How One Alaskan Started Writing Poems: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman

Early August 1985, soon to turn thirty, I arrived in Fairbanks to begin the MFA program in Creative Writing at UAF. I didn’t know anyone in Fairbanks, knew virtually nothing about the program. But earlier that year, in Seattle, amidst a failing relationship, I’d written a short story which seemed so much better than
anything I’d previously written.

So, on the strength of that new story, and a hunch, I applied to graduate school in Alaska, was accepted, and the end of August found myself on the UAF campus. Others starting the program that year included poets Jerah Chadwick and Natalie Kusz. Another poet beginning the program was Mark Rozema, from Flagstaff, Arizona. Among the returning students were Alys Culhane and Rich Ober, who both wrote poetry and prose. Some of the first people I met in Fairbanks were Cindy Hardy, Pete Pinney and Claire Murphy, writers who had completed, or all-but-completed, the program.

The main poet on faculty, John Morgan, was on sabbatical, but the school had hired three one-year visiting writers: Wendy Bishop, Chris Balk, and Peggy Shumaker. All wrote poems, and Chris had recently won the Walt Whitman prize, while Peggy had just had a first book come out.

I lived like so many others in Fairbanks: in the woods in a rental cabin without running water. The first semester, finding my way both as a graduate student and a teaching assistant, I wrote critical papers for literature classes and taught a freshman composition class. I also led a creative writing workshop at the prison.The next semester included my first writing workshop, and a class about teaching creative writing. Peggy Shumaker taught them both. The latter consisted mostly of writing prompts, which we brought to the classroom, tried out, and then discussed. The byproduct was that a conscientious student could potentially come up three or four story or poem ideas each week.

Perhaps it was inevitable that with so many poets surrounding me in that class–I was not only reading their poems but the contemporary poets they most admired–I attempted my first poems. How did mine come out? The following year, when John Morgan returned, he looked at them, gently said my talents were in prose, and that I ought to focus in that direction. And while I completed my MFA as a fiction writer,
and found my earliest journal publications in the genre, I continued reading poems, occasionally tinkered on my own.

In 1988, I moved to Juneau. That year, working part-time jobs, I wrote several longer stories as well as a few dozen more poems. The following year, having found a visiting professor position in Sitka, I taught five classes a semester, so wrote less. But when I did write, found the compression of poetry better suited my time constraints. And the year after that, having moved to Nome to take another position, I only wrote poems, challenging myself to write five each week.

The end of my second year in Nome I got sick. The symptoms were debilitating joint pains. At my worst, I couldn’t walk, type, even grip a pen. I couldn’t sleep. I took a leave of absence, and for a year sought healers as I struggled to get well. Despite a variety of tests, doctors were unable to settle on a cause, or remedy.
Continuing to struggle, eventually I stopped getting worse, and then slowly recovered, convalescing in Seattle from mid 1993 to late 1994. There, I took the days as they came, read hundreds of poetry collections. By then, I was again physically able to write by hand, and could type as long as I didn’t overdo it. I felt as if I had more to say than ever, and most mornings drafted a poem, which I’d fiddle with the rest of the day. The next morning, I’d draft another one.

My two years in Nome I’d started getting poems published. After an eighteen month hiatus, now in Seattle, I began sending poems out again, with more success than before. November 1994, when I moved back to Juneau, I wasn’t 100% recovered from the illness time, but was close, and returned to Alaska not only with hundreds of new poems, but with a greater understanding of my writing process.

Why share this narrative? Maybe it’ll resonate with someone out there. And April is not only National Poetry Month, but it’s my month to come up with four posts for 49 Writers–meaning I have three more to go. If anyone has any questions, or requests, let me know. Though I have some idea what I’m going to write about, I’m open to surprises.

And with last month’s passing of John Haines, I’ll end with three Haines-inspired poems. I met John Haines in passing once or twice, and encountered him at a distance on other occasions. Having spent three winters in Fairbanks and two in Nome, I learned a bit about that latitude. How can I not count him as an influence?

The first one here, written in 1994, was the opening poem for my second collection. The second, written a decade later, was the closing poem for my third collection. The third, written this past week, makes a trilogy.

After Hearing John Haines Read

Poet to whom all others are measured
who write of Alaska, he appears tough
as his work, an elemental line, gruff
and lean, an honest being indentured
to land. His speaking voice, long-weathered
by six-month subsistence winters, is rough
and smooth at once, as if wide enough
to embrace both poles. Think rock pressured
by ice and light. Think immensities
mated with silence. Think centuries
of fox, bear, marten, beaver, owl. Picture him
silver as snow gathering on birch limb,
gold as some wolves. Or building a fire
in forty below night. Someplace farther.

from To Live on This Earth
West End Press
Albuquerque NM, 2002
(also previously published in Ice Floe)

John Haines, Fairbanks, June 2004
I recognized him at once, old poet
aided by cane. He made a steady path
across the student union floor. The flash
of years made me his shadow, or son. He wrote
of the Interior, of flood and drought,
distinctive, hard-eyed lines. On his long watch
this river valley had changed. The death
of the country, some would argue, and note
homes now dotting deep woods, so much land tamed.
The old poet turned, then stood before
the automated teller, punched several keys.
Out popped the bills. I lay back, studied him
as I would caribou, wolverine, bear.
Finding paper, pen, I didn’t dare breathe.

from The Secret Visitor’s Guide
Wings Press
San Antonio TX, 2006

in memory of John Haines (1924-2011)

I was working that night in Seattle
when a Fairbanks friend sent a brief note
with a link, then added a John Haines quote.
In a blink–and Haines might have named his full
sum of days as no more than that–the will
to live morally each hour, to never doubt
the stars, to plant acres of potatoes and oats.
Nature, he might well have said, is final
arbiter, and we’re here on earth to serve.
March 2, when my friend wrote, was the fifteenth
anniversary of my plane crash near Nome.
How our lives unfurl as crookedy curve.
You and I can still point to the zenith.
John Haines has settled in his ultimate home.

1 thought on “How One Alaskan Started Writing Poems: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Ken — I really enjoyed those Haines poems! How fitting and what a pleasure to read all three, written across the years, capturing history, imagery, personality and influence in such condensed form. A great tribute.

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