Frank Soos: Now What? (a bonus blog by the Alaska State Writer Laureate)

One of my Christmas gifts from a good friend was a box of
Palomino Blackwing 602 pencils (complete with extra erasers), the model I am
assured has been the writing tool of choice for “many Oscar, Grammy, and
Pulitzer Prize winners throughout the 20th Century.”  Who knew it was only my choice of writing implement
that was holding me back?  Now armed with
my pencils and a stack of Big Chief tablets with their buttery paper, I am all
set to write a novel, maybe two before I run out of supplies. 
OK, maybe a bit hyperbolic, but my point is regardless of
our writing choices from pencils to high-end computers, the material costs of
our craft are small.  We can sit in our
rooms all day and write for pennies.  The
temporal costs are a different matter—more on this later. 
Look up from your writing desk for a minute, look out the
window.  In the deep mid-winter, it’s
hard to see, but look closer.  You’re
looking at a state that’s ready to drive itself off a financial cliff.  This has everything to do with you and me. 
Yes, we can sit in our rooms and write, but who will read us
when library budgets are at risk?  When
school budgets are being cut and good teachers are being laid off, when classes
are larger?   When our own Alaska State
Council on the Arts may be threatened with extinction again? 
I do believe we need to fund our Department of
Transportation and the many other departments that keep this state running on
an even keel.  I believe we want to
maintain our wonderful network of ski trails, but most importantly I believe we
want to insure that the arts and humanities flourish.  Painting, music, dance, drama, our own written
words make our culture.  Without those,
who are we?  
Bridges are necessary, well-maintained bridges a must.  But beyond them are the arts—well-made
enough, they’ll last forever.  Without
them, we’re just slightly more clever bipedal animals.  All of us who imagine ourselves to be writers
secretly have a little corner in our brains devoted to our hopes that we’re
writing something for the ages.  Who will
our future readers be unless people are afforded opportunities to experience
all art forms and to learn how to appreciate them?  Who will be the next generation of artists
and writers unless they learn how to advance each art form according to his or
her special gifts? 
Last summer at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, I had a
conversation with poet and playwright Afaa Weaver.   Let’s agree, many of our readers often come
to us in their own small rooms, read our poetry and prose in quietude.   That’s my imagined audience.  But if you are Afaa, and you’re writing a
play, look at what you’re up against when you imagine bringing your work to an
audience:  you need a director, actors
(he tells me playwrights are often encouraged to write dramas with two or three
characters—they’re more produceable). 
Regardless of numbers of actors, though, there’s a building, set
builders and their materials, lighting. 
Even the most basic needs—heat and a roof that doesn’t leak. 
Suddenly, the playwright’s work has entered a much more
involved a complicated situation.  A box
of pencils and a tablet are only the smallest of starts.  And the rest depends on us.    
Yes, us.  When we
Fairbanks artistic types met recently with the Interior Delegation, it seemed
we were fawning before them:  Please don’t
cut the arts.  Faced with the enormity of
the deficit, the arts look like a soft target.  
We’re vulnerable.  But rather than
simply ask that the arts be spared, I think we have to take the next (and
harder) step; we have to recognize we’re all in this together.
If we say we want the arts, we also need to say we’re
willing to step up and pay for them.  As
we know, there are a number of ways, from various tax plans to cutting the
Permanent Fund Dividend.  I’m not sure we
can say how to raise money, but I think it’s time we say we must and that we
value the arts enough to pay. 
For as long as I’ve lived in Alaska, the oil companies have
paid most of our bills.  I’m not sure
that will ever be the case again. 
Certainly, we can’t sit around hoping it’s going to happen if we just
wait.  We’re adults.  In some as-near-as-possible equitable way, we
have to pay for those things we value. 
Recently, a poet friend told me of a Rasmuson poll that
indicated a majority of us Alaskans would pay some form of tax for the things
we feel a self-respecting state should have. 
If this is so, our politicians haven’t heard.   
Sometimes what goes around comes around.  Over these years, I’ve been awarded several
grants for my writing work, two were from the federal and state governments
respectively.  Those grants bought me
time away from my job, and I thought of them as I think of them now as an
investment my fellow citizens made in my art. 
I have tried to pay them back by writing as well as I’m able, but I also
feel I should put money back in the kitty for the next writer who could use
When you think about it, we’ve all benefited, if not
directly, at least indirectly in governmental support for the arts whether it’s
in the form of university presses, the various public locations where we’ve
held readings , the workshops we’ve attended. 
And, of course, the libraries around the state where our books might be
found.  My image of the reader in a quiet
room?  The book in her hand had to come
from somewhere, didn’t it?  How can it
come into the world without many shared efforts?
You may note I’m not very good at this political sort of
writing.  I’m afraid few of us really are.  If I care so much about the arts, the
environment, universal health care, why don’t I write stories and essays on
these topics?  I honestly cannot say; I
can’t make these topical issues work.  It’s
one of the questions I struggle with, one that would require too long a skein
of words just now. 
What I can say is that, essays and stories aside, I am able
to write a letter to my representative and to my senator assuring both of them
that I am ready to pay my share for the things I value.   
If you’re looking for a subject to get you off the dime come
time to honor your New Year’s Resolve to Write, here’s a good place to
start.  Step up.  Write those politicians.  And commit yourselves to insuring arts for
the future. 

Frank Soos has lived in Fairbanks for almost 30 years, for the past eleven with wife Margo Klass. His next book of essays, Unpleasantries, will be published by the University of Washington Press in the spring of 2016.  He is the current Alaska State Writer.  

4 thoughts on “Frank Soos: Now What? (a bonus blog by the Alaska State Writer Laureate)”

  1. Thanks for this important reminder, Frank. Along these lines, I was very gratified to read the end of the year report from Americans for the Arts, a nationwide non-profit devoted to advocating for arts education, funding and support. So many victories on so many fronts, despite a not very arts friendly Congress:
    Perhaps a similar group is in Alaska's future, one whose sole mission it is to lobby for arts funding and support?

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