dg nanouk okpik was eating breakfast Monday morning at her home in Santa Fe when the phone started ringing. She didn’t answer. But it kept ringing.
okpik, who is Iñupiaq and grew up with adoptive parents in Anchorage, soon learned that she’d just been recognized as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her collection of poems, “Blood Snow.”
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” okpik said by phone Monday. “I feel like a thousand marmots running in the tundra — playing in the tussocks and hummocks and taiga and tundra.”
The collection of poems, published last October, is “anchored by the immediate concerns of an Arctic that is slowly dematerializing in an era of ‘melting / igloos & ice caves, rising butter clams clamped / shut rotten & rancid,’” wrote Diego Báez in a review of okpik’s book for the Poetry Foundation. “For okpik, subject and environs, exterior and interior are inseparable.”
The prestigious Pulitzer Prize is awarded yearly to a cadre of American journalists, playwrights, novelists, musicians and poets, in categories that span from breaking news to fiction. okpik’s work was nominated as a finalist in the poetry category, alongside the late Jay Hopler’s “Still Life,” and “Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2001-2020,” by Carl Phillips, who won the award.
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okpik, the recipient of honors such as the American Book Award for her first book, “Corpse Whale,” said that when writing poetry, awards are never top of mind.
“When I write, I write to breathe, and I breathe to write,” okpik said. “This is something that is compelling in my life that I do, that is not a want. It’s a need. And there’s a difference.”
okpik said she wrote “Blood Snow” while sick with breast cancer for years. Writing the book through her illness gave her courage and resilience to push on, she said. And she said writing about her home was a way to reconcile those trials and tribulations.
okpik grew up in a military family, and spent much of her childhood in Anchorage, fishing, hunting, hiking and biking through the state. After the deaths of her adoptive parents, okpik changed her name, received her original birth certificate and connected with members of her birth family, who are from Utqiaġvik. She also began to learn Iñupiaq.
She started using Iñupiaq words in her poetry, and experimenting with them when an English word would not suffice.
“I used it as a tool and a way for me to say my language verbally, aloud, and then also be able to remember and to learn it,” okpik said. “So it was a tool for me, but it also was a writing back to home and writing back to all the questions I had in my mind, about home. And that’s where my writing originates and comes from, is from these stories that I give you now.”
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She has been writing poetry since age 12, and started writing seriously in college in her 30s, but said she initially struggled to finish a sentence. After hearing that Malcom X learned to read and write by reciting and reading the dictionary, okpik bought an Oxford English Dictionary and said she has since used it every day.
She soon became a lover of words.
That dictionary copy is now taped up, with the cover falling off and pages dog-eared, she said. Each word she’s ever looked up is highlighted.
In the writing process, okpik said she begins with a word she does not know. She will look it up first in the English dictionary, and then in the Iñupiaq dictionary, or listen to language tapes.
“It starts with one word, and then I define it,” okpik said. “And then from there it refers, refers, refers,” she said.
okpik has described herself as a “conduit.” She said the stories come as someone sits beside her, who might be some 15,926 years in the past, with someone 2,682 days in the future on the other side of her.
“And I’m in the middle, and I’m a hollow bone,” she said. “And these stories come through us, even if we’re removed from our own families, put up for adoption.”
okpik said she planned to take a trip to her family’s home in Utqiaġvik soon.
“I’m planning a trip to come home, and to share the good news in a way that my family will understand that I’m writing back home, I’m writing back to my culture, my language, my family, the stories themselves — I’m continuing that form and in poetic stance,” okpik said.