University Letter

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54th Annual UND Writers Conference is March 23-25 at Memorial Union

The 54th Annual UND Writers Conference will be held Thursday through Saturday, March 23-25, at the UND Memorial Union and online. All events are free and open to the public.

Since 1970, the UND Writers Conference has been a three-day event featuring authors, poets and artisans from across the country. Its mission is to provide a forum for those in North Dakota and the Upper Plains Region to discuss how the arts impact our everyday lives.

This year, the conference will examine “The Healing Arts,” a theme that emerged during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, said Crystal Alberts, professor of English and director of the UND Writers Conference.

“Although that time was extremely hard on arts organizations because we couldn’t be in-person, many of us pivoted to online delivery – providing access to arts that some people never would have been able to access previously,” Alberts said.

During the pandemic and beyond, people turned to arts for solace, joy, to stay busy, to find community and for myriad other reasons, said Alberts. Regardless of medium, the arts “feed the mind, inspire emotion, generate empathy and can help heal.”

“Consequently, I wanted to have a Writers Conference focused on how an art-filled life, as simple as it may sound, can actually improve well-being,” Alberts remarked. “Since spring is approaching, perhaps it will also inspire people to read more, start writing poetry, plant a garden or take up a new hobby or craft, whatever it may be.”


Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a fiction and non-fiction writer born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. Her first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, was the silver medal winner in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and a New York Times editor’s choice. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Buzzfeed, Nylon, and Guernica, among others. Rojas Contreras has received numerous awards and fellowships from Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, VONA, Hedgebrook, The Camargo Foundation and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.

Xavier Pastrano is an artist, poet and teacher from Sioux Falls, S.D. Author of the books XXX (Thirty), Seeing Sounds, and Hey Kid, Pastrano is a high school English and College Composition teacher who earned a Master of Arts in English from UND. Individual poems of his appear in the anthologies Thunderstorms and The Scandalous Lives of Butterflies and South Dakota in Poems. His latest book, Hey Kid, is a self-published work based on responses he received from students in an anonymous survey, asking to express how they felt in life, in 2020. Also an artist, Pastrano designed the poster for this year’s UND Writers Conference.

Juliet Patterson, a poet and non-fiction writer from Minneapolis, Minn., is the author of Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide and two full-length poetry collections: Threnody, a finalist for the 2017 Audre Lorde Poetry Award, and The Truant Lover, winner of the Nightboat Poetry Prize and a finalist for the 2006 Lambda Literary Award. A recipient of a 2011 Arts & Letters Susan Atefat Prize in non-fiction and a 2010 Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, she has also been awarded fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Minneapolis-based Creative Community Leadership Institute. She teaches creative writing and literature at St. Olaf College and is also a faculty member of the college’s Environmental Conversations program. Patterson earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from UND.

Tracy K. Smith is a poet, educator and memoirist from Princeton, N.J., who served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. In 2012, she received a Pulitzer Prize for her third book of poems, Life on Mars, which also earned a number of other awards. Her other published collections include The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Wade in the Water (2018). Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light, was published in 2015. As Poet Laureate of the United States, serving two terms, Smith traveled across the country hosting poetry readings and conversations in rural communities. In March 2021, she was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Morgan Talty, a fiction writer and editor, is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation and lives in Levant, Maine. He is the author of the critically acclaimed story collection Night of the Living Rez from Tin House Books, which won the New England Book Award, was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program and is a finalist for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He also just recently won the PEN America/PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. His writing has appeared in Granta, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, LitHub and elsewhere. A winner of the 2021 Narrative Prize, Talty’s work has been supported by the Elizabeth George Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. Talty is an Assistant Professor of English in Creative Writing and Native American and contemporary Literature at the University of Maine, Orono, and he is on the faculty at the Stonecoast MFA in creative writing as well as the Institute of American Indian Arts. Talty is also a Prose Editor at The Massachusetts Review.

Niki Tsukamoto is an artist and designer living near Los Angeles. Her practice centers traditional craft and herbalism encompassing natural dyes and fibers, stitch work and weaving. Her work is deeply informed by the Wiener Werkstätte approach of coupling avant-garde aesthetics with traditional methods and the Bauhaus belief in the oneness of the artist and the craftsman. As with both of the proceeding movements, the underlying principle of her practice is the creation of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”. Her daily practice is focused on the making of medicinally dyed cloth created with specific color frequencies from plant sources and meditations on our human conscious evolution through ritual and devotion. She opened Lookout & Wonderland Workshop in 2005 with her partner Yusuke.

Alejandro Varela is a writer based in New York. His first book, The Town of Babylon, was published in 2022. His second book, The People Who Report More Stress, is forthcoming. His writing has appeared in the Point Magazine, Boston Review, Harper’s, Split Lip, the Georgia Review, the Rumpus, the Brooklyn Rail, the Offing and the New Republic, among other publications. He is a 2019 Jerome Fellow in Literature. He was a resident in the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s 2017–2018 Workspace program and a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction. Alejandro is an editor-at-large of Apogee Journal. His graduate studies were in public health.


All events are free and open to the public. Some events are hybrid (in-person and online), but all will be available via livestreaming. In-person events will take place in the Memorial Union.

Each Zoom event has a separate registration. Register for online access via Zoom. Please visit the conference schedule website for the latest listings and registration links for UND Writers Conference activities.

Thursday, March 23

  • Noon: Panel, “Artistic Beginnings,” featuring Alejandro Varela, Morgan Talty and Xavier Pastrano. Moderated by Casey Fuller.
  • 2 p.m.: Community Workshop, Fiction with Alejandro Varela
  • 4 p.m.: Presentation, Niki Tsukamoto
  • 6 p.m.: Reading, Voices of the Valley
  • 8 p.m.: Reading, Alejandro Varela

Friday, March 24

  • Noon: Panel, “The Arts & Wellbeing,” featuring Alejandro Varela, Juliet Patterson, Niki Tsukamoto and Morgan Talty. Moderated by Anna Kinney.
  • 2 p.m.: Community Workshop, Creative Nonfiction with Juliet Patterson
  • 4 p.m.: Reading (Online Only), Morgan Talty
  • 6 p.m.: Community Reading
  • 8 p.m.: Reading, Tracy K. Smith

Saturday, March 25

  • 10 a.m.: Workshop/Presentation (In-Person Only), Zen Drawing with Xavier Pastrano at Memorial Union Gallery
  • Noon: Panel, “A Life with the Arts,” featuring Tracy K. Smith, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Juliet Patterson and Niki Tsukamoto. Moderated by Eric Wolfe.
  • 2 p.m.: Community Workshop, Poetry with Tracy K. Smith
  • 4 p.m.: Reading, Juliet Patterson
  • 6 p.m.: Community Reading
  • 8 p.m.: Reading, Ingrid Rojas Contreras

About “The Healing Arts,” and the 54th Annual UND Writers Conference

The body-mind connection has been of interest to homo sapiens for millennia. In the 21st century, neuroscientists, psychologists and others have invested significant resources into complex studies with new fields like epigenetics and the science of happiness becoming household terms. Their research reveals that sometimes the best treatment for trauma or cause of joy might not be a pill, but rather a holistic approach that could include visual images, literature, music, movement, mindfulness and more. The results seem to conclude that the arts heal in ways big and small. But those outside of Western science didn’t need the quantitative data to confirm what lived experience has taught throughout history.

While the skill and purpose of the creator may vary, the arts enable humans to express the inexpressible, to release emotions, and to reconnect to oneself and others. The 54th Annual UND Writers Conference will feature authors and artists whose work considers the role of arts in emotional, physical and spiritual healing. They will discuss how acts of aesthetic creation evoke compassion, facilitate understanding and can bring people together in unique ways.