Newest edition of Alaska Quarterly Review is again a showcase of the best, most empathic writing of our time

Alaska Quarterly Review: Vol. 37, No. 3 & 4, Winter and Spring 2021

Edited by Ron Spatz. 262 pages. $12.

“Alaska Quarterly Review,” founded 40 years ago at the University of Alaska, continues now under the flag of the nonprofit Center for the Narrative and Lyric Arts. Under the exceptional editorship of Ron Spatz, it remains one of the most admired literary journals in the country.

In an interview last month with the CLMP — Community of Literary Magazines and Presses — Spatz explained that the journal is “of Alaska but not Alaskan.” That is, it applies “an active and attentive lens to our Northern region — including its traditions of Indigenous stories and cultures, environmental concerns, and related social justice issues.” It serves as a gathering place for writers and poets from all over, accomplished and new, for bringing attention to hard questions and truths.

A reading of any of the thick, twice-yearly volumes confirms the very high quality of the published work. The current issue, with 10 short fictions, four narrative essays, poems by 24 poets, and a special feature labeled “memoir as drama,” consistently surprises and challenges. Whether the writing is realistic or speculative, narrative or lyrical, prose or poetry, readers are invited to enter the hearts and minds of others with understanding and empathy.

Among the short stories, a “fully integrated Subcutaneous Assistant” introduces itself to its “user” (Emily Mitchell’s “The Assistant”), a woman answers a post-conference survey (the hilarious “Your Feedback is Important” by Elizabeth Stix), and an autistic character tries to adjust to a life change (Maureen McGranaghan’s “The Painted Wasp”). Characters in trouble of one sort or another do the best they can, showing us just what it is to be human and to persevere.

Of the four essays, two have to do with whales. In “Lolita from Penn Cove,” Emma Hine tells the story of a killer whale variously known as Lolita, Tokitae or Toki, and Sk’ali-Ch’elh-tenaut. This whale, captured from Puget Sound 51 years ago, lives by herself in a small tank at the Miami Seaquarium. A major campaign to “bring her home” continues. The author, who has documented considerable research about the history of whale captures and the evolution of thought about whale sentience, folds in the stories of other captive whales and of the wild pods now suffering from food shortages. She details the latest effort by the Lummi Nation, the third-largest tribe in Washington state, to advocate for the whale’s return with legal arguments for repatriation.


The second essay related to whales, “Whale Song” by Catalina Bode, begins with a mother’s death and the apparent grief of the killer whale known as Tahlequah, which famously carried the body of its dead calf — “child” — for 17 days and a thousand miles before letting it go. In a mosaic of sections, the author combines family memories, elements of whale research, and meditations on loss and grief.

The long, very creative dramatic piece making up the issue’s special section, Debbie Urbanski’s “Dialogue Box,” is “written, directed, and reviewed by Debbie Urbanski.” It begins with a Note from the Director: “I first became aware of the play ‘Dialogue Box’ in 2014 because I was living it.” The characters include ME, HIM, ONE OF THE CHILDREN, and ONE OF THE THERAPISTS. In scene one, ME and HIM “speak stiltedly, as if performing a play, only they are performing it not well.” After that, it’s a wild ride through six acts, with a ME who suffers from depression. There are ropes, bells, a mattress, blood, snow and singing.

In the final element of “Dialogue Box,” the play’s purported reviewer Debbie Urbanski notes that while “four years is a long time to watch a play,” the recent performance “is both better paced and better performed.” She also addresses “ethical concerns that have been raised,” including the casting of the director’s own children in a play about suicide and the lack of sympathy shown to the husband. Despite the dark nature of this “memoir as drama,” the totality is a weirdly satisfying mix of comedy and tragedy as the writer, director, and reviewer act out and contemplate the large and small, real and imagined, fair and biased dramas of our lives.

The poetry in the last section of this 37th volume of “AQR” is varied in form but tends, as with the prose, to evoke empathic emotion. Four Alaskans are represented among the 24 poets.

Kathleen Tarr’s “The Haughty One,” written for and about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, is Tarr’s first poetry publication in a national literary journal. Sara Eliza Johnson, who teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is represented by two poems, “Legend” and “Home,” with familiar northern — if dark — references. Jill Osier, a graduate of UAF’s MFA program and winner of the 2019 prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize, is represented by three short works including a memoriam poem called “Beasts” in which “. . . the valley fills/with mourning./The sound is cold/and longing, . . . " Jasmine Templet’s poem “Wolves” speaks of a time when “. . . the wolves won’t be hungry/and the forests will split in two/green again and again/brand new.”

As always, the cover of “AQR” features a gorgeous photograph representing Alaska. This time, it’s Roy Corral’s image of a single yellow aspen leaf among purple chokecherry leaves.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."