It is a common complaint of my partner that I make a mess of our shared home office—and to be fair, she’s totally right. My half of the room is covered in stacks of books, papers, clippings, and tape, not only on the desk itself, but in concentric rings around it; her desk bears only this week’s notes.
I’m a messy writer at least in part because I’m genuinely messy (I haven’t confessed yet to the number of coffee cups left scattered across the house)—but also because it’s important to me to be surrounded by all of the notes I’m working from. My writing is drawn heavily from research, and particularly from text collaged from historical sources, and my poems and essays often mimic scraps in their style of quotation and spontaneity. My own stories interact with the lexicon of these sources, shifting back and forth across centuries-wide margins—so I want the books at hand, and I collect the language as I go. Right now, I’ve got Amelia Earhart’s autobiography leaning against Susan Howe’s book on archives and a collection of Walt Whitman’s letters, with photos of phrenology practices on the wall behind.
My favorite historical research project is one I undertook last year, when I spent the fall on a residency at the Anchorage Museum through the Polar Lab initiative. I was thinking about Walt Whitman’s conceptions of democracy and labor, of the myths surrounding the American West, and of my own (relatively) recent move to Alaska, and I wanted to look at how the construction of the Alaska Railroad was documented in photographs. As a result, not knowing entirely yet what the pieces were I wanted to connect, I began looking at the 3000+ photos taken to document the Alaska Railroad’s progress. I became fascinated by their documentation of camp life and, in particular, by the work of a female photographer who worked as an assistant to the now famous Sydney Laurence during his railroad gig. Alberta Pyatt became the center of my web of inquiry, providing new directions into camp life, photographic style, and even John Luther Adams’ essays on the sound of the North.
I’m delighted to be teaching a class for 49 Writers again, and I’m especially excited to be teaching sessions that overlap so strongly with my own writing projects based in historical research. I’ll share some of my own practice from the Alaska Railroad project, and we’ll look at examples of writing in several genres as examples of different strategies for incorporating research into your own work. We’ll talk about different avenues for gathering research, as well as local archival sources and resources specific to Alaska. The goal of our class will be to help you jumpstart your own research projects, to discuss ongoing projects, and to share our enthusiasm for writing that attempts to describe the past. Whether you’ve begun your own research or are just thinking of getting started, I’d be thrilled to have you join us.
KATE PARTRIDGE received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University and teaches in the English Dept. at UAA. Her chapbook Intended American Dictionary is forthcoming from MIEL Books, and her poems and lyric essays have been published in Pleiades, Blackbird, Colorado Review, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others.