Emily Wall | Howling, Beer, and Badass Haiku: The North Words Writers Symposium

Spruce Tip Beer. A Haiku. A train, a glacier, a howl. A late
night walk down a deserted main street. One white blossom set in the deep leaf
of a rhubarb. And forty people who notice it.
Faculty member Lynn Schooler
with conference participants Maggie and Carolyn

Just thinking about the North Words Writers Symposium makes
me want to write poems. This is my second year as a faculty member, and this past
week was one of my favorites in this year. Here’s why: a half-hour into the
conference (7 am, Skagway library), I found myself in a conversation about the
shape of dialogue with the amazing Kim Heacox and Carolyn Servid. I mean, wow.

Everyone who goes to the symposium says there’s something
different, something magical about this conference. It has all the usual
features: panels of award winning authors (Kim Heacox, Heather Lende, Lynn
Schooler, Eowyn Ivy, Brian Doyle), one-on-one consultations, evening parties, and
readings. But everything done in Skagway is done just a little bit differently.
What is it that makes it so special? I’ve been asking myself this for the last
couple of days. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
First, it’s totally informal. We’re all Alaskan, so we’re
like yeah, informal, jeans, extra-tuffs, bonfires on the beach, yeah yeah. But
I mean really informal. Faculty members
aren’t up on a stage. There are no linen-draped tables. There are no big
speeches. Rather, it’s a conversation. When we sit on a panel, we ask folks in
the room what they think, what they want to hear. We’re talking back and forth,
sharing ideas, bouncing off of each other. We might start with a panel
topic—like, note taking, say—but we may end up talking about Zen haiku. All the
panels I sat on, I found myself taking notes on what others had said. It’s just
one big conversation and everyone is learning. We are talking shop, and that’s
what matters. There’s no sucking up, no nervous meetings, no hours of
preparation. We’re just writers, talking to each other.
Second, there’s total bravery at this conference. I taught a
haiku workshop one morning and almost the entire group of participants came. And
everyone wrote a haiku. The woman who
told me ahead of time that she doesn’t write poetry, and was going to just sit
in the back—she wrote a haiku. An anthropology professor who has never written
a poem in his life, stood up, flipped his hat on backwards, and read a
hilarious haiku. At the participant reading later that day I cried twice,
listening to work being read that was so brave and beautiful. I was sitting in
the little church we use for that reading and thinking damn. These guys are good. These guys are seriously brave. And that
makes for good writing and good conversations.
And finally, it’s just a lot of fun. Skagway is perfect for
this conference. We walk down to the hall in the morning, walk to the brewery
for lunch (drink a beer, eat a sandwich, talk with a writer who was nominated
for a Pulitzer prize), walk to the auditorium for a reading, walk to the
brewery for a late-night chat and beer. Walk home. There’s no car rentals, no
which-hotel-are-you-in, no getting lost. Everyone is just right on the main
street, bumping into each other, heading to the brewery together (does it sound
like this conference involves a lot of beer? It does.) I love that there’s no
logistics, no wasted time, no stress, really. Just writing all day, every day. (Also,
I’m a Juneau girl so I can appreciate a town that gets half the rain. I
actually got a tan.)
Faculty member Kim Heacox plays guitar
out in Dyea at the Saturday n
ight bonfire

The only place we drove was out to Alderworks, this
beautiful clearing in the woods in Dyea (and we got bussed, because, hey, there
was beer there too). On Friday night we collected under a clear sky to talk,
eat wild halibut, and listen to a bluegrass band playing on the porch of a
rustic cabin. Was there dancing by two women who have been in love for 30
years? Yes there was. Was there guitar playing by the irrepressible Kim Heacox?
Yes there was. Also a dog fight, a thumb war (I lost), a poet in residence, and
some howling. There’s a surprising amount of howling at this conference.

And who are the magic makers? A group of writers and
long-time Alaskans who put so much heart and work into this conference: Dan
Henry, Jeff Brady, Katrina Pearson, Wendy Anderson, Cody Jennings, and Buckwheat
(chief howler, last name unknown). Also, the City of Skagway, which helps fund this 3-day event.
Intrigued? Eager to talk with some of the best writers in
Alaska? Share a poem or story you’ve written? Write a badass haiku? Come to
Skagway next May for the next North Words Writing Symposium. You won’t be sorry
you did. (http://nwwriterss.com)
Faculty member Emily Wall leads an early morning 
writing exercise in the Skagway library.

Emily Wall is an
Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Southeast. She
has been published in a number of literary journals in the US and Canada, most
recently in
Prairie Schooner. She has two books published with Salmon Poetry: Liveaboard
(2012) and
Freshly Rooted (2007). Emily lives and writes in  Douglas, Alaska. 

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