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Literary gamble

If you seek a metaphor for the success of the state's foremost literary journal, look no further than Alaska Quarterly Review's first cover photo in 1982.

Kotzebue villagers loom in the foreground of Sam Kimura's 1952 black-and-white photo, "Mail Plane," their faceless silhouettes forever frozen in an attitude of waiting -- for news from Anchorage? For life-saving medication? For a Sears and Roebuck order? A pilot disembarks from the small plane in the background.

The plane has come far, but between villagers and pilot there is still distance to be crossed.

"That first cover is really symbolic," said AQR founding editor Ron Spatz. "Maybe people were waiting for what we had to offer or not. They might have had hopes; we may have fulfilled them, I hope, to some extent."

While the average life span of a literary journal these days is seven or eight years, the nonprofit vehicle Spatz founded to nurture Alaska talent while creating national and international connections has spun along on a shoestring budget for a quarter century. Over the years, AQR has become firmly established in the world of literary journals for its longevity, the quality of its contents and its awards and prizes.

"That one of the nation's best literary magazines comes out of Alaska may seem surprising, but so it is," said The Washington Post Book World in 1997.

"Fresh treasure," raved The New York Times Book Review last year.


Spatz arrived in Anchorage in 1980 with images of Alaska forged by Jack London and John McPhee in his head. He'd worked with literary journals as a professor at Missouri Western State University and at Western Michigan University.

He'd researched Alaska's literary landscape before taking the job as a creative writing professor at University of Alaska Anchorage and found good but inconsistent efforts. Within days of arriving, he met UAA philosophy professor James Liszka and persuaded him to co-found the journal. Even then, Spatz was a big-picture kind of guy.

"Why does a university exist, what is its point?" he asked. "A university, as a matter of earning its important place in the state where it lives, where it's nurtured, should in turn nurture the community it serves. The second thing it should do is create pathways to the larger global world of scholarship, and learning and discovery."

Spatz believed a literary journal housed at UAA could do all that and staked his future on its success.

"The dean (Marvin Loflin) was somewhat skeptical," he said. "He'd seen projects come and go before that were very lofty in talking about these larger pathways but that hadn't happened on a consistent basis. He made it clear that if I put the time into it and it didn't succeed, he'd hold me accountable."

Colleagues came onboard to help get the journal started, and others have contributed since. Over the years, the journal's philosophy and criticism sections gave way to creative nonfiction and drama. The ambitious spring/summer issue will feature 53 poets, including work by U.S. poet laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book awardees, along with fiction and nonfiction.

From the start, Spatz was determined the journal would convey a sense of place, a tenet illustrated by its cover photos by Alaskan photographers and work by Alaska writers. Five issues have been dedicated solely to the state and its writers over the years.

"Ron gives very close readings to the work of Alaskans and includes them when he can," said Homer writer Nancy Lord. AQR has published four pieces by Lord, starting with the short story "A Bucket of Mice," in the 1980s. "AQR can stand beside Ploughshares and any of the other major journals for quality. It reflects on Alaska and the university."


But back to the big picture.

"If you just nurture your own little garden ... that has some value, and it creates fellowship and some community. It is nice, and it's comfortable," Spatz said. "But at the end of the day it's not going have as much value as if you bring that larger world into the garden, so when your local constituencies come, they see not only see themselves reflected but lots and lots of other visitors. Their world is enriched and enlarged."

Spatz coordinates nearly every aspect of the journal's production, from selecting the graduate students who help screen the 4,000 stories and 10,000 poems submitted annually to choosing every cover photo. He engages the journal's guest editors and oversees their work.

"You can't do things on your own, no matter how good your ideas are," Spatz said. "It takes a team."

Granted, the team is small. The journal has only one part-time employee. A slew of graduate students and dedicated volunteers -- maybe 90 over the years -- have contributed to its constancy.

Stephanie Cole is one of those. She started screening manuscripts for AQR as a master of fine arts student. She's still at it, 18 years later.

"It's fascinating work," she said. "And they really need me. I don't know how many times Ron has said, 'This will be the last issue, we don't have any more resources.' But then he manages to scrape together enough to pull it off one more time."

Crack open any issue and you'll see work by famous authors -- Tobias Wolff, Jane Smiley, Maxine Kumin -- rubbing shoulders with emerging writers such as Eskimo author Carol Richards. Her creative nonfiction piece "It Was Nothing," about her struggle with vitiligo, a disease that causes skin to lose its pigmentation, was published in the 2007 spring/summer issue of AQR. It has since been selected for the upcoming edition of "Best Creative Nonfiction."

"First time out, right to the top," Spatz said. "The opportunity to promote new works by new and emerging writers is a wonderful benefit of this job."

Find Rose Cox online at adn.com/contact/rcox or call 257-4469.

ALASKA QUARTERLY REVIEW is marking its 25th anniversary with an exhibition of photos by contributors to the literary journal's cover art. Meet some of the state's best photographers, share cake and listen to music at a reception at 1:30 p.m. today at Loussac Library. To hear editor Ron Spatz's interview on Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s "Book Show," visit www.uaa.alaska.edu and select "podcasts."

Alaska Quarterly Review timeline

1982: First issue published

1985: First nationally competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Arts

1986: First creative nonfiction published

1988: First special anthology feature

1992: Last publication of philosophy/criticism feature

1993: First play published, "Farewell the Catastrophe Works" by Red Shuttleworth; redesign of original AQR logo

1994: First creative nonfiction section

1996: Alaska Governor's Award for the Arts

1997: First color cover

2003: First photo essay, "Cancer Journal" by Richard Murphy

2005: First color insert section