Jeremy Pataky | Notes After the ’16 Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference

I actually tried,
like a fool, not to attend the Kachemak
Bay Writers Conference
this year. McCarthy, Alaska is a long way from
Homer. Fourteen hours of driving each way, barring calamity, distraction, or
accident. Too far, I told myself, too much time away from my summer habitat,
too many books I would buy, I thought, after too much traveling in the last
couple years, anyway. Too many RVs on the summer roads and too much of Alaska’s
writing population all in one place, sitting ducks eyeballing volcanoes and geologic faults and tsunamious waves and tourists and hungry, cheeky, monster eagles.
Better to stay home. 
I tried to resist.
Fortunately, failure knows best, sometimes. I was sold hook, line, sinker, rod,
reel. It really was a poet’s year, like Erin Hollowell said, this time around.
And it was especially a year for us poets who “also write sentences.”
Dan Beachy-Quick was back in Alaska, alongside Alison Hawthorne Deming, Forrest
Gander, Richard Hoffman, and Pulitzer-winning keynote Natasha Tretheway, not to
mention our own keystones, like Peggy Shumaker and Frank Soos, currently
serving generously as the State Writer Laureate. The rest of the faculty—visiting
and returning alike—was likewise awesome. So I buyers-remorselessly signed up.     
It was my charmed
third time at the conference—I first went in 2006 (seems like a lot more than
ten years ago) on scholarship (thanks, again!), possibly as the youngest
participant that year. I struggled to keep my old tent upright on the beach in
strong winds and finally retreated to my Jeep to sleep. It was an amazing time
that sparked lasting connections. I met Olena Kalytiak Davis, Jonas Lamb, Eva
Saulitis, and others for the first time—new friendships that fortunately stuck.
Still, I didn’t make it back again till last year, when I was lucky to be
invited as faculty (thanks, again!) after Overwinter‘s
release. I had a great time, road-worn though I was from a couple months of
traveling, teaching, and giving readings.
Pataky - KBWC 2016 birthday cake
2016 marked the 15th annual Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference
This year—this
15th anniversary year—seemed particularly remarkable. Poetic, even, in the
sense that poems contain multiple forms of intelligence, as Dan Beachy-Quick
observed. The braided conversations we all immersed ourselves in, drank from,
and floated down were rife with reminders, revelations, and camaraderie. There
were serious moments and ideas, and much consideration given to that basic
question—why? (in a world of when?)—as framed by Dr. Jim Johnsen,
President of University of Alaska, in his opening remarks. There were laughs and
tears in abundance. Some tears came from laughter (cue Sherry Simpson: “no
coon dongs for you!”) and some from grief. We lost many and much, this
year, and the collective loss was palpable, at times. Also palpable, and
counter to loss, was our shared caring and a sense of genuine community. 
Perhaps one
unifying principle that several faculty members spoke to has to do with how good
writing is symptomatic of a genuine engagement with the world. The things we
write aren’t the end that writing is entirely interested in, necessarily. Also
at stake is the ability to ask useful questions, to live attentively. Alison
Hawthorne Deming remembered our own John Haines’ explanation: “I write in
order to understand the terms of my existence.” Nancy Lord described
writing as an “excuse” to learn new things. Sherry Simpson admitted
that she’s not producing much new writing at the moment, but she’s actively
learning her new New Mexican world in a writerly way, one that no doubt will
yield some writing in due time: “the world is teaching me a new grammar
and I am learning a new syntax of me,” she said. That harkens a bit to Dan
Beachy-Quick’s idea that “what you have to do in life is make the mind you
can live with.” Writers are mind-makers (even if we don’t always excel at
making up our minds).
Hearing Frank
Soos joke and talk about how slow his writing process is also sent me away with
a certain ease of mind. With company like that, it’s a little easier to accept
my own slow pace without tripping on my feet trying to go faster.  
I left the
conference buoyed by new friends, great memories, many new books to
read and ideas to consider, and more filled pages in my notebook than I
thought. I even learned at least one new word: gurry. How’ve I lived and
written here this long without it?
On one of the
panels, Richard Hoffman said that a writer “has a relationship with the
becoming text. It’s something you enter into.” I think that’s true, in all
its facets. I left Homer reminded, too, that we also enter writing in
relationship with becoming communities of fellow writers, including those we
know only by way of the page. I left reminded that all writing, like good
laughs or cries, embodies a communal endeavor and concern, even when their
context is solitude.

Nancy Lord moderates the “Cross-Genre Pollination” panel featuring (left to right) Forrest Gander, Richard Hoffman, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Dan Beachy-Quick

Richard Chiappone emcees a KBWC faculty reading at Alice’s Champagne Palace in Homer, Alaska

The next Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is set for June 9-13th, 2017 and features Pulitzer Prize winning keynote novelist Jane Smiley. 

Jeremy Pataky is the Interim Executive Director of 49 Writers and the author of Overwinter.  

4 thoughts on “Jeremy Pataky | Notes After the ’16 Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference”

  1. 14 hours? Some experiences are worth the trip. Nothing like the collective creativity of like-minded artists to inspire. Thanks, Jeremy.

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