Inupiaq poet wins prestigious national writing award

October 28, 2009 

An Inupiaq mom from Anchorage has picked up one of America's most prestigious literary awards. Poet Joan Kane, 32, was among 10 writers to receive a $50,000 Whiting Writers' Award at a ceremony in New York City on Wednesday night.

The Whiting awards have been presented annually for the past 25 years. Among authors who have received the award early in their careers are playwrights August Wilson and Tony Kushner and essayist Tobias Wolff. Alaskans who have previously won include Natalie Kusz and former Daily News columnist Seth Kantner.

Kane's poetry is inspired, in part, by what she calls her "ancestral landscapes" on the Seward Peninsula and King Island.

She has previously received an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska State Council on the Arts' Connie Boochever Fellowship and been a winner in the Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest. Her play, "The Golden Tusk," was presented at the Anchorage Museum this summer. She is co-curator of the "Virtual Subsistence" art and literature exhibit now on display at the MTS Gallery in Mountain View.

But she hasn't yet seen her first published book. Speaking before leaving Anchorage to accept the prize, Kane said she didn't expect to hold a copy of the book, "The Cormorant Hunter's Wife," published by NorthShore Press, until Friday, when she has a "book launch" event in Brooklyn.

Kane was born in Anchorage in 1977. She grew up in Muldoon and showed literary promise early on, writing a prize-winning essay on Martin Luther King while in the fourth grade.

"I've always been a reader," she said. "My parents used to drop me off at the Muldoon Library and I'd spend the whole day there."

She was also a competitive runner, a string player in the Anchorage Youth Symphony, vice president of the Alaska Native Youth Leadership council and an exceptional student at Bartlett High School.

At 17, she was accepted into Harvard University in an early-action program based on her first three years of high school. At that time she thought she might want to be a doctor.

Before going to college, however, she took a year off. "I was scared of being homesick," she said. "I read a lot that year. A novel a day." TRAVEL, GRADUATE SCHOOL

She traveled to Ireland and England to see sites associated with writers like James Joyce and William Yeats. It helped push her in the direction of creative writing. In 2000 one of her poems won the college division in the University of Alaska/Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest.

"The $50 that came with that was the first money I ever made as a writer," she said. "But more than that, it was a validation."

She is said to be the first Inupiaq to earn a bachelor's degree from Harvard. She continued post-graduate studies at Columbia University in New York, where she received a master of fine arts degree in creative writing in 2006.

Since returning to Anchorage she has worked as a consultant on financial development for Native village corporations. When she returns from New York she'll present business workshops in Barrow and Wainwright.

After that, however, she'll defer travel until after her second child is delivered, on or around Feb. 27. (That will make two sons. "My mom finally has something that she can be proud of me for," she quipped.)

SECOND POETRY BOOK

Kane sounded ready for a break from "the non-writing part of my life." She wants to concentrate on a second book of poetry, among other things.

"The money couldn't come at a better time," she said. Although she received grants and fellowships, her college debts are substantial. She and her husband, attorney Brian Duffy, sometimes struggle to pay the bills for their young family.

"My husband jokes that he's probably the only start-up lawyer whose practice is being kept afloat by his poet wife," she said.

Some of the money will buy health insurance, she said.

She'd also like to take her children and her mother to King Island, an expensive and difficult proposition.

The remote settlement in the Bering Sea was abandoned under pressure from the government in the 1950s. Memories of the deserted village contribute to overtones of loss and change that haunt Kane's poems. King Islanders retain a strong sense of identity with the place, though members of the younger generation -- including Kane herself -- have never been there.

Kane hopes to visit small communities in the future, to talk about writing and "bring books to others."

"As a writer, you have to be concerned when you see all of these towns without bookstores," she said.

Sitting with artist Ron Senungetuk in the Nome Airport last month, she shared her desire to travel more and see places far and near. At the time, she had no idea that she would be winning a major national literary prize.

She listed a number of wishful destinations.

"Don't worry," assured Senungatuk, a family friend. "Those places will all be there when you're ready to see them."

"I feel like he saw into my future," she said.


Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.


A Kane sampler

This poem won the college poetry division in the 2000 University of Alaska/Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest:

Pure/Pour/A Priori

full moon’s rays spill

a skeleton path on water

tell me the spell

you held me under

simpler to undo

than the first split steps

I took towards you.

Wrath and swell

of the silt-black sea

heavy and mute

with the weight

of so much ice melting

returns agency

to me, and ease.

Eyes travel,

trace along the shape

of pure coincidence;

sere white falls hued

through night air,

valuable, and silvers

on the waves.

Shafts of light

unravel, reeling

towards shore: shine

relearns its shadow image

and I relearn more.

I can scarcely scrape

and scratch my eyes

across the moon’s rough

surface. To conjure

this drag and chase down

the fixed spines of time

and the firm arrival

at some great vein

of truth appears

difficult. My own

divinations, though, draw

me down the coast

and raise my eyes high

despite the bone-bright

glance of the naked

skeleton path on the water.

— By Joan Kane


VIRTUAL SUBSISTENCE, for which Kane serves as the curator of the literary component, will remain on display through Nov. 14 at the MTS Gallery, 3142 Mountain View Drive. Cover art for Kane’s book, “The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife,” by Gretchen Sagan, who curates the visual component of the exhibit, is on display there, as well as writings by Kane and others. The gallery is open noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A First Friday opening and performance will take place at 7 p.m. on Nov. 6.

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