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Mark Turcotte, Writer


Award winning poet Mark Turcotte was born in Lansing, MI, on this date in 1958. Soon after, he moved with his Irish mother and Ojibway father to the Turtle Mountains. In 2002, the editor of Free Verse, Linda Aschbrenner, interviewed Mark about his book, Exploding Chippewas.

“I would draw and scribble in my mother’s cookbooks,” he said. “Mostly, on those blank pages at the front and back. I also (used) paper sacks, backs of envelopes, food packages turned inside out. Those commodity cheese boxes, once flattened out, worked well as paper... I drew these monstrous faces with all sorts of stuff spewing from their mouths and eyes... And fire, too, lots of flames.”

Mark now says he thinks he was expressing something quite toxic, poisonous, in those days. He has only recently begun to talk about his Turtle Mountain years, using words like violent, lost and painful. He remembers being fascinated with words, though. “...I loved to write down words,” he says, “playing with them, switching the letters around. I looked at words the way other kids looked at Matchbox cars. They were like toys for me.”

When Turcotte’s father left them, Mark and his mother moved back to Lansing. At the 2004 North Dakota Writers’ Conference, Turcotte said, “Because I was in a world where I was usually the only Indian in town, I went through this period where I denied my Indianness, which meant I denied my North Dakotaness and my Turtle Mountainness.”

Thankfully, certain teachers recognized Turcotte’s gift, and one even gave him his first blank-paged journal. “These same teachers would make exceptions for me,” he said, “sort of let me read and leave me alone when I needed to be left alone...I also played football for awhile, so I was like the defensive tackle/poet/long-hair guy in my school. Every school has one, right?”

Still, Turcotte struggled with his identity; at one point he went into his back yard and burned everything he’d written during the previous 18 years. He explains he was trying to find a way to get rid of his need to write, thinking it was an obstacle in his path to peace.

In October 1992, Turcotte was working in the Texas oil fields when his life was abruptly turned upside down. His estranged father died in Fargo, and it was left to him to bury a man he barely knew – a man who had caused him great anguish. After Turcotte laid his father to rest in the Turtle Mountains, he returned to Fargo to clean out his dad’s apartment. It was here that the missing pieces of his life began falling into place. There was a box of old pictures of Mark and his father that he didn’t even know existed. There were other things. Slowly he remembered better days, the bond they once had, their shared ancestral heritage.

By overcoming the real obstacle in his life, Turcotte was able to start writing again. But he emphasizes he didn’t heal because of his writing; it was about living out the experience of journeying to bury his father; and about acknowledging his past. One of his poems, called Hands, reads, “old man/ i stood over you/ in your box/ and when i reached/ to touch your/ grey folded hands/ i remembered/ a summer day/ beside big water/ when you laughed/ and lifted me/ higher than the trees/ and i felt/ like a big boy/ like a big boy/ in your hands/ i felt/ like a good boy/ and you said, hey do you/ see any angels up there...”

Turcotte now says, “Beyond the obvious drama of living at Turtle Mountain, I realize that place formed a deep part of who I am. Listening to the old folks talk, the music they made, was essential to the birth of my own art, the words, and rhythms of my words.”

For more information about Mark Turcotte and his work, go to prancingmoose.com.

Source: http://www.prancingmoose.com; Linda Aschbrenner, Free Verse, Looking for What Is Missing: an Interview with Mark Turcotte; D.L. Birchfield, News >From Indian Country (book review); Grand Forks Herald, March 24, 2004

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm