILL SIEMERING: That's very fine. And I think it's a good example of the way political can be a very broad category for poetry.

MARK VINZ: And necessarily so. I think it-- I think it has to be. And well, we all have to be aware of what's going on around us no matter whether we're talking about social movements, or the war, or now, Watergate.

A political consciousness, a political sensibility is something that is very widespread and very ongoing. And I think our best political writers-- creative writers, that is a very distinguishing feature in their work.

BILL SIEMERING: Could you substitute the word social conscience for political perhaps?

MARK VINZ: In some ways, yeah. But social conscience can be defined in broad humanitarian terms. It maybe doesn't come down to dealing with these political realities or political positions.

For instance, most political poets in this country have some kind of left wing affiliation. And that I think involves social conscience, but also a political basis that is much more specific than humanitarian social conscience.

BILL SIEMERING: Thank you. We've been talking with Mark Vinz, a poet living in Moorhead, Minnesota. And this is Bill Siemering for KCCM in Moorhead.


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