By: John Lamb, INFORUM
MOORHEAD – Seven years after retiring from Minnesota State University Moorhead, Mark Vinz has two book projects in the works. That’s enough to make the 71-year-old seem pretty busy – to everyone but himself.
“I see people like David Ferreira, and I don’t think I’m doing anything,” Vinz says with a laugh, referring to his friend and fellow retiree, an active piano player around the area.
Vinz displays a fair amount of Midwestern modesty with his statement, especially since he was honored earlier this month at the Minnesota Book Awards. The Moorhead writer was given the Kay Sexton Award, an annual honor for a person or organization’s lifetime work promoting literature around the state.
Calling him, “one of the finest, most respected figures in the state’s literary history,” the program praised Vinz for his work not only as a writer and teacher of 40 years, but also as a publisher.
“Being a writer is very solitary. You don’t get much feedback except when publishing,” Vinz says. “To get that recognition by your peers is quite wonderful.”
Wonderful, but also well earned, say friends and colleagues.
“I really like his poetry and came to understand photos and poems are succinct morsels of an idea or notion,” says fellow retired MSUM teacher, Wayne Gudmundson, who paired his photos with Vinz’s verses in the books “Minnesota Gothic,” “Affinities” and a couple of broadsides.
“He’s been bringing poetry to the people for some time, and that’s no small feat,” says Gudmundson.
“It’s the perfect award for him,” says Vinz’s longtime friend, Joe Richardson.
“It’s hard to find anyone who’s done more in a broader sense for writing and publishing in Minnesota than Mark,” Richardson says. “He’s really done it all.”
Vinz and Richardson worked together at Plains Distribution, a promoter of small press book titles through the region via the “Bookbus” from the mid-1970s through the early ‘80s.
Plains Distribution received funding from B. Dalton Bookstores and its parent company, Dayton’s, with the help of Kay Sexton, who worked there as a book buyer.
Vinz also started publishing the literary magazine Dacotah Territory in 1972. The collection would go on to publish poems by W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder and William Stafford, as well as authors with regional ties, Tom McGrath and Robert Bly.
“There were all these writers, all these good works happening,” Vinz said. “There was something going on here, a real outpouring.”
Vinz said he hit his stride as a writer and a teacher after meeting McGrath, who he refers to as his mentor and his model.
“Tom McGrath, when he started here (at MSUM) in 1968, was a real, live, published poet,” Vinz recalls. “He gave me encouragement and feedback. I don’t know if I could’ve persevered as a writer without McGrath. What I tried to do with my students was what McGrath did for me.”
Asked if he thinks, in light of his recent Minnesota Book Award, he’ll ever be celebrated like McGrath – who MSUM’s visiting writers series is named after – Vinz doesn’t mince words.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t think anyone will be celebrated like Tom McGrath. In this region there are three giants: Tom McGrath, Robert Bly and Louise Erdrich. Those really stand out.”
Vinz met Erdrich, a Wahpeton, N.D., native when she still went by Karen Erdrich and was working with the Creative Arts Program as a writer in the schools. Vinz only knew her as a poet and was the first to publish her verses, first in Dacotah Territory then in Dakota Arts Quarterly.
“He’s always been a great person. Kind of a hero to me,” Erdrich told The Forum in 2012.
Erdrich moved on but kept in touch with the teacher, even surprising Vinz by sending him a rough draft of a bit of fiction she was working on. The piece ended up being the opening chapter to her 1984 debut novel, “Love Medicine.”
Seven years after walking away from MSUM, Vinz looks back fondly on his teaching days.
“I liked teaching,” he says, then smiles. “I didn’t like grading papers.”
But after retirement, he got lost in his own, newfound time.
“I had a really hard time with retirement because of the routine. I found a routine now. You don’t have to do much, but you have to do something,” he says. “As a writer, you always think, ‘If I had more time.’ And when you get it, it’s terrifying … I look back at the guy I used to be, teaching, writing, publishing. I don’t know that guy anymore. I don’t have the energy.”
He may not have as much energy as he had a decade ago – not uncommon for someone now in his 70s – but he has enough for two projects.
This year he will publish a new collection of poems, “Permanent Record.” The title is his way of “striking back” at authoritative threats that his actions would go on his permanent record as a youngster.
It is a follow-up of sorts to his 2013 collaboration with poet Clarence Wolfshohl. “In Harm’s Way” featured the two reminiscing about the careless glee of childhood.
“Permanent Record” includes recollections of his time in Rugby, N.D., where he was born and spent summers after his parents moved to Minneapolis, then eventually to Kansas.
“It was always a special place,” he says of Rugby.
Similarly he has nostalgic recollections of Minneapolis, particularly the 12-cent movies he’d catch at places like the Varsity Theatre, now a popular club.
“That was the most important place when I was a child,” he says. “Then they raised it to 20 cents, and we were outraged because we didn’t have enough money for candy.”
He’s also putting together an essay collection on writing and writers and working on a blog with Richardson. Vinz hopes the site will be a regular posting spot for his essays.
“I’ve got a lot of stuff. It’s a matter of sorting it out. It’s always easier to write something new than to go back and organize,” he says. “I don’t have writer’s block. I have organizer’s block.”
Add in the potential for poetry/jazz collaboration with Ferreira, and 2014 is looking like a busy year for Vinz.
“The quality in this area’s artists and musicians is amazing,” Vinz says of his collaborations. “It keeps you honest, forces you to see art from different angles.
“If writing is a solitary occasion – and it is – one of the great joys of my life has been being part of the writer’s community,” he says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533