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Emerging Alaska poets remind us of our roots

  • Author: Heather Lende
  • Updated: April 23, 2017
  • Published April 23, 2017

I have a confession: I really wish I could write a good poem. One. I have poet envy and Alaska poets are in part to blame for this.

When I was a young mother, new to Alaska, feeling far from my East Coast roots up in the middle of nowhere (even though I was not in a cabin in the wilderness. We lived in a 1,000-square-foot apartment above our lumberyard in Haines), I attended a reading by visiting Alaska Poet Laureate Tom Sexton, as the state's writer laureate was called then. His New England accent was comfortably familiar, but his poems, especially one about listening to country music from the Fort Yukon radio station late at night in a lonely cabin, changed my notion of the genre.

In school, I'd studied masters like Shakespeare, Keats and T.S. Eliot, and learned to analyze them in an academic way. But Sexton was a whole new kind of poet for me. I understood what he was saying without a dictionary, diagram or lecture. What's more, I felt it in my soul. Since then, I've made reading poems a habit. These days I even receive a poem a day in my email inbox. (It's free. Which is to say, you can too.)

Another poet and former writer laureate is John Straley of Sitka. His newest collection, "100 Poems of Spring," has just been released by Shorefast Editions in Juneau. Publisher Katrina Wolford believes it will appeal to tourists and locals alike. "Poetry is healing, especially in difficult times," she says.

Former Alaska writer laureate John Straley (Jim Lavrakas / ADN archive 2008)

"Poetry gives the human heart and the human brain something it can't get in any other genre," Straley says. It uses language, sounds and all our senses "to reach the deepest parts of our sensibility." He says one reason poets thrive in do-it-yourself Alaska is because the only equipment needed to create a poem are a pencil, a notepad and a willing heart. "Poetry can be done anywhere, by anyone. It's portable, simple, elegant and democratic, from haiku to its highest forms."

On the frontier

Straley says the other reason is that Alaska is still on the frontier of the major elements that run through all American literature: "race and space." ("I didn't make that up. Russell Banks did," Straley says.) Straley says creating and sustaining culture, community, individual freedom and the space to do those things are the heart of the Alaska experience.

The 49 Writers group was established in 2010 and through its website, blog, events and workshops has become a hub of the Alaska writing community. Members and supporters usually seek local publication in a handful of small literary journals, alternative presses, small weekly papers and the University of Alaska Press. The organization's executive director, poet Jeremy Pataky, is concerned that the "slow collapse" of the University of Alaska system will hurt the state's growing literary scene.

Jeremy Pataky journals in camp in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, Kobuk Valley National Park. (Carolyn Kozak)

"Two fantastic young poets just left," he laments. Pataky says he's not sure how many poets remain in Alaska, "but there are many, including some extremely accomplished ones." He ticks off a list that begins with "our most famous living poet," Olena Kalytiak Davis, followed by Whiting Award-winning Joan Naviyuk Kane, an Inupiaq writer who lives in Anchorage.

Davis has won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, the same award that 35 of the 45 United States poet laureates have received. She breathes rarified air even for a poet. In a 2014 New Yorker review, Don Chiasson writes that her poems "can be tawdry, but any art so fixated on its imperfections comes off as weirdly pure." He wonders if this has to do with geography, since Davis, who is an attorney, lives in Anchorage, where Chiasson may have assumed there is not much of a literary scene.

Pataky argues the opposite, but agrees that poetry is linked to geography by its nature. He notes that the poet Anne Coray of Lake Clark was responsible for publishing Joan Kane's first book and credits Fairbanks' Peggy Shumaker, "a wonderful poet and writer," with being a dedicated "literary citizen" who champions Alaska's literary arts as well as individual poets.

Poet Joan Kane lives in Anchorage. Photographed on February 16, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Place-making

In the big picture, Pataky says, Alaska needs poetry to remind us who we are and where we came from. "I think our poets accomplish a kind of 'place-making' for us in both the geographic world itself and in that place of language, which is layered onto — and allows for an apprehension of — geographies. Many Native poets teach us newcomers that Alaska is more than the sum of a bunch of cliches/myths/ideas but that it is — and has been — home to peoples since time immemorial. When we read each other's work, or read to each other, we build community."

We are talking about all this because April is National Poetry Month and also the 35th anniversary of Alaska Quarterly Review, our state's premier literary journal and one of the nation's leading literary publications, which has sometimes made for an awkward relationship with the state's writers.

AQR is of Alaska rather than Alaskan. Editor and University of Alaska Anchorage professor Ron Spatz says he's proud that AQR is in the company of such august publications as McSweeney's and Glimmer Train. He believes that AQR is a major bridge between Alaska and the Outside literary community.

"We've been glad to publish poets like Eva Saulitis, Peggy Shumaker, Olena Davis, Joan Kane, Gary Holthaus and Sean Hill — poets who are national in their voice and who also happen to live in Alaska," Spatz says.

Poems that he chose to publish by both Joan Kane and Olena Davis have been selected from AQR for Best American Poetry anthologies.

Passionate about poets

To say Spatz is passionate about poets and poetry is an understatement. Once he starts talking about AQR, poets and writing it's difficult to get a word in edgewise. He likens his work as the journal's editor to that of a film director and producer rolled into one.

"I don't select them to be placed in a pretty book and sit on the shelf. I'm catching these things — stories, narratives — and launching them with all of my heart out into the world through AQR."

Of Davis he says, "She is really, truly a poet through and through." Her voice is so unique, he says, that he can tell instantly it's her when he reads a line or two "and you can't say that about a lot poets."

Anchorage poet Olena Kalytiak Davis works on her third book at home about a decade ago. (Bill Roth / ADN archive 2006)

I was a little afraid to tell him that I hadn't read any of Davis' poems. He sent me one and pointed me toward others, and I understood what he meant. Her poems are frank, fearless and intelligent. She must read all the time.

I hoped to share her poem from AQR that was included in The Best American Poetry, "On the Certainty of Bryan," (aqreview.org/on-the-certainty-of-bryan/ ) but can't because of the adult language, which also speaks for the value of AQR and other journals for poets and writers. "Olena has a difficult voice," Spatz says, "a difficult, sensitive, perceptive and necessary voice."

Five Alaska writers

For the latest book-sized issue of AQR, which is out now, Spatz chose five Alaska writers, including four poets. Two are from Southeast, Emily Wall and X'unei-Lance Twitchell, a Tlingit language writer. The pair of University of Alaska Southeast teachers collaborated on the birth story of Twitchell's daughter, Ava Shaawatk'é, writing it in Tlingit and English.

"Shaawatke'é's Birth," Spatz says, "is certainly born in Alaska, and strongly related to place." However, its themes transcend geographic boundaries at a time when, "There is such tension between an English-only and nativistic vision of America and the vision that recognizes the diversity of peoples, cultures and languages that in actuality created the fabric of our great nation."

Wall praises Spatz for his editorial guidance. "Ron actually helped us create the final version by suggesting the use of footnotes. Then a couple of weeks ago he called with the idea of creating a short film of Lance and me reading the poem to help celebrate the 35th anniversary of AQR. We hope to start filming soon."

Current writer laureate Ernestine Hayes always speaks frankly about race in Alaska. She sees stories — poetic or otherwise — as a way to understanding. When she spoke in Haines at the library last year, she said we must recognize our shared past, Native and non-Native, the good, bad and ugly, in order to "hold hands and walk together" into the future.

Ernestine Hayes waits for the weather to clear in Haines. (Photo by Heather Lende)

Culmination

Twitchell and Wall's poem about the birth of a baby girl is a fine place to begin that. Here's what the poets have to say:

Wall: The poem is part of a five-year project collecting birth stories and turning them into poems. A couple of years ago I approached Lance as I didn't have any poems from a father's perspective, and his daughter had just been born. I ended up weaving the birth speech, exactly as he had written it (and said it) into the poem, to create a collaborative braided narrative poem. I then used some principles from Tlingit oral storytelling style to craft the poem.

Twitchell: My wife Miriah had recently had our second child, Ava Shaawatkʼé Twitchell. I had written down the words because I didnʼt want to forget them and shared them with some folks. Emily approached us about writing the poem, and we thought it was a good idea. The birth experience was primarily my wifeʼs, but I have been there to catch all of our children and have made sure that the first language they heard after birth was Tlingit.

Poet Emily Wall (Courtesy of Emily Wall)

Wall: When I was a graduate student in Arizona, (former Alaska writer laureates) Nora and Dick Dauenhauer came to Tucson and gave an incredible performance/reading of their work. This was my first introduction to Tlingit oratory and the stylistics of oral storytelling. Later, after I moved to Alaska, I was really lucky to study and work with Dick and Nora. I'm in no way an expert on oratory, but I loved what I was learning from them. When X'unei and I started working on this birth poem, I decided to try and incorporate some of the principles of oratory into the poem.

Twitchell: I had spoken Tlingit to my first child, but the idea of silencing the room to allow the language to really be heard came from Randall Tetlichi, a Vuntut Gwich'in First Nation elder. The words came from emotion. The idea of raising a child with our language and protecting them from some of the terrible racism in the world resulted in a message of love.

Wall: The Dauenhauers also talk about "exact repetition," which is repeating a phrase word for word. You can really see X'unei's use of this in his portion of the poem and I used it a little bit too.

Twitchell: I liked weaving our voices and languages, and thinking about how we might handle translation. It was wonderful working with Emily because I could tell she was invested in the experience. We could share a lot because we both work in language, story, poetry and we are both parents. I remember sharing things with her and feeling a space of shared emotion.

Wall: I feel like diverse and rich stories, from all kinds of people, need to be passed back and forth, maybe especially right now. The poem is half in Tlingit and I believe sharing that language is so important. I think because so many of us go through birth, and it's such an elemental human experience, that it opens the door to sharing so many different beliefs.

Poet Lance Twitchell with his two children. (Courtesy of Lance Twitchell)

Twitchell: It is always a joy to relive a moment such as the birth of one of your children, and I advocate for the presence of Alaska Native languages in all spaces. I am thankful that Ava can see this written years from now, and that it has a prestigious place in the world of literature. Sometimes people think our language is in some separate field, to be analyzed as a cultural artifact rather than as art and literature.

Wall: AQR is definitely a high bar. Ron Spatz and the university have done a remarkable job showcasing some of the literary talent we have here.

Without new and emerging poets such as Wall and Twitchell, AQR wouldn't have endured more than three decades, Spatz affirms.

"AQR is doing what the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses calls 'the backstage work of American Literature.' It's important, necessary work," Spatz says. "Although it is not glamorous at all, it is always exciting to meet a new voice, to find work by a writer, and the joy in reading such a work is in discovering something true." 

Haines author Heather Lende's third book is "Find the Good." Check her blog or Facebook page.

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