published in Volume 2, Issue 3 on May 21, 1995A Review of the University of North Dakota's 26th Annual Writer's Conference, March 21-25, 1995
If you ask a lot of people what type of thing they'd like to do in North Dakota around March, most will answer, "leave." Well, they're fools, all of them, fools, as something pretty impressive happens up in Grand Forks once that ice starts melting (before the spring blizzards hit, that is).
What I'm talking about is the University of North Dakota's annual Writer's Conference which I had the luck of catching this year. English Professor, conference founder, fisherman, and host of a mean party, John Little says: "Winter in North Dakota is a time for silent reading and contemplation. Springtime is when we celebrate by hearing the writers' voices themselves." And before you snigger and say, "yah, right, I'm sure the conference gets the mighty likes of Delores Persmidgy and Joseph B'Low." Well, in the past, this conference has attracted writers like Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, N. Scott Momaday, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, Susan Sontag, Czelas Milosz, and many, many more. It's an impressive feat for any community.
What the conference entailed was five days of readings, panel discussions, and parties. I was among those running from the first student readings at 11am until the parties which would sometimes last until 5am (admittedly, I didn't last quite that long, being out of school, I don't seem to have the insane student stamina which drives people to go to class all day, party and procrastinate all night, work a part time job, write an opera, and still get all projects and papers turned in roughly on time). The organization was first rate and the folks in the community were great, making me feel truly welcome, even at that first party where I really didn't know anyone (yet).
1995 brought some terrific writers: Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried), Bharati Mukherjee (The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award), Sharon Olds (The Father), Sherman Alexie (Business of Fancy-Dancing), Marge Piercy (He, She, It, winner of the 1993 Arthur Clarke Award for best science fiction novel), Gordon Henry Jr. (The Light People), and Yusef Komunyakaa (Neon Vernacular, winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry). All of them had a one-hour reading and also participated in a panel discussion where they discussed the state of the art (this year's theme) as well as answering audience questions.
Of them all, Sherman Alexie was probably the most dynamic reader, breathing tremendous amounts of life into poems and one short story which he simply told, rather than read, in storyteller fashion.
Tim O'Brien was hilarious character, both at the public forums and at the parties afterward. In fact, he and Gordon Henry Jr. probably get the award for staying out the latest, most didn't last long past the more formal receptions (and I don't really blame them, they only fly in for a few days and then are quickly whisked away again).
All the writers impressed me in too many different ways to really give enough credit to in this short column, but, dang it was a blast. I particularly enjoyed the poets like Olds and Komunyakaa, and was also impressed with the storytellers like Alexie, O'Brien, and Henry. It was a hefty week, though, and by Friday you could see the toll on the English grad students in particular who seemed beyond exhaustion but were still able to stay awake through everything and still go out afterward. I am in awe of these brave people.
And apparently the parties which go on at night have a long history, particularly the years where folks like Raymond Carver, Hunter Thompson, or a gaggle of Beat Writers came through. Though some seemed to see this year's extracurriculars as tame in comparison, most seemed satisfied and, actually, some of the finer quotes of the entire conference came not during the readings but late at night in the mix of students, Grand Forksians, professors, and the writers.
So all of you out there (yes you!), sometime around early March next year, make sure and call UND and see when the '96 conference is. Then when the time comes, throw some books and bagels into your car and roadtrip to Grand Forks, you will not regret it. It's a week that runs from cerebral to wild, where the atmosphere is excited and friendly, and where you're only a stranger if you let yourself be.