Anyone who knows me—-and I assume there are a few of you in that category reading 49 Writers—-also knows that for most of the past decade I’ve been an absentee Alaska resident.
When I started freelancing out of Juneau in 1995, I rarely worked in town, which meant that for virtually every job I’d board a plane to Anchorage and beyond (Nome, Bethel, and Fairbanks were the usual destinations then), or Seattle and south—-though, to be fair, I did pick up a few ferry-friendly gigs in Hoonah, Petersburg, and Haines. Striving to work more in-state, I moved to Anchorage in 1998, specifically to be more centrally located. It helped, but not enough. More opportunities kept appearing down south, and it made sense to extend my trips to take advantage. At the same time, though I received support from some individuals and organizations in state, that support just wasn’t enough. As I look back, maybe I could have broadened my job searches (after all, who was I kidding, calling myself Alaska’s Fiddling Poet)—-though, I recall I did broaden my searches. At some point or other I’ve contacted virtually every arts organization, university campus, school district, and library in the state–some of them many, many times. The path that opened was not the one I’d have suspected, but many of us have lives like that. What’s unusual, it seems, is that my path has led me to publishers in out-of-the-way places, and allowed me to travel widely as a writer (who doubles as a fiddler).
In 2001, I realized I couldn’t afford to continue touring out of Anchorage. Every trip out of state meant a plane ride and rental car. Because of the nature of these tours—-in addition to the higher-paying jobs, I’d also necessarily book low-paying, but high-prestige, showcase club dates as well as non-paying bookstore visits—-in order to continue this work, I had to adapt. So, in June of that year, I put in storage most of what I couldn’t get rid of, loaded my car, and aimed for gigs I’d arranged in Colorado and Indiana. I gave myself two years to become more established, or quit.
More than eight years later, I’m still at it. Though I now have the books, the CDs, the reviews, and the clips, I’m reminded time and again that I’m not truly “established.” Otherwise, I’m convinced, this would be easier.
Just like I’m in that gray area—-Alaska resident who’s rarely in state—-I’m an artist that many people don’t know how to classify. Hence, the need to self-promote, or, to use a friendlier term, “educate.” Really, I’m not so much self-promoting as educating people about what I actually do. That’s one of my dilemmas: while people may have heard about me, it’s likely they’ve never actually read any of my books (or a single one of my poems), listened to any of my CDs, or attended any of my events. And even if they have, it’s unlikely they’ve kept up: the past four years, since late 2005, I’ve had six new books and six new CDs. Somewhere in these four posts I’ve mentioned needing to persist. That’s what artists have to do.
So, a few final observations:
Andromeda put out a call about “the eternal MFA question.” I’m a graduate of the program in Fairbanks, and while it’s one of the older programs in the country, its size has varied over the years. I attended from 1985 to 1988, in the midst of one of the “small” periods. As a result, workshops combined poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. Though I arrived, and graduated, as a fiction writer, I also started writing poems there. And while my experiences in the program were, how to say it, “uneven,” Fairbanks remains my absolute favorite spot in Alaska, virtually my favorite spot on the planet. Classmates included poet Jerah Chadwick, who went on to become writer laureate of Alaska; Natalie Kusz, who was writing Road Song during the program; and Alys Culhane, the fine nonfiction writer currently living in Palmer. In 1986, an undergraduate, Seth Kantner, was in a writing workshop. The next year, Lisa Chavez, currently a professor at the University of New Mexico, now a poet with two collections, was in a workshop.
My first year, we had three exceptional visiting assistant professors: Peggy Shumaker (who taught the single best class that to this day I’ve ever taken anywhere and who three years later returned to teach), Chris Balk (who led a wonderfully thoughtful class in Creative Nonfiction), and Wendy Bishop (who offered the best piece of advice I’ve ever received about workshops, which I’ll paraphrase here: while you could safely ignore most responses, occasionally someone said something that rang true, which immediately led to edits you’d have likely made six weeks, or six months, down the way, if you were still working on the piece; and it’s that feedback, which speeds the revision process, which is the greatest value of the workshop).
My second year, John Morgan returned from sabbatical, and Frank Soos arrived on campus: both served on my thesis committee and helped me make the most of my MFA experience. I also surely appreciated the opportunity to teach developmental and freshman composition classes throughout my time in the program, which I supplemented by teaching workshops and additional developmental writing classes at Fairbanks Correctional Center. My classmates and I also became part of the community of writers around town, many of whom, like Cindy Hardy and Pete Pinney, had graduated from the MFA program themselves. While the visiting writer series hadn’t evolved to where it would be, I took advantage of the summer conference, and got to hear such writers as William Stafford, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, and Philip Levine.
Now I occasionally visit MFA programs as a guest, and in my travels also visit a number of other universities and colleges, including two-year schools. My take? Ultimately, it’s the luck of the draw who’s there when you’re there, no matter what the setting—-and there are first-rate writers and teachers in all sorts of out-of-the-way places. Anyone pursuing an MFA will undoubtedly meet wonderful and established writers who are dedicated and effective teachers. And anyone in an MFA program will likely learn as much from their fellow students as from faculty. I’m all for anyone pursuing an MFA if they have the time and money (and while low-res programs allow more freedom with the time, the residential programs are more apt to offer fellowships and other aid packages to help with the money). But, like anything, there’s no guarantee.
One bit of advice I didn’t see yet on the thread would be for anyone interested in pursuing an MFA to attend the coming AWP conference this April in Denver (February 2011 it will be in Washington D.C). Two years ago in New York City there were 7,500 attendees. Last year in Chicago, there were over 8,000. With a little work, you could track down a few of the professors at schools that interest you; lots of programs even host receptions, where in addition to the professors, you can likely meet some graduates and current students. And if you find that some of the people involved are too busy to meet you, even if you’ve contacted them in advance, that might indicate what’s ahead if you attend that institution. One more piece of advice for those thinking of going for the first time: bring a pal if possible; otherwise, the conference is so big as to be overwhelming.
I also wanted to write about the challenges of getting work distributed throughout the state.
I recall a trip in 2004, when I drove north out of Seattle, crossed the border without incident despite my minivan full of undeclared books and CDs, as well as the other paraphernalia of touring. I aimed first for Dawson Creek BC, where I was to work two days in schools. After that job, I meandered northwest, stopping en route at virtually every souvenir shop on the Alcan to peddle my three CDs and two books. I had good luck throughout, culminating in a big order in Whitehorse, from a distributor whose territory encompassed all I’d just driven and more. He felt confident my books and CDs would sell and promised my materials would be restocked. He even entertained the notion of having my Nome Poems translated into German.
Ultimately, my books and CDs sold steadily, albeit slowly, in Canada (for almost three years I received occasional checks from a Dawson Creek art gallery, which took 15 each of my books and CDs, the only consignment order of the whole trip). Alas, the distributor never did reorder, or pursue a German translation; perhaps I didn’t push hard enough. Because of the difficulties shipping across borders, I never could interest him in my 2006 Alaskan children’s CD, or my 2006 double CD, or any of my newer books. But having sold close to $2000 of books and CDs outright wholesale on that 2004 drive north alone, I’ve wondered why it’s often been so much harder to place my books and CDs in Alaska.
As a rule, I’ve had better luck representing my own work. In 2000, a shop in Denali picked up my Week in Eek CD, and to our surprise the disk sold and sold. After a few reorders, they asked for a hundred. And then there was my good fortune with the Nome Poems book at Waterstone’s in the airport, a story I recounted last week. Elsewhere, over the years, I’ve found regular support in Anchorage from Cook Inlet Books (when they existed downtown) and Title Wave, and from the Alaskana section at the Loussac Library, where Bruce Merrell—-and now Michael Catoggio—-have always cheerfully greeted me. I’d also like to especially thank David Cheezum at Fireside Books in Palmer (David is my favorite bookseller in the state), Gulliver’s Books and the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, and both the Skagway Museum and Skagway Public Library: they’ve all not only bought my books and CDs, but they’ve effectively sold them and/or displayed them. Other shops have been hit-and-miss: some seasons I’ve interested the buyers; other seasons not. Hardest to understand is that it doesn’t seem to be the quality of the work or the sales potential that is the driving force behind the stores’ buying decisions.
Years ago, I learned that not only did most of the bookstores and gift shops throughout the state have books and CDs supplied by Todd Communications, out of Anchorage, but that many of them would only buy their inventory from Todd. So, back in 2000, once I interested the manager at Waterstone’s in Nome Poems, I’d only started the process: though, in theory, she could order from the book’s distributor, University of New Mexico Press, her boss preferred she work through Todd. So I had to do the legwork, making sure University of New Mexico Press, through West End Press, supplied Todd with the books, which they did. What I couldn’t do, though, was duplicate the process that worked at Waterstone’s with every buyer—-I’m just one person, and just like there’s a stigma with self-publishing, there’s a similar stigma with artists, or authors, who represent themselves. Even if I did manage to stop at a store and find buyers in, they were more apt to look at me funny, ask if Todd carried it, and then quickly dismiss me. The University of New Mexico regional rep, who also worked in behalf of other presses, and had hundreds of books on his list, certainly wasn’t going to travel to Alaska. There wasn’t enough business.
And Todd Communications? I’m still not sure what to make of the company. Back in 2000, no one there was advocating for the books; they were just filling orders from Waterstone’s. Though I passed along sample copies, it was apparent that the actual work of representing the books, that is selling new books to buyers who weren’t already inclined to buy, wasn’t their strength. Later that summer, when Waterstone’s expressed interest in carrying my Week in Eek CD, Todd Communications was quick to contact me. Because I self-produced the CDs, the music-business equivalent of self-publishing, Todd attached a number of conditions which gave me pause. Of course, Todd would be taking a healthy percentage of my cut, which was understandable. But there were also various fees to enter the system, and to keep inventory stored. I would also no longer be permitted to sell directly to anyone in the state except to stores I listed ahead of time, where I had an ongoing relationship—-and I understood that Todd much preferred that I give up those customers and let them handle it.
After doing the math, and contacting another musician who’d attempted to have his CDs distributed by Todd, I declined the offer, and have never second-guessed the decision. Of course, I understand the need for distribution, realize the challenges inherent in the work, and laud Todd for undertaking that challenge. Still, there has to be other options.
In 2008, I recommended my publisher, Catalyst Book Press, work with Todd so Are You Famous? could be available throughout the state. After jobs on the East Coast, I’d arranged to fly to Anchorage, where I had an interview scheduled on Alaska News Nightly, events in Homer, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. But this was my publisher’s first book, so she was still learning about some of the paperwork involved in publishing; also, she’d been in Africa incommunicado, so it seemed, for a crucial week when some details with Todd needed confirmation. As a result, Todd had no books to distribute, and I arrived lugging the only copies to be found in state. So, while I had good state-wide publicity for both my new book and new double-CD, the best I could do was show the book as I could, and inform people that Todd would indeed be carrying it once they received the shipment and entered the book in their system. Before I flew out, I dropped off the remainder of my own stock at Todd’s warehouse to facilitate the process.
I don’t blame Todd, or my publisher, for the problems—-though we should have had plenty of time since I had books arrive six weeks earlier, in July, for jobs in Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Whitehorse, and Atlin. Ultimately, what’s bothersome is that once I left the state, any momentum disappeared with me. In theory, Are You Famous? could have been a relatively easy sell from the beginning, and I did what I could to alert store managers. But obviously that wasn’t enough. At some point, my publisher and I had to rely on the representatives from Todd Communications to help in some way. And maybe they did try, though anything they did was utterly ineffective. The book didn’t sell in my absence. But how could it: it didn’t get on the shelves. This past April, in Southeast, I showed the book to bookstores who’d never seen it previously. In June and July, I returned to Southeast, then performed from Kenai to Fairbanks, and, again, one of my tasks was to stop by bookstores and major gift shops, where I showed both Are You Famous? and the brand-new children’s book, D is for Dog Team. Though I met with success and was glad for the enthusiasm, I kept wondering if there was another solution out there. How was it that unless I was doing this for myself, no one was aware of my books and CDs? Is it my job, ultimately, to represent myself in behalf of Todd Communications? I’m still figuring that one out.
Even stranger has been my experience with ANHA, now Alaska Geographic, which manages gift shops in national parks, state parks, and major visitor centers throughout the state. I had no luck at all there until 2003, when a new hire came on who knew my books and CDs from a stint at the Museum of History and Art in Anchorage. There, my first two CDs had sold well. Through her, I managed to get an order placed, where I heard my materials sold reasonably at several sites. But my contact left in 2005, and I’ve been unable to get any books or CDs reordered and have yet to ever have either my 2006 children’s CD or 2006 double CD stocked, even though they’re both very Alaskan and have both received good national reviews. I’ve phoned, emailed, stopped in the offices, left materials, attempted to make appointments. Supervisors have come and gone. The central office invariably refers me to the individual sites, who refer me back to the central office.
What frustrates me now is that this spring I received a phone call from a film producer asking permission to use an original fiddle tune from one of my CDs as part of a soundtrack for a film that’s part of an exhibit at a new cultural center in state. I granted permission, and only asked that since the music from the CD was being used, I expected the gift shop to stock that CD. The filmmaker put me in touch with the cultural center staff and store manager and, in July, while on tour, I spoke with the manager in person, and left an additional copy of the CD used in the film, as well as other samples. The manager was going to fast-track the request, since the film was to debut in August. It’s mid-November now, four months after my meeting, and just the other week I heard this is still on hold. I’m trying not to raise my hopes too high for summer 2010.
Is it me, the system, or a combination of the two? Or is the problem something else entirely? And if I’m having these problems, I wonder if in some way these issues contributed to the demise of Alaska Northwest Books (though sorry to hear the news, I appreciated hearing about it in one of last week’s posts). I do expect to have better luck with the children’s book and CD that University of Alaska Press is distributing. That’s the next step in my exploration of how this work goes.
The past weeks I’ve sure enjoyed having this forum to write about some of my experiences, which has been a break from other tasks. Recently my work has taken a new turn, and I’ve been applying for a wide variety of university teaching positions. Some applications have asked for a one-page philosophy of teaching, which I’ve supplied, ending the piece like this:
As I go over this statement, I see I’ve forgotten the most important
thing: we all better have fun. As serious as the writing process and teaching process are—-and I treat them both with the utmost seriousness—-there better be room for fun. At the end of every semester, I always host a party.
Ending this here, I may not be throwing a party, but I’ll share one of my poems. And while it’s ostensibly about the writing of poems, it could just as well be about teaching:
I saw him read one summer in Fairbanks,
the patter between poems itself a poem,
because he was like that, fully at home
with words. That lit June night he offered thanks
for some gladness or other, and laid planks
of language that formed a lucky bridge from
one thought to the next. What might seem to some
a plainness too simple for poetry—drank
of poetry when he spoke. I reflected
for years on his writing, could hear him chime,
sly and instructive, as I connected
with my work. The voice said to make time
each morning, to begin early on task,
to learn from failures, to ask and to ask.