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HPR: 52nd Annual UND Writers Conference Issue

Writer's Block | April 22nd, 2021

18 March 2021

Spring is almost here, and we might even be venturing outdoors to experience the warmth of the sun. After 2020, which feels like it will never end, 2019 seems like a whole other world, but it is thought of by some as "the year of Greta Thunberg." After traveling by boat to North America, the 16-year-old delivered an impassioned speech at the UN Climate Action Summit and became the face of climate change.

And, while some may think of it as a far-off time in the future (is it actually 2021 yet?), the year 2040 is cited in debates as one that looms over us, a year in which the earth will sustain irrevocable damage—more extreme weather, deadly wet-bulb temperatures, rising sea levels, droughts—unless we make significant changes in how we treat the environment, although admittedly some of these effects are already here.

The 52nd Annual UND Writers Conference features authors and artists whose work considers the role of place, the environment, and sustainability in light of our global situation. The hope is that through the arts, we might have a conversation about the impact we, as individuals and as a community, have on climate change and the planet.

However, as US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, who made her first appearance at the 1987 UND Writers Conference, recently stated: “we all have to work together, because we are together. We can either work together to change our relationship with the Earth, or we’re all going down together. It’s that simple.”

The Conference will feature readings, panel discussions, workshops, a reading by "Voices of the Valley," and open mic sessions. All events are free and open to the public. Registration is necessary to receive your Webinar Zoom link. For more information, visit the Conference website at or follow us on Facebook (@UNDWritersConference) or Twitter (@UNDWritersConf)


No one who loves literature or poetry would bat an eye if you were to say that Joy Harjo is the most important writer of poetry in America today.

An internationally-renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo is currently serving a nearly unprecedented third term as the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, only the second poet to do so. The author of nine books of poetry, including the highly acclaimed An American Sunrise, several plays, children's books, and two memoirs, Harjo’s impressive honors include the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

As a musician and performer, Harjo has produced six award-winning music albums including her newest, “I Pray for My Enemies” (Sunyata Records). She is Executive Editor of the anthology “When the Light of the World was Subdued,” “Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry” and the editor of “Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry,” the companion anthology to her signature Poet Laureate project. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Board of Directors Chair of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, and holds a Tulsa Artist Fellowship.

The eminent American poet Adrienne Rich says, “I turn and return to Harjo’s poetry for her breathtaking complex witness and for her world-remaking language: precise, unsentimental, miraculous.”

See the renowned, unprecedented, miraculous Joy Harjo read from her work on Thursday, March 25th at 7pm. She will also be a part of the Thursday noon panel "Stewardship."

~Casey Fuller is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Dakota


If you're into science fiction or fantasy, then Nnedi Okorafor (NED-ee o-CORE-a-FOUR) probably shouldn't need an introduction, as she's won every major award in the field—Hugo, Locus, Nemmo, and more. Christopher Borrelli of the Chicago Tribune sums it up:

"She is a friend and collaborator with George R. R. Martin, and either the Next Big Thing or the Best New Old Thing You Still Haven’t Heard Of. She is...a literary shape-shifter, author of young-adult fiction, adult fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction, Marvel comic books and a new memoir...She is a self-defined Africanfuturist, and a TED talker, and at least for the next couple of years, the developer of more TV shows than you have streaming services to watch them on."

However, her accolades don't stop there, as her comics and graphic novels, including “Laguardia (Dark Horse),” “Black Panther: Long Live the King, Shuri,” and “Wakanda Forever” have won an Eisner and been nominated for other awards. Meanwhile, her young adult work, like “Akata Witch”—the "Nigerian Harry Potter"—is also critically and commercially successful.

Currently working on a co-written adaptation of Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seed” with Viola Davis and Kenyan film director Wanuri Kahiu, there doesn't seem to be anything that Nnedi Okorafor can't do. We're very lucky to have her joining us at this year's UND Writers Conference to talk about her work, which is attuned to the future of the earth and all of its inhabitants.

Nnedi Okorafor will be in Conversation with Bridget Tetteh-Mason on Friday, March 26th at 7pm. Okorafor will also be a part of the Friday noon panel "Sustainability."


Sonia Shah is the internationally-renowned science journalist whose 2016 work “Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Coronaviruses and Beyond” has led to television appearances everywhere from “CNN with Fareed Zakaria” to “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

From the 19th century cholera outbreaks in New York City to the epidemic in Haiti that began post-earthquake in 2010, Shah clearly details how ignorance, greed, corruption, and a refusal to change has led to an untold number of deaths. It is a brilliantly written, well-researched book that interweaves past with present, public with personal to tell an extremely accessible story of how society hasn't learned from its mistakes. And, it is a story that she continues in her latest, “The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move,” recently named a finalist for the 2021 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.

Once again, Shah traces the history of her subject to show how outdated ideas about migration—plants, animals, and humans—have influenced public opinion and led to problematic policies with devastating effects. However, as Meara Sharma notes in her Washington Post review, "Shah offers a refreshing and crucially humane counterargument to the idea that migration spells societal catastrophe. Interweaving the human history of movement with parables from nature, she reframes migration not as an exception in an otherwise static world but instead as a biological and cultural norm — and one that should be embraced, not feared."

Sonia Shah will read from her work on Wednesday, March 24th at 7pm. She will also be a part of the Wednesday noon panel "Subsistence."


Ross Gay still believes in love. It’s an amazing accomplishment for anyone who has lived through 2020 into 2021, let alone an author who often writes about the stark—and often difficult—reality around him. But Ross Gay is adamant. Love still exists. Wonder is all around us. The ordinary is there to be praised. Small delights are there for those who are willing to look.

In his 2019 genre-defying book of lyric essays, “The Book of Delights,” Gay sets out to remind us of praise, wonder, and how to celebrate the ordinary. Written daily over a tumultuous year, “The Book of Delights” catalogues how both the culture we currently inhabit robs us of delight and how the recovery of that delight can be seen as a radical act.

In many ways, radically recovering joy in very difficult circumstances is Ross Gay’s specialty. His 2020 book-length poem, “Be Holding,” is an unexpected ode to the delight of watching basketball legend Dr. J—in a manner that models how Gay engages delight—that flawlessly spans subject matter from the Middle Passage, family, music, and state-sponsored violence.

In his award-winning 2016 book of poems, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” Gay’s delight begins in the processes of the garden and orchard to inform us how death, loss, and sorrow are literally the fruits and flowers of what feed us. “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” is a book that can in one short poem both protest the murder of Eric Garner—who gasped “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by police officers in New York—and point to how plants that Eric Garner once “put gently into the earth” sustain us with oxygen, to help us breathe.

It is an impossible strategy. Just like love.

Ross Gay will read from his work on Friday, March 25th at 4pm. She will also be a part of the Thursday and Friday noon panels. Gay is offering a craft talk on poetry on Friday (waitlist available).

~Casey Fuller is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Dakota


The prevalent myth about contemporary writers is that they are all coastal elites who fly over states like North Dakota as they split time between beach houses in California and art lofts in New York, completely oblivious about where their food comes from or how leather turns into designer boots.

Marie Matsuki Mockett is here to shatter those myths. In “American Harvest,” her new nonfiction book published by Graywolf press in 2020, Mockett accompanies a group of evangelical Christian wheat harvesters through the heartland at the invitation of Eric Wolgemuth, the conservative farmer who has cut her family’s fields for decades. As Mockett follows Wolgemuth’s crew on the trail of ripening wheat from Texas to Idaho, they contemplate what Wolgemuth refers to as “the divide,” the cavernous gulf that opened between city goers and those who lived in the country during the election of 2016.

It is in this “divide” that Mockett does something unusual in America at this cultural moment. She crosses the divide, engages it, complicates it, then peels back layers of the American story to expose our difficult contradictions and unhealed wounds.

With great sympathy and a wide historical lens, “American Harvest” is the story of Mockett as she joins the crew in the fields, attends church, then struggles to adapt to the rhythms of rural life while being reminded of her own status as a person who identifies as “not white.” The New Yorker writes of “American Harvest,”“Mockett, writing with a gentle self-consciousness, offers a compassionate portrait of conservative evangelicals, along with lucid musings on agricultural science, Native American history, and the quiet majesty of the Great Plains.”

Marie Mutsuki Mockett will read from her work on Thursday, March 25th at 4pm. She will also be a part of the Wednesday ("Sustainability") and Thursday ("Stewardship") noon panels. Mockett is offering a craft talk on creative nonfiction on Wednesday.

~Casey Fuller is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Dakota


Aylan Couchie is a Nishnaabekwe interdisciplinary artist and writer, as well as a PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies Program at Queen’s University. In her artwork, Couchie explores the intersections of colonial/ First Nations histories of place, culture, and Indigenous erasure. She creates public and site-specific art that addresses how understanding of issues surrounding (mis)representation and cultural appropriation informs action. Her work also highlights the value of knowledge about local histories when responding to divisive issues. By anchoring her work in local histories, Couchie encourages viewers to identify and deconstruct systemic institutional barriers.

Couchie received a Masters of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Art, Media, and Design at OCAD University, where her MFA thesis focused on the relationships between reconciliation and monument and public art. She received an Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture award through the International Sculpture Centre, and she received a Premier’s Award through Ontario Colleges. Couchie currently lives and works in her home community of Nipissing First Nation in Northern Ontario and serves as the Chair of Native Women in the Arts. You can see some of her work on her website:

Aylan (AY like Day - LAN like LandBack) Couchie will be presenting from her work on Wednesday, March 24th at 4pm, as well as joining the noon panels on Wednesday and Friday.

~Nicole Derenne, Instructor UND Department of Art & Design


If Richard Nash was correct and “the business of literature is blowing shit up,” Jessica Fischoff is contributing in large doses. Furthering the vision of founders Roxane Gay and M. Bartley Seigel, Fischoff is the owner and editor of [PANK] magazine, est. 2006. She again nestled herself into a forwarding nook of literature with her recent appointment to the editorial helm of “The American Poetry Journal,” est. 2004.

One of the undeniable attributes garnering [PANK’s] success in particular is the oddity of the domain. The abstractness of the word defeats any particular categorization, which is one definition: pank,adj. The universal slang word encompassing all possible contexts and meanings.

In tandem with this definition is the theme of UND’s 51st Writers Conference: “The Working Classes.” [PANK’s] folios and online issues are, as you’d expect, a mesh of themes and writers. Moving from fiction to poetry to nonfiction, the folios—whether “Health & Healing” or “LATINX: Latinidad,” never bank on duplicating a specific style or point of departure.

“The American Poetry Journal” is invested in providing residency opportunities for poets submitting full-length poetry books. A stand-out aspect of the 1-4-week residency at the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, PA (besides spending time among other contemporary poets) is the opportunity to present your published work or teach a craft workshop, which is essentially cryptic for: “We want to learn from you.Your style. Your voice. Your craft.” These are the features editors dial into and amplify especially if, like Jessica, you are a wordsmith yourself.

Check out her own collection of poetry, “The Desperate Measure of Undoing” here:

If you have an interest in publishing, clear your schedule @ 2:00 p.m. Friday, March 26, 2020 for a “Getting Published” presentation when Fischoff will lend her invaluable advice on what editors look for.

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