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Big things inside the small

Poet Gretchen Marquette’s dreams include seeing her poetry collection side-by-side with books by other residents in the Anderson Center’s library. Photo by Ruth Nerhaugen

When it comes to creative work, spending a month at the Anderson Center is equal to about six months of trying to write while also working at her various jobs.

Gretchen Marquette, one of the June residents at Tower View, teaches classes at Hamline University, two community colleges and the Loft Literary Center. During lulls in that work, she does freelance editing.

And, she added, "I clean houses when there is no teaching work."

Yet she has managed to produce quality poetry that is getting plenty of attention.

Marquette, a resident of Minneapolis' Powderhorn Park neighborhood, received an Emerging Writers grant from the Loft in 2014. It enabled her to complete her first book, "May Day."

That debut volume, released by Graywolf Press in 2016, was a Minnesota Book Award finalist in poetry.

Publishers Weekly called the collection "Lovely, dark, haunted, and haunting. ... (Marquette's) subjects — childhood memories of a brother and bracing visions of him on military deployment overseas; hungering, fragile love; the very nature of human experience — are so carefully handled, with such resolve and resignation. ... Readers will remember this book."

Local readers may remember Marquette as well. She participated in a Veterans Day tribute last November at the Anderson Center, where she read poems about her brother's two deployments.

"It felt really meaningful" to share that story with such a receptive audience, she said.

Even before being invited to do a reading at Tower View, Marquette had visited the Red Wing artist community and come away with a goal of some day seeing her books in the Anderson Center's library.

While in grad school at Hamline University — she earned a master's degree there in 2012 — she spent a weekend at Tower View. She and a friend came on their own for a too-brief writing retreat. When she saw books by former residents on the bookshelf, Marquette set herself a goal: "I really want to be one of those book people."

Minnesota artists are fortunate to have this retreat, she said. "It's unearthly here. ... I almost feel like summer felt when I was a little girl" growing up in Berlin, Wis.

Marquette is making progress on her second book. She arrived June 1 with about 30 pages of work, and believes she has found the "spine" of the new collection.

"I think that my work is focusing more and more on the moment," she said. "When I think about the future, I feel fear, and when I think about the past I feel kind of sadly nostalgic. But in the present moment, I am almost always better than fine."

Taking inspiration from the Liturgy of the Hours, which is a set of prayers marking the hours of each day, Marquette is creating what she described as "almost a secular prayer book."

Turning her attention to the world around her, she has written short pieces about such topics as a scar on a friend's arm, crabapple trees in blossom and a gift of lemon curd from a baker — "small things that hold a place for big things." Like her, the poems are secular yet strongly influenced by her religious heritage.

Marquette's favorite place to write is the top of the Anderson Center's iconic tower. She is committed to writing 100 words a day in a block of prose that she "lineates" later as a poem.

"I've also been journaling," she said. "I have about 200 pages of prose that I have to figure out how to turn into poems, or into essays" which are closely linked to the themes and concepts in her poetry. "I'm willing to let the poems become essays if they need to."

Her work style may be evolving. "That's not how I'm used to working," she explained. "Normally I write a poem line by line."

At the same time, the essence of her work remains constant.

"I feel like the poems I'm writing are relatives of the poems in 'May Day.'"

This month at Tower View "is helping me get back into better writing habits and general well-being habits that I hope I can take home," Marquette said. "It's reminding me how to be a poet."