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​A State of Literary Arts

Writer's Block | March 6th, 2019

Public reading on the Missouri - photograph by Suzzanne Kelley

By Suzzanne Kelley
suzzanne.kelley@ndsu.edu 

Reading is such a solitary enterprise, but North Dakota’s community of literary endeavors . . . well, that’s a whole other story.

North Dakota’s literary scene covers the gamut from writers to readers, with publishers, community reads, book clubs and writers’ groups, designers and printers, writing conferences, and even an annual book festival. Get ready to bookmark coming events, and take note about the state of literary arts and who’s making it all happen.

The first three Thursdays (easy to remember) of March reveal a veritable smorgasbord of events. The 4th Annual NDSU Press Party begins March 7 at 7 p.m. at the NDSU Alumni Center with six authors at the podium. NDSU Press’s signature event features readings by the authors of all of the press’s newest publications. Free and open to the public, you will always hear a good story. (Sometimes people cry.) The 14th Annual National Book Awards takes place at Concordia College on March 14. Multiple national award-winning authors will be speaking, and the event is free and open to all. And on the third Thursday of March, the Plains Art Museum will present a program of poetry set to music. Yes, literary music for the ears.

Learning to use the letterpress - photograph by Suzzanne Kelley

These literary events are only the beginning of what promises to be a feast for lovers of all things book in 2019. Creative writing will continue its course with the Dunn County Writers group, the North Dakota Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Red River Valley Writing Project, and the Humanities North Dakota sponsorship of book discussions and writing workshops.

Our independent booksellers bless us by bringing books and authors to our communities. Each bookstore has its own characters (I am talking about their founders and staff) that make each venue a destination point: The Western Edge (Medora), Books on Broadway (Williston), Main Street Books (Minot), Ferguson Books (Grand Forks and Bismarck), the Museum Store at the North Dakota Heritage Center (Bismarck), Zandbroz Variety (Fargo), many of our cities’ museums and historical sites, and it’s not far from Fargo to Melberg’s Christian Bookstore in Moorhead. Book sales pop up in unexpected places, too, like the gift shop at Trapper’s Kettle (Belfield), the American Association of University Women’s annual book sale in the Moorhead Mall, and omigosh, how many books can you fit into a paper sack when your local library as its book sale?

Our literary scene includes multiple pockets of readers in book clubs, too. My friend Carmen Rath-Wald in Napoleon talks joyfully about her local book club, and my West Fargo neighbor has cars stacked on the roadway when her book club convenes. Barnes and Noble hosts a number of book clubs, and even the youngest among us enjoy conversations about books when they take in the story-time events at local libraries. (And, speaking of libraries, let’s build a presidential library to brag about.)

Students learning to operate letterpress equipment - photograph by Suzzanne Kelley

North Dakota boasts a variety of literary conferences, like the upcoming Valley City State University Academic Publications Conference or the 50th Annual University of North Dakota Writers Conference, March 20–22 (with Tommy Orange, no less!). Kudos to Ken Schmierer and the crew at the Historic Ellendale Opera House who will host the 3rd Annual Book Festival on October 13, 2019, with regional authors and break-out sessions.

All of these book-related activities are made known by North Dakota media. High praise Prairie Public for the splendid, perceptive interviews they conduct with authors on television and radio. Thanks, too, to KVRR’s “It Takes 2” interviews with authors. Our High Plains Reader and other newspapers throughout the state, and many of our North Dakota journals and magazines feature book reviews and recommended reading. And, here is a quick shout-out to the North Dakota Newspaper Association, whose Education Foundation supported student travel to The Braddock New Letterpress Print Museum, where NDSU Certificate in Publishing students learned first-hand how to operate antique letterpress equipment and produce a beautiful chapbook of poetry.

While authors and readers are hard at it, the publishing business is going strong, too. NDSU Press churns out six to ten books annually, and UND’s Digital Press has ramped up its production, while also keeping the decades-old North Dakota Quarterly not only viable, but thriving. New Rivers Press at MSUM is going strong; indie and self-publishers have staked out quite a bit of territory in North Dakota, too, producing an amazing number of outstanding fiction and nonfiction works.

Before I run out my word-count allotment, allow me to mention two North Dakota literary events with national connections. First, the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest, supported by the North Dakota Council on the Arts and spotlighting student success, just held their finals in February. Congratulations to Emily Gilsrud of Wahpeton High School, 2019 State Champion; she advances to National Finals in Washington, DC, where a total of $50,000 will be awarded to winning students and schools. And second, our North Dakota Library Association hosts the Notable Documents Award (which includes books), with state winners advancing to compete on the national level with the American Library Association.

Shopping at Historic Ellendale Opera House Book Festival - photograph by Suzzanne Kelley

With so many amazing literary events to choose from, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I appreciate any book—on any topic—that causes communities to converse. One of the most varied and interesting opportunities for such conversation is the One Book, One Community partnership that takes place in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Several hundred people show up for the culminating event—the author’s presentation—following public discussions and multiple connections throughout the months previous. I can’t wait to see what this year’s book selection will be, not just because I am a voracious reader, but because I want to know what other people have to say about it.

When it comes to book connections and big ideas, well thought out and reasoned, finely crafted and published in beautiful volumes, North Dakota has it right.

[Editor’s note: Suzzanne Kelley is the publisher at North Dakota State University Press.]

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