Guest-post: What does the State Writer Laureate Do?

The Question, and Something of an Answer
by Nancy Lord

So what does the state writer do?

Since being appointed Alaska State Writer (or Alaska Writer Laureate) last October, this is definitely the question I’m most often asked.

The simple answer is, whatever she or he wants. The aim generally is to promote Alaska writing and writers. But let me say more.

First, let me say that I’m having a good time as state writer. It’s an honor to have one’s work recognized and to be welcomed around Alaska as someone wearing figurative laurels. It’s even better to be able to share with audiences the work of Alaska’s writers, to encourage storytelling, and to engage young and old in the craft of writing.

Second—since everyone seems curious about this—understand that the position is honorary (i.e. unpaid) but that the Alaska State Council on the Arts, which makes the appointment, has in recent years funded a small budget for in-state travel. ASCA also provides grants to help community arts organizations host the state writer for workshops, conferences, etc.

Third—interesting facts: Alaska is the only state that has a writer laureate position. Forty other states have poet laureates and one (Idaho) has a writer-in-residence. Alaska had a poet laureate from 1963 until 1996, when ASCA decided to broaden the position to include all kinds of writers. Before 2000 some laureates had undefined terms (longer than two years). I’m the lucky thirteenth laureate.

In recent years the state writer has been asked to develop a particular project. Anne Hanley wrote a twice-monthly newspaper column, and John Straley focused on encouraging young people to tell their stories. Because I’ve had a lot of experience with libraries and library fundraising, my project involves visiting libraries to do multiple events—workshops, readings, and talks about the Homer experience of funding and building a new library. (Many—maybe most—libraries in the state are interested in expanding. Underrecognized fact: libraries are getting more, not less, use, and in economic challenging times play a major role in providing not just affordable activities but help with personal finance, job hunting, and business development.)

Here are a few things I’ve done so far as state writer:

• Presented a writing workshop at the women’s prison in Eagle River. We wrote six-word memoirs: “I stood, I fell, I stood.”

• Advised an architectural student on the design of a home for Alaska’s laureate—on the Mendenhall Glacier. (This was an exercise only—no connection to reality. The architect was interested in aesthetics; I was interested in whether the building would blow away and end up at the bottom of a crevasse.)

• Made a ten-day “tour” in Southeast Alaska, visiting the communities of Juneau, Sitka, and Petersburg and especially their libraries.

The Juneau Library did a very cool thing: to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its downtown library, they invited all the city’s published authors to breakfast together in the library, with me as guest speaker.

In Sitka, the high school students had some really good questions, including “What would you be if you weren’t a writer?” (My answer: a cultural anthropologist.)

In Petersburg I discovered some impressively inventive young writers and also got to drive an electric car.

One conclusion: library people are among the nicest I’ve ever met. And smart. (Reading lots of books surely helps.)

• Was one of five judges at the state finals of Poetry Out Loud, a high school competition. Heather Lende, another of the judges, wrote a terrific column in the Anchorage Daily News about this.

• Participated in a program “Alaska State Writer Laureates: Alaska’s Land and Literature” at the UAA Campus Bookstore, with former laureates John Haines, Richard Dauenhauer, and Anne Hanley. It was really nice to talk with some of those upon whose shoulders I stand, and especially to see the “fan club” of young people who were conversant with (and enthusiastic about) John Haines’ poetry. This program will shortly be available as a podcast on the university’s website Go to “quick links” and click “podcasts.”

And here’s what’s coming up: a week-long gathering of state poet/writer laureates in Rhode Island. About 20 of us will be giving workshops on Block Island and then touring RI to visit schools and libraries with readings, workshops, panels, etc. This should be great fun, to meet colleagues and to share Alaska writing with them and the residents of another coast. Look for a posting next month about this. I’ll see what I can learn about “how they do it Outside.”

In addition to being our Alaska State Writer and a regular here at 49W, Nancy Lord is the author of Beluga Days: Tracking the Endangered White Whale. This fall, University of Nebraska Press will publish her latest book: Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life.

4 thoughts on “Guest-post: What does the State Writer Laureate Do?”

  1. Wow. You have been busy. With all the political infighting making our state seem cranky and backward, it’s nice to be reminded that we’ve been progressive in expanding the laureate post to all sorts of writers. Looking forward to your report from Rhode Island.

  2. Alaska! Wow! Totally awesome;)!!

    As a newly published YIA(Young Islamic Adult) author, we are on a mission to show the World there’s more to Islam than a prayer rug and a hijab!

    My new book explores what happens to a Sitka mosque that’s threatened not by evil Western culture but by a melting Alaskan glacier!

    Cool! Or should we say – Cold! 😉

    Allah Akbar!!!
    (Not for publication.)

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