Alaska Quarterly Review
Edited by Ronald Spatz. Vol. 32, No. 3 & 4, Fall & Winter 2015; 284 pages; $12 paperback.
Alaska Quarterly Review, the highly regarded literary journal published by the University of Alaska Anchorage, has in recent years featured a number of impressive special sections along with its usual assortment of personal essays, short stories and poetry. The current issue continues this tradition with what can only be called a very special work by the composer (and writer) John Luther Adams.
Adams, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy for Best Classical Composition (both for the orchestral composition "Become Ocean"), is currently writing "Silences So Deep: A Memoir of Music and Alaska." An excerpt from this, "Leaving Alaska," was published in The New Yorker last June. Now, AQR offers us an 80-page excerpt called "They Were My People," about his friendships and collaborations with two iconic Alaskan figures, conductor Gordon Wright and poet John Haines.
Adams left Alaska (except for maintaining his studio) last year after decades of living in Fairbanks and developing a musical signature heavily influenced by the landscapes, cultures, beauty and deep quiet of northern Alaska. "They Were My People" lets us in on some of his creative process, especially that which was influenced by Wright and Haines. (Wright died in 2007, Haines in 2011.) He also impresses upon us what an extraordinary age we lived in — from the 1970s to recent times — when so much was so possible for someone so young.
'Embodiment of Alaska'
About Haines and Wright, Adams wrote, "They lived without compromise, far beyond the boundaries of convention. For me, they were the embodiment of Alaska."
Even before he knew Haines personally, he was influenced by his poetry: "… (H)e was a specter, an oracle speaking truth about place and imagination, challenging and inspiring me to a deeper sense of possibility in my own life's work."
In the early 1980s Adams and Haines collaborated on "Forest Without Leaves," a cantata for choir and chamber orchestra that speaks to ties between humans and the natural world. Adams credits that work as a major milestone in his life; Haines and his poetry forced him to "think deeply about what it means to be an artist in the Far North" and gave him "the temerity to entertain artistic aspirations to match the landscapes of Alaska."
"They Were My People," packed with stories of times Adams spent at sauna gatherings with Wright or walking the birch forest at Haines' Richardson homestead, is something of a love story to those friends, those times and the alchemy that can come from shared spirits and ideas.
Beyond the Adams memoir, this fat issue of AQR is a treasure house of some of the best contemporary writing in America. It includes four personal essays, nine short stories and 27 poems. If there's a generalization to be made about the collection, it would concern the variety and high quality. The writers are from all over the country, and their narratives take place in New York, San Francisco, Florida, Mexico, China in 1917, France in 1939 and less precise locales and times. The prose pieces are long and short, traditional and experimental, humorous and deadly serious. The content and style of the poetry is equally diverse.
'Beautiful' Saulitis essay
Of particular note is Eva Saulitis' "Man of Letters: An Elegy." In this, Saulitis, an Alaskan whose work has appeared in We Alaskans numerous times, weaves a remarkable essay from several strands — a spring day by the woodstove, the imaginative presence of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, memories of her Latvian immigrant father and a set of her father's letters dated in the early 1990s.
Anyone who has had a complicated relationship with a parent will be moved by this beautifully written and exceptionally honest essay. We also find here an examination of the making of a writer. Saulitis' father, who had always meant to write the story of his childhood, was never able to even speak of it in detail. His daughter shares with us, "Writing places me in that other world, that shifting landscape. My world expands to include my father, his untold stories, my failure to understand him and him me ..."
Among the poets, Alyse Knorr might be of particular interest. The author of two poetry collections, the recipient of a 2015 Alaska Literary Award and an English instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Knorr has established herself as a new and noteworthy Alaskan voice. Her poem here, "Floating Epithalamium," contemplates "forests I have known," with familiar and less familiar imagery. (An epithalamium is a poem written for a bride.)
As always, the new volume of AQR features a stunning photographic cover — this time a rain-spackled yellow leaf clinging to a spruce bough — by Richard J. Murphy, who's now teaching at the University of Alaska.
The AQR issue will "launch" with an event at Blue Hollomon Gallery in Anchorage at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20. Copies can be purchased there, at bookstores and from the AQR website.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."