Sandra Kleven: Acts of Attention: Lancing Wounds, Treating with Inquiry’s Ointment

Yup’ik dancer at the Cama-i Festival in Bethel
People with keen intelligence publish
reviews of plays, books, concerts and movies. Their attention is scrupulous,
their standards unwavering, as they reflect on each element of a piece: Is it
art? Does the director meet the intention of the composer? Is the work
derivative? Bla, bla, bla. As if this were important. It may be important.

From a recent copy of Alaska Dispatch, “Scenes
go on too long and some of the dramatic notes don’t land as gracefully as they
could” (Lindsey Bahr writing about Chris
Rock’s new film, “Top Five”).
I have walked blind in dark holes – where
soft beings were crying and I don’t think any bright-body is really searching the
ditches, dredging the wells – or shining lights on institutions where power
collects and colludes –where power starts to stink and judgment goes
unchallenged. Where (another untold story) a kid, describing a cultural myth,
could be placed on anti-psychotic medications for ten years.

Systems of care, social justice in Alaska,
kids drugged in psych hospitals, Alaska Native kids in foster care; cultural
collisions, trouble all over rural Alaska – to this, I ask, where is the
unflinching review? There are official documents of oversight, but that’s not
what I am talking about. I am talking about truth-telling, whistle-blowing, and
opening one’s eyes to the need for – in social work terms – reform. Service
providers have professional mandates toward such adventures, toward the call. Especially
needed are those who can write about it, those with the darling flare of making
people read to the end.

We need to wrap some language around
Alaska’s other adventure – not the skiing, hiking, fishing, sort; not the
bears, not the moose, but the adventure of going out to intervene in tragedy and
writing as witness.

At 300, I lost count of the number of bush
flights I have taken since 1984. Once, my plane sat on the airstrip at Russian
Mission at minus 40 degrees. I was the only passenger. The pilot would not let
me deplane until somebody showed up with a truck. None of the trucks in the
village would start because it was too cold. But this flying story beats mine: in
“Wild Dogs,” (Cirque, 4.1) Gretchen
Brinck, a 1967, child protection worker, flew from Bethel to Aniak to
investigate the reported sexual abuse of two pre-teen girls. The community
seemed aware of it, seemed to blame them as “bad” girls. The (alleged)
perpetrator was a popular hunting guide. After Gretchen interviewed the girls, they
got on a small plane for Bethel, where they would be safer. Once on board she
discovered that the pilot was the (alleged) perpetrator. Penalties for such
offenses were not so severe, then, and kids were often disbelieved. He didn’t
seem scared. In any case, the nervous social worker and her passengers were
delivered without incident.

We’ve published five of Gretchen Brinck’s
stories in Cirque and she is working
toward publishing them as a memoir.


Two essays about suicide in Alaska grew
out of my struggle with that particular problem. Both were published – one in a
journal out of New York in 2004 and, last spring, the other was published in
Stoneboat, out of Lakeland College in Wisconsin. Little good for Alaska suicide
comes when writing on the subject is being read exclusively in distant places. These
pages need to be read in Alaska where the stats for all things terrible – are
terrible. Insight and awareness move communities toward solutions when the
boots on the ground put words on a page. I discovered that while service
providers and state officials are aware of Alaska’s high village suicide rate,
and city dwellers know from reading the news, but in the village, not much
comes in about troubles in another village. For instance, word of a tragedy in
Hooper Bay does not reach the people of the Kuskokwim villages, even when it is
something as grim as a cluster of ten teen suicides over a two year period. The
lack of information muffles – hobbles – what could otherwise be a concerted
response from village Alaska.

Contributing to the chronic nature of bush
problems is a revolving door of helpers. Successful programs are lost as each
newcomer comes in with an agenda. Good ideas need to stick and be shared.

Michelle Woods runs a program in Kotzebue:

Since the Teck John Baker Suicide Prevention Program
was introduced into the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, the number of
student suicides in the region which includes 11 villages (Ambler, Noorvik,
Buckland, Selawik, Deering, Kotzebue, Kiana, Kobuk, Noatak, Kivalina, Shungnak)
has dropped to zero. Prior, there were approximately 8 student suicides a year.

Another example of good: The Aniak Dragon Slayers are a team of
teenagers who provide volunteer firefighting and emergency medical services
throughout Aniak, Alaska, and surrounding villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim

For a hundred years or more, teachers have
written memoirs and stories drawing on their tenure in bush communities. Social
service and medical providers have done less of this. Practitioners write the
stories in client notes that no one will read. The knowledge of providers turns
into a loss of experience – at a certain cost: they are made mad and/or they
are made absent.

Brandish: Calling for Papers, Calling for Story

I propose a publication tentatively called
Brandish (picture the Statue of
Liberty, brandishing a light). The purpose is to provide a place for the
writing about what I have (in a kind of short hand) been calling the troubles of Alaska. Brandish will invite social criticism, dark truths and bright ideas,
memoir, essay and poetry, visual art. It will collect some of the work already
published in Cirque in order to make
it accessible to those who would solve Alaska’s problems. Whether this is a
single volume or a periodic publication remains to be seen. I see it not as a
journal as much as a book, with added volumes published no more than annually.

Four categories will be considered:

1) Criticism. Fault finding and whistle
blowing. We need some of that.
Story, narrative, witness. Elders have endorsed such telling, saying, It’s about time somebody said all this. Nonfiction
and fiction that tells the truth.
Documentation of the best ideas – tested on the ground and conveyed with
example and enthusiasm.
4) Historical archive to avoid the chronic
reinvention of the wheel.
5) Photos and art.

Word for Snow

Each of you a bordered country, delicate and strangely
made proud…
           Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning

Those who serve as care providers,
teachers, first responders, and clinicians are called to action in these times
of the terrible. But we’ve been dosed with something that makes us seem
important to ourselves. We do not rock our boats. We don’t lift our heads. I
know this from being part of it. In a poem, “Requiem for the Kuskokwim,” I mock
my own sense of self-importance. I
almost grieve that I skip across the coals where others are burning. Speaking
of myself, I write:  

 You walk through wild like a wraith, jingling
coins, coining jingles, sure to find another word for snow.

To get this off the ground, I seek donations,
volunteers, and writing. For $100 a person can be a sponsor. A rough timeline
puts Brandish one year into the
future. Details will be announced.

The poem below, by Paul Winkel, is the
first piece accepted for Brandish.

Moss chinks the logs,
a rusting tin roof.
I knock on the rough wood door.
When the door opens,
I say I’m with the Public Health Service.
We want to give you running water,
with a flush toilet and septic system.
A clear eyed woman of around eighty
invites me in for coffee.
She lifts the stained enamel pot
from a crackling wood stove,
pours strong black coffee
into a chipped white cup.
I live here all my life, she says,
haul water, chop wood,
me and my family
always have enough to eat.
She points to a bare light bulb
hanging from the low ceiling.
My cousin put in a wire from his place,
when he runs his motor, I have light.
I show you something.
She takes me outside, around back.
A black plastic pipe draped over a log
gushes a steady stream of water.
Two years ago, my son put in that pipe
from the pond up the hill.
Water runs all year.
Outhouse over there is all I need.
I never live so easy
or have so much.
I don’t want anything
that should go to people
who need them more.
We go inside,
you finish coffee,
find someone who needs these things
more than me.


Thanks, 49 Writers, Linda, Deb, and Morgan
for this chance to write. And warmest wishes to all for the holidays. 

Editor of Cirque, a literary journal, Sandra Kleven is a poet, filmmaker, and essayist. She also facilitates Poetry Parley, a monthly poetry event (Hugi-Lewis Studio). Her own work has appeared in AQR, Oklahoma Review, Topic, Praxilla Stoneboat, f-zine and the UAP anthology, Cold Flashes. Two poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has also won notice in the UAA Creative Writing and F’Air Words contests. Kleven is the author of four books, her most recent being Defiance Street: Poems and Other Writing (VP&D Publishing House). She holds an MSW degree as well as an MFA in Creative Writing and works for Alaska Native tribal organizations as a clinical social worker.  Kleven claims affinity for Alaska, where she lives with her husband, and Washington State, where she was born.  

3 thoughts on “Sandra Kleven: Acts of Attention: Lancing Wounds, Treating with Inquiry’s Ointment”

  1. Yngvil Vatn Guttu

    Dear Sandra, thank you for your wonderful and wonderfully presented ideas.

    If there is anything I or my organization ( Northern Culture Exchange )can do to help, please be sure to let me know.

    Yngvil Vatn Guttu

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top