Louise Erdrich told a small group of Alaskan writers gathered at Tutka Bay Lodge outside of Homer a month ago that poetry is lightning and prose is rain. She also said that our survival as a species may just depend on telling stories. It’s in our DNA.
I read the other day that literature is being taught in prisons because reading stories offers isolated inmates a non-threatening way to gain critical thinking skills, develop compassion, and learn about matters of the heart and soul.
Lately, it seems, we are all in a bit of a prison, ethically and morally, and even artistically. I know I have been. It’s a struggle to write a good story when I’m reading so much bad news. Which may be why I’m craving prose like rain and poetry that flashes yet insists that I take the time to breathe deeply, and count the silent miles before it speaks.
A month in an isolated cabin with no Wi-Fi or cell service would be great. Since that’s not possible, or responsible, I’ve been reading the Alaska Quarterly Review for solace and inspiration. I have stacks of them, saved in some cases for this rainy day, or— truthfully?—kept on the shelf by my desk so that some the wisdom and sensibility between its covers will transfer to my brain and thus my work through a kind of literary osmosis.
Editor Ron Spatz is more than a little proud of the magazine’s eclectic content. For 35 years he’s railed against commercialism and held fast to AQR’s mission of publishing “consequential literary art.”
Where else would Mary Odden’s beautiful essay “March” be published? It’s too long for a newspaper, and too Alaskan for a lot of literary journals and too literary for Alaska Magazine. Or Emily Wall and Lance Twitchell’s Tlingit-English birth poem? (Both Winter/Spring 2017.) Once you’ve read Joan Kane’s poem “Another Inlet” you will never see a winter walk on the beach with the dogs in the same light. (Spring/Summer 2014). And what would be a better journal to publish them all? Isn’t being of Alaska but not Alaskan as AQR is, what Alaska writers aspire to? In other words moving beyond that regional label, while at the same time being true to our home?
Have you seen, or do you recall that photo mosaic “Liberty and Justice (For All)”? Back in the 30th Anniversary Edition? (Spring/Summer 2012.) As the New York Review of Books said, it’s the kind of piece that makes a reader marvel at the wonder of AQR.
The chutzpah and energy and even the unpredictability of AQR is completely Alaskan. If it were a person it could be one of my neighbors. The photo essay on contemporary artists in Papua New Guinea in the 35th Anniversary Edition seems an odd choice, at first glance. Spatz published the glossy art exhibit catalog between the prose and poetry sections. But then I read it, and looked at the pictures, so full of joy and foreboding, and I heard the distant thunder in the story they told.
I’ll leave you with a verse from “What is the Source,” by Gary Holthaus (Spring/Summer 2015). May it inspire you to write as if our world depends on it, because it does.
What is the source
that shows us
how we can
what we need to know
to walk among the
ten thousand beings,
keep our balance,
discern the saved,
find our way
to love it all?
Oct. 4, 2017
Heather Lende lives in Haines, Alaska, where she has written over 400 obituaries for the local paper. She is the author of three bestselling books about life (and death) in Haines, and her essays and columns have been widely published. She has an MFA in fiction writing from UAA, and a BA in History from Middlebury College.
This post is fourth in a series of four posts celebrating the 35th anniversary edition of AQR.