‘Lit’ Love: DSU professor, published writer shares love for literature with students, public

The woods swallowed him up and kept him for hours while people searched. Peter Grimes, then 6 years old and fascinated with nature, often would wander from the family home -- which was surrounded by North Carolina woods -- to spend time turning o...

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Press Photo by Virginia Grantier Peter Grimes, an assistant professor of English at Dickinson State University, sits in his writing room at his home in Dickinson. Grimes is an award-winning published author as well as organizer of various student and community opportunities such as the Heart River Writer’s Circle and CommUniversity.

The woods swallowed him up and kept him for hours while people searched.
Peter Grimes, then 6 years old and fascinated with nature, often would wander from the family home - which was surrounded by North Carolina woods - to spend time turning over rocks and delving into other adventures during his discovery quests.
But this day he wandered too far - and would be gone for about 12 hours before being found.
Grimes, now 38, is an assistant professor of English at Dickinson State University.
Grime said he and a friend, though scared, spent time conferring on ways to survive: They ultimately determined they’d build a fort and, with rocks, hunt rabbits for food.
Eventually, the boys were rescued several miles from home. Grimes said he remembers telling news reporters a couple of things: that his new Darth Vader velcro shoes were ruined and that he saw a rabbit.
Years later, he is bent, still, on trekking into the unknown. He says he values uncertainty and watching what unfolds in the face of it.
But now when he wanders, it’s often into deep, dark words.
It’s words that Grimes, an award-winning published author, uses most often, now - to take him and readers into mysterious places.
His short stories typically feature desperate on-the-fringe characters - reflecting his admiration for people who struggle to live authentic lives, to do what’s right for them, Grimes said.
He hasn’t finished yet his story about a scraggly-type guy who has an ambulance but no medical training - but still drives around trying to save people.
Grimes’ dissertation advisor, Michael Griffith, director of graduate studies at the University of Cincinnati, said he thinks Grimes is most remarkable for his “playful, unpredictable idiosyncratic wit, in that low-key way of his.”
His favorite of Grimes’ stories possibly is “... a wonderfully weird piece about a dysfunctional family that gathers once a year to kick around the skull of the deceased and despised paterfamilias … and to express their coded affection (or not) by way of an elaborately organized games of insults. This story is ambitious, original, and finally, improbably poignant,” Griffith wrote in an email.
Grimes has received awards for his short stories from Narrative Magazine, Southern California Review and the Association of Writers and Writing Program. He was also a finalist in a Mississippi Review fiction competition and finalist in a Best of the Net Anthology.
In addition to short stories, Grimes, inspired by life in an oil boom, is in the planning stages of a novel.
But now, most of his time and devotion is spent teaching and increasing opportunities for students and the community. Grimes oversees the university’s Heart River Writer’s Circle, the university’s effort to bring in out-of-state authors for public discussions and readings. Grimes also oversees DSU’s CommUniversity, which are free and $15 continuing-education classes. And he organizes periodic public readings of literature.
“It’s a different way of engaging the community,” he said, describing the readings as almost “sacred, magical, rituals” involving these artifacts - meaning the literature.
Grimes earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology from the University of North Carolina. He then studied national literary journals while holding down jobs - pizza delivery and the like. In the journals, he noticed and admired the writing of University of Florida’s faculty members so much that he chose to go there for his master’s degree in creative writing so he could learn to write like them.
After that, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in English with a creative-writing dissertation from the University of Cincinnati, to better prepare him for a teaching career. During that time, he also worked as an editor at the Cincinnati Review, ranked as one of the nation’s top literary journals.
He started teaching as a graduate student at the University of Florida, and later would teach at several Pennsylvania colleges and then tutor at the University of Cincinnati’s writing center.
He headed west in 2011 to take the job at DSU because he wanted to teach in a small English department where he could work closely with students and help develop additional opportunities for them.
“His passion for writing, his obvious love of teaching and his ongoing involvement in multiple projects in the community is the reason for his popularity on campus,” said DSU student Julia Wolfram, a social science major.
Grimes said he tries to help students see writing as art, way beyond just structure and grammar.
“I love to see students fall in love with what they’ve written,” he said.
He said he tries to create innovative writing assignments - like asking students to write “the worst poem they could write.” Laughter happens at least once a class, he said.
Cassidy Rhoades, an English and writing major at DSU, said Grimes helped her “... connect with people in the world of professional writing, something only a person with real-world knowledge could’ve done.”
Military veteran Roxanne Evans, of New England was a participant of a writing program for veterans that resulted in a book, “Warrior Words,” in 2014.
“He not only taught us how to express our thoughts on paper, but also how to let writing help us heal,” she said.
Grimes had initially planned to be a veterinarian. Then a couple of things happened.
In high school, he realized he was uncomfortable in chemistry class - he didn’t like the weird smells or writing the mechanical lab reports. He was also discovering serious literature and reading a lot. He remembers an algebra teacher throwing the oven mitt she used to erase the board after catching him reading a novel in class.
As a college freshman, he was enthralled by all of the mind-bending opportunities: symposiums, clubs, organizations. Now, he tries to offer similarly rich experiences for DSU students.
Grimes said when he came to North Dakota, he expected flat terrain. Now, he loves the rolling landscape and the wind, which reminds him of the ocean. He also likes the constant flux of this oil-impacted town and that he runs into city commissioners and sees the college president daily. “And I have friends that I love here,” he said.
That would include Herman, a golden retriever a student couldn’t keep, and Bailey, a Siamese mix that also needed a new home.
Now they live with books. In Grimes’ home office and elsewhere, there’s a system for the bookshelves: All the books are labeled by genre with color-coded tags that also have the copyright year so he can find them easily.
He said if he could only have one book, it probably would be “Pale Fire,” by Vladimir Nabokov, a 99-line epic-type poem, in part - with many other complex parts.
After teaching creative writing and composition, there’s exercising and sometimes tennis, where he routinely gets slaughtered on court by a much-older economics professor.
Grimes and girlfriend, Nancy Caine, talk about picking random cities to travel to and learn about - like Omaha, Neb. “I love learning things,” Grimes said.
And then there’s writing things: It’s often right after waking up in the morning that he suddenly gets, seemingly out of thin air, an idea for a character or story and immediately goes to work on it.
“I love the mystery of it,” he said. “... The surprise of creating things you never expected to create.” He kind of explains it as, “You’re channeling yourself.”
Grimes said compliments on his writing and teaching “means a whole lot,” but what means even more are past comments he has overheard about his integrity.
“Being honest, straightforward and open ... so important to me,” he said.
Alan Church, a DSU professor of English professor, said recently that Grimes is a great teacher and has extended Heart River Writer’s Circle and CommUniversity throughout the community.
“He’s made DSU a better place by his being here,” Church said.

Grantier is a features reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-225-8811

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Press Photo by Virginia Grantier Peter Grimes, an assistant professor of English at Dickinson State University, speaks during a Heart River Writer’s Circle event in Dickinson on Feb. 9 at DSU.

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