Ela: Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference Recap

Back in April, Eva Saulitis wrote about the seed the keynote address sows at the beginning of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, that then finds rich soil and fertilizer in all interactions and events, both scheduled in the conference program and informal. She also evoked the agony of having to choose between concurrent sessions. I’m sure that many can relate to feeling that of four concurrent sessions, “there are always at least two workshops I can’t live without.” My first, crude characterization of being at the conference is that it’s like being a kid in a candy store. But that’s not it: it’s not the steep, ersatz buzz of undiluted sugar, the sensory overwhelm of artificial, caricatured flavorings, followed by crash, emptiness and craving. The stimulation is so grounded; the nourishment is true and lasting, and earned. It’s more like being in an orchard at harvest-time with a team of glad harvesters, with all the paraphernalia of preservation: dryers, canners, cider presses. We harvest, we feast, we process the surplus for later use. And we leave satiated, buoyed by the taste of laughter, the savor of insight and reflection gleaned from working side by side, with baskets of goodness for the months ahead.

Conference director Carol Swartz 

This was the Conference’s tenth year. Attendees arrived from all over Alaska, from all over the lower 48, from England. One of the presenters, LeAnne Howe, flew in from Amman, Jordan. First-timers were caught by the breathtaking scenery and held by collective enthusiasm, the sense of being in the midst of something special. Speaker after speaker tried to convey adequate praise for Carol Swartz for her stalwart dedication, vision, dynamism and sheer determination to make this happen.

Since last year’s conference, some have had books published or accepted for publication. Some have been accepted to MFA programs. Some have found a home for their writing with newspaper or magazine columns. Some have entered the world of presses and publishing. Some have joined writers’ groups, or found more regular rhythm in their writing practice. We return, eager to share, to reconnect, to be inspired. First-time attendees are quickly swept into the “buzz” of the occasion: I never sense any cliquiness here.

In the keynote address, Rita Dove spoke of the child’s unreflective awareness of the interconnectedness of everything, which we are always attempting to return to as writers, striving to frame the ineffable. She highlighted the importance of silence, of space around the words, of acknowledging, with Rodin, that the work is already present to be liberated from the stone. This reverence, this sense of being in service to the work recurred throughout the conference. The faculty readings in the evenings often resonated with it, and on the final morning, Brenda Miller offered a session devoted to spiritual writing that acknowledged all writing as somehow spiritual.

Rita Dove and her husband Fred Viebahn were full participants in the conference and were so generous with their presence, warm and approachable. All the faculty were engaged, friendly and palpably interested in the individual writers peopling the conference. The feeling that we all learn from each other is one of my favorite things about this gathering. Thanks to Fred Viebahn, there are youtube videos of the Sunday morning boat cruise and of the Monday night bonfire, recording the fun and companionship in informal settings.

Last year, then-State Writer Laureate Nancy Lord closed the Conference with eleven pieces of advice for writers, which she then graciously shared on this blog (I still have them on my wall). This year, Rita Dove concluded her craft talk on Monday with seven more suggestions. Some of these were process-oriented: she recommended notebooks over journals. A place for setting down the raw substance of the material is essential, while instant editorializing and ‘explaining it to yourself’ cuts out an important step. Others were principles to inform our whole approach and orientation to our work. “No Excuses” will stay with me, as will the reminder that every roadblock is an opportunity to explore the neighborhood. And of course, she concluded with silence and its crucial role as the ground for each word.

Peggy Shumaker, crowned

In this year’s closing address, current State Writer Laureate Peggy Shumaker, with her characteristic generosity, focused attention on other writers and on ways of staying connected. She shared several projects that she has underway that are aimed at getting Alaska’s writers published, together with a listing of books by Alaskans published in 2010-11 and forthcoming in the next two years, and of resources for Alaskan writers. All the authors published by her press Boreal Books were present and she invited each of them to read, and so we also heard from Eva Saulitis, Frank Soos, Anne Coray, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell and Erin Coughlin Hollowell. She also encouraged everyone to get listed in the Alaskan Writers Directory, a tool she has devised to facilitate connection and contact.

Today, my pile of work hasn’t gone away and the weeds have continued to grow, but I have pages of ideas requiring time and space to liberate them from their ‘stone,’ several new books and more titles to order, a page of email addresses and phone numbers together with plans to meet up and read/write together, and some new approaches to my work as a writer, both practical and philosophical. I also have a brimming sense of gratitude for everyone who was a part of what just took place. 

3 thoughts on “Ela: Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference Recap”

  1. Yes, Ela, you created the best metaphor with your orchard and preserving idea! I also found the conference helpful and inspirational.

    There will be a discussion at the UAA Bookstore on Monday, June 20, 1:00-2:15 pm for those who would like to hear about the conference or share what they experienced. Hope to see many of you there!

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great report, Ela, and I loved the orchard metaphor. I'm so glad we have such a warm, generous, thriving AK lit community that gathers at Kach Bay and I look forward to attending in years to come. Until then, the online report helps me feel connected to what I missed!

  3. Dear Ela,

    Thank you for this writeup and for reminding me of the lists/suggestions. It was a sacred space of writers honoring craft, themes, and muses–such an honor to witness and take part. Gratefully,

    Diane Solis

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