Sandra Kleven: Troubled about Alaska

Ten years ago, I made a radical change. I
left Bethel for Anchorage. Lisa Demer wrote about it. “Social Worker Leaves
Tragedy Behind,” read the front page headline, as if it my move were big news.

Anchorage would have a creative community
and my articulated purpose was to find it. I continued to work as a clinical
social worker, but my intention when I got here in 2004 was to build the skills
and relationships needed to be an artist in the world. Professionals had failed.
I had failed. Make way for artists, clowns, and poets.

The creatives
of Anchorage shaped themselves around me as if they were spirits directly
called. The multiply talented Yngvil Guttu asked me to be the First Friday poet
in December of 2005. I had three hours to prepare. A twelve-year-old Juneau boy
helped me as part of his counseling session. “Wanna help me write a poem?” I
asked. He said, “Sure.” Creative therapy. 
Individuals merged, became larger
entities. Bruce Farnsworth ran the Mountain View Gallery (Trailer Art Center),
where on Winter Solstice, 2006, I read, “A Murder of Crows” orating while
balanced on a saw horse, so I could peer out over the crowd. Through Yngvil, I
met Dawnell Smith, Linda Lucky, Melissa Wanamaker, Hal Gage, and Izzy. I dyed
my hair an incredible red and took up belly dancing.

Also taking shape were F Magazine,
brainchild of Gretchen Weiss and Teeka Ballas; 49 Writers, birthed by Deb Vanasse
and Andromeda Romano Lax; and Cirque,
a literary journal founded by Michael Burwell. Yngvil Guttu founded the Spenard
JazzFest and a few years into it asked me to be festival poet. Elizabeth L
Thompson performed with me and by the fourth year we formed a mixed media group,
Venus Transit, with nine members. 
I wrote instant poems for a dollar on any
subject. Dreamed of writing a few thousand. It was a fundraiser. I don’t
remember the fund. A sample written on the spot at the 2009 Spenard JazzFest:

For Pete and
Wind moans through hollow trees
and the night, still light, defies time.
Then morning birdsong
reckless with hope, with improvisational abandon.
And here you are with me, enduring, unsettling, exciting, mine.

The Creative Writing MFA program at UAA
was struggling toward its current shape as a low residency program. Enrolled
since 2005, I joined with other students in opposition to this move. Think it over, we urged. We believed then
that this move would lead to a program serving non-Alaskans with money. We made
waves; made the news.   
I would write

I view this spectacle like a little dog, head a-tilt,
a-tuned to lively ditties from an old calliope.
I have seen it all by now – a carnival of fat little kings with ladders,
really not so different from the one I left behind.

Then, in 2007, the youngest in our class,
Jason Wenger, was murdered on a Sunday morning, as he sat in his Lois Street
driveway warming up his car. My dad died that month, too, and in the spring, my
brother took his own life. I would leave tragedy behind.

Students from out of state came to the Low
Residency program. They were just like the rest of us, essentially, wonderful.

The new students expanded horizons and
created connections beyond Alaska even as they were transformed into Alaska-shaped
beings. You know, long drooping peninsulas, spits, gouged out bays, hulking
mountain, birded estuaries, mud flats. They were okay.

David Stevenson was hired to run the low
residency program with writer Kathleen Tarr as the program coordinator. The
level of excellence represented by David and Kathleen cannot be overstated. The
program thrived. I tabled my objections, graduated, and published poems; published
my first book of creative writing, Defiance Street: Poems and Other Writing, with Vered Mares at
VP&D Publishing House.  

Thirty years of social work were behind
me. I could stop being so damn good; role model for the legions. Call me an
edgy writer. Burwell dubbed me quirky
and then gifted me with the editorship of his journal, Cirque. In the ten years since I announced my intention, I was
immersed in the creative community of Anchorage – and Alaska – connected to
important things, but I was left with a very big problem. Haunted by the
troubles of rural Alaska, I was still compelled to beat on a bucket, lamenting
about troubles in rural Alaska.

An insistent vibration arises from two
centuries of compression; something wills its way out. Something says, Tell it. 

By way of illustration, consider this
sketch of one untold story:  My friend
has been teaching in villages for more than twenty years. A couple years back,
a former student committed suicide. She said, “That is number fifty-three.” Fifty-three
former students had been lost to suicide, murder, illness and accident. Stunned
by that number, I begged her to write her story – how, in the ‘90s she arrived
with her newly minted degree; how it started and how it did not end; how she
grappled with questions of why and what should I do? I urge her to write as a
witness. Today, she updated the number – it now stands at sixty-seven.  

Next week: Acts of Attention: Lancing
Wounds, Treating with Inquiry’s Ointment

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.  

2 thoughts on “Sandra Kleven: Troubled about Alaska”

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Sandra, and the evolution of our writing community at the same time!

  2. A lot has happened in 10 years. For me, the last decade has shown that I need to make own radical move toward creativity — because what I'm doing is killing me.

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