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Meet Mark Turcotte, distinguished writer in residence

Mark Turcotte in profile
"Most of my life, I've been a working stiff," says Distinguished Writer in Residence Mark Turcotte. "I had all day long to write a poem over and over and over again, revising it in my head." (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)

To understand what Mark Turcotte (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) brings to DePaul, ask him to read one of his poems.

When the Distinguished Writer in Residence and DePaul 125 honoree obliged during a recent interview, it was like a record stylus hitting a groove. Music and rhythm coursed through Turcotte's voice, which dropped an octave as he recited:

As a child I danced
to the heartful, savage
of the Native, the
American Indian,
in the Turtle Mountains,
in the Round Hall,
in the greasy light of
kerosene lamps.

Like so many students across the country who use Turcotte's work in competitions during National Poetry Month each April, Turcotte had chosen to read one of his early classics: "Flies Buzzing." As the poem's refrain, "As a child," suggests, Turcotte composed "Flies Buzzing" from vivid memories of his boyhood on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in Belcourt, N.D., a few miles south of the Canadian border.

"Watching the people dance, looking out the window at night. These are the history, the spirits, the ghost," Turcotte says. "On the reservation, those things all blend together in really strange and interesting and mysterious ways."

By the time Turcotte first published "Flies Buzzing" in a collection of poetry, "The Feathered Heart," he had refracted those memories through the cultural alienation of later, post-reservation stages of his life, starting with his politically engaged and personally frustrated teenage years in a small town outside Lansing, Mich. There he wrote the rudiments of the poem as a high schooler in the mid-1970s.

"Most of my life, I've been a working stiff," Turcotte says. "I had all day long to kind of write a poem over and over and over again, revising it in my head. By the time I would scribble a poem out, I would have spoken it 20, 30, sometimes 40 times in my head."

After landing in Chicago in the early 1990s, he hung Sheetrock by day, then lit up the stages of the city's diverse poetry scene by night while perfecting his sonorous style of declamation.

Turcotte spent more than half his life as a nomadic laborer, his poetry mostly locked away in his head. But in Chicago, poetry became part of how he made a living and earned him increasing regional, national and international recognition. At age 50, he earned an MFA from Western Michigan University. In 2009, he joined DePaul as a visiting assistant professor. He has been sparking and shaping the literary ambitions of DePaul students ever since, becoming a senior professional lecturer and, most recently, Distinguished Writer in Residence.

Mark Turcotte in his office sitting at his desk
When Turcotte joined DePaul in 2009, his poems were recognized regionally, nationally and internationally. Today he credits his creative writing and literature students with keeping him "interested in writing." (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)

As Turcotte has found a professional home as a Native artist at DePaul, he has helped DePaul acknowledge its place on traditional Native lands. In 2020, the member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribal nation joined a core committee for the earliest planning stages for the university's ​ land acknowledgment.

"Basically, I said, 'Keep it short,' " Turcotte said. "You don't need to give a five-minute history lesson. So DePaul decided to make it really specific to DePaul's position as the largest Catholic university in America."

Turcotte's participation was a boost to the effort led by DePaul's Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, and a measure of his devotion to the university and its students.

"I think we need to give these young people more credit," said Turcotte, who teaches literature in addition to creative writing. "It seems harder than ever to be that age. They keep me interested in writing. When a little light bulb goes on for them — when they understand suddenly, 'Oh, this is a description, as opposed to an abstraction' — it changes everything. That's kind of all you need."

And it's all that Turcotte needs to engage again with his earliest moments as a poet. As "Flies Buzzing" concludes:

until the Sun and the Sun and the Sun and I
still a child, still dancing
toward the rhythm of life.

Max Dickstein is a freelance writer.