This was originally published last week in the Anchorage Press, the first in a new column there called Yeah Write.
April’s half spent, early gulls have been showing up, and the sun is off and running on its night-eating, post-hibernation binge that will last till solstice. Proper spring’s not here yet, but it’s coming on fast. Gravel-crusted snow piles heaped like mine tailings slowly shrink in wet parking lots. Our ears relearn the sounds of liquid water. Exotic license plates crop up at REI, Fred Meyer, and the Moose’s Tooth—Nevada, Colorado, Vermont.
T.S. Eliot could have written that famous line—“April is the cruelest month”—during an Anchorage interlude. April here is a bit cruel, erasing winter routes the way it does, unmasking long-hidden thawing dog shit, icing the odd intersection or two. It’s a useful transition, though, between the only full-fledged seasons we’ve got—winter and summer.
Perhaps it’s fitting that breakup, that micro-season hinging winter to spring, happens during National Poetry Month. There’s time, yet, to chase the last spring-fevered winter dreams with some final Poetry Month yawps. Alaskan Poems in Place signs, installed by Alaska Center for the Book across the state at places like Beluga Point, are melting out of snowbanks, cropping up like crocuses. The Poetry Parley gang is gearing up for their next group reading. Julie LeMay will discuss her debut book of poems, The Echo of Ice Letting Go, on Thursday the 20th at Indigo Tea Lounge.
I suppose the middle of this poem-bent segue month is as good a time as any to humbly proffer a new little weekly column. In Yeah Write, I’ll spotlight literary culture in and around Anchorage, sometimes conscripting friends to share the mic. It’ll be a little like a writerly Headlamp column (which reminds me that I have yet to respond to Zack Fields’ email about his favorite W.S. Merwin poems… appropriate for #npm17). I’ll spotlight books, profile authors, spill beans, report on events and gatherings, and tease out threads of people whose stories, poems, and drama help make this place itself.
We’re lucky our literary wilds match our geographic wilds. Though we’re light on people relative to acres up here, we’ve got a hell of a lot of fantastic writers. Alaskans know how to read, too, though you might not guess it at a glance from the Lower 48, where over two dozen reality TV shows paint Alaskans as backward and out of touch. Flipping channels, we might catch a news flashback of Katie Couric stumping Sarah Palin by asking her what periodicals she actually reads.
I first moved to Anchorage at this time of year in 2003, when John Haines was still alive and Title Wave still hosted events. He read there that winter, as did Anchorage-based poet Olena Kalytiak Davis. Those two—radically different from each other—framed part of a continuum in my mind that was useful to a young, new-here writer.
Haines, even then, was a grandfather of Alaska lit, grown hard of hearing and long on opinions and publication credits. Olena’s second book was just out—Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off-And-Back Handed Importunities—and she hadn’t yet won her Guggenheim. Though she’d lived in Bethel, her AK was urban. She wasn’t writing about the land (though it makes its cameos). She hasn’t live a trapper’s life. Her writing isn’t “about Alaska.” Yet they both fit here, each in their way, and they both were writing.
And, like me and many, they were both white people from Outside who moved up. It took very little time to begin recognizing distinctions between those who adopt this place as home and indigenous people who’ve always known it as a homeland. Despite colonization’s tropes and the piles of writing that for a long time painted Alaska as a wilderness awaiting newcomers, our northern canon has changed to reflect and include those who were here all along. Indigenous writers have built on rich oral traditions, adding written literature that sheds meaning on life here, and that informs all our collective identities.
People from all over the world call Anchorage home. ASD tallied a remarkable 107 languages either spoken by its ELL students as their first language or their families’. It makes sense that London-based scholar Tim Lomas and artist Marek Ranis came here last week to collect “the untranslatable words of human connections and experience.” They presented the project last Friday at the Anchorage Museum, called “Cafuné” after the Brazilian Portuguese term for the act of running a hand through a loved one’s hair. Simultaneously, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a surprise stopover here on the way home from seeing Trump in Florida, further emphasizing our increasing position as a crossroads, instead of a frontier.
Sometimes when I tell people Outside that I work for an org called 49 Writers, they say “Huh? There’re 49 of you?” Folks here know the name references Alaska’s role as the 49th state, of course, and that there are certainly more than 49 of us. I’ll look forward to writing about many of them and their ilk in the weeks and months ahead. They’re an interesting and diverse bunch that tend to churn up stories—
Once, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell flew down from Fairbanks, cabbed to the Taproot, performed as the featured poet in the Classic Poetry Slam, returned to the airport, and flew home.
Once, Andromeda Romano-Lax and Deb Vanasse started a simple blog that grew into a full-blown literary organization.
Once, I collaborated with artists Craig Updegrove and Jimmy Riordan to organize a poetry reading for Olena and Seattle’s Kary Wayson. Craig and Jimmy printed 300 letterpress posters with lines lifted from Olena and Kary’s poems. Using water as glue, they pasted them all over our frozen town to advertise the event, held in Mountain View at the MTS gallery on a stage that Craig and Jimmy built of books covered in parquet-patterned paper. When the reading ended, we went outside and used body heat to melt posters off the building to take home.
Once, a crowd gathered at Bernie’s to see the JCPenny parking garage come alive with a site specific performance called “Transactions”, choreographed by Becky Kendall after a piece Bruce Farnsworth wrote.
Once, a born-and-raised Palmer bookseller, Eowyn Ivey, wrote a novel inspired by a Russian fairy tale she found at Fireside Books. Her book was published in over 25 languages and 30 countries and became a finalist for the Pulitzer, a UK National Book Award winner, and a New York Times bestseller. It’s about to become a musical debuting next year in Washington, DC.
Once, the Anchorage Press realized this city’s awash in literary energy, and floated a column to plumb that. See you here next week.
Jeremy Pataky is the author of Overwinter and Executive Director of 49 Writers. He migrates between Anchorage and McCarthy.