A writer from Wrangell/Puerto Rico on the Alaska Writing Center

We asked lurkers to step forward, and here’s one of several who did: Vivian Faith Prescott, an Alaskan MFA poet writing to us from Puerto Rico. Before reading Vivian’s post, which arrived via email, I figured some folks refrained from commenting out of shyness. Now I’m thinking that perhaps a ‘comment’ is simply too limiting for what many readers have to say. But I’ll let Vivian take it from there, and encourage others to join in with comments or blogposts of their own.

I’m a poet. There, I said it. I started writing poetry in the 6th grade. By the time I was in middle and high school I was known for being a poet (I was known for being the ‘wolfie’ mascot, too, where I dressed in fuzzy red/white suit with wolfprints on my butt). I used to get paid five and ten dollars per poem to write poems for love struck teens. I was published by the time I was fifteen. I thought that being a poet was going to give me a great life. Yes, it has, but it’s also been a struggle to participate in Alaska’s writing community since I live in Southeastern Alaska. Wrangell isn’t typically noted for its literary scene. I got tired of being an obituary poet. But when I moved to Sitka, I saw other possibilities: Islands Institute, the Monthly Grind and now the Larkspur Cafe.

The introduction of UAA’s MFA really boosted my literary connections throughout Alaska. Although I have a Ph.D. in Cross Cultural Studies, I wanted to get the elusive MFA (elusive for me). When you live in small isolated villages/towns your whole life, there isn’t much opportunity to be choosy about your college program. I took many of the only courses available via distance. At the time I started college there was no low-residency MFA. So when UAA developed their MFA emphasizing, “the literary approach to exploring and redefining relationships between people and place…,” I knew the program was right for me.

But it took my husband, who’s also a poet, to convince me to apply to the program with him. I was hesitant at first, but the valuable connections and relationships with other writers and faculty have proved invaluable. I worked with poet Zack Rogow; now with Derick Burleson. I am in awe. Plus, what I learned about poetry at UAA has led me to my first book contract and possibly a second poetry book. Yes, I’ve been working on three poetry manuscripts during the MFA. During this MFA I’m also working on a collection of short stories inspired by a UAA MFA mentor, Alaska writer laureate Nancy Lord—may the salmon gods bless her. And I wrote and finished a middle grade fantasy novel; the book is being considered by agents as I write this….I’ve finished a rough draft Y/A novel, plus I’m in a revising and consulting phase of my memoir. Yikes! Now I have to write a thesis. No problem.

And the low-residency thing really works. My husband was deployed on active duty to Kuwait as a medical officer during the first year of the MFA. He was able to continue writing and submitting his work to his mentor. And UAA worked with him to re-arrange his program to make up for his missed residency hours. Times sure have changed; a low-residency MFA student writing from a war-zone is pretty unique. We would Skype each other and talk poetry.

Also the community service aspect of UAA’s MFA intrigued me. Dr. David Stevenson, our MFA director, explained to us—actually, I think he insisted—that our practicum during the second year should be ‘community oriented’, something that gives back to the community. So, my husband and I, both poets, chose to start a writers group at the Borinquen U.S. C. G. air station in Puerto Rico where he’s stationed temporarily with the U.S. Coast Guard.

In my opinion, Alaska’s literary scene should support a bridge between the smaller towns and villages and the larger cities. Maybe pairing mentor and beginning writer. Or just encouraging a cultural/writers exchange. The key is communication between the larger towns and the smaller towns and finding the contacts in those places. Not all of us in small towns can afford to travel to Anchorage for a writer’s reading/presentation, but we can be there live via the internet. Let’s think about that form of interconnection: this winter, fellow poet/MFA student Sandy Kleven connected writers on a live blog at Alaska 49 Writers. I was able to participate from Puerto Rico. Perhaps a cafe in Wrangell with three writers present could link to a big event at the new writing center in Anchorage. We writers should support this venture in any way that we can.

3 thoughts on “A writer from Wrangell/Puerto Rico on the Alaska Writing Center”

  1. A marvelous post, Vivian. Your Alaskan "can-do" spirit (and I mean this in the least possible Palinish way) shines through, starting with your adolescent business of writing love poems for others. And I always enjoy hearing about other writers who don't let themselves get boxed into one genre. Very timely, as well, as I'm today pulling together input from many sources to begin drafting our plan to broaden outreach to rural Alaska. The ideas you propose here are sliding right in. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the shout out, Vivian. As I read toward my pending MFA, I discovered the small group in Boston, who all became famous poets – Lowell, Sexton, Kumin, Plath… Lowell being the teacher. On first seeing this, one thinks of the remarkable coincidence, but as consideration continues the circle widens and it becomes evident that they were agents in each other's success. The biographies of each include many of the others as life companions… from "discovery" onward. I have commentary about this in my thesis — not too long — but with more specifics. I'll post it here as more proof that the community of writers enhances the success of each. Note from thesis: Mentoring is the thing these days. Successful poets of decades past had strong relationships with teachers and mentors. But, more than this, poets then found champions, a quality harder to duplicate. The actions taken for each other went beyond work on poetry. They drew a protégé into a vital community. Louise Gluck had Stanley Kunitz, her teacher for five years (Gluck 108). Anne Sexton championed C. K. Williams, writing “I have discovered a new poet, Charlie Williams, in Philadelphia, and have talked H. M. Co. into publishing him.” (Sexton, A Self Portrait in Letters 333). Robert Lowell one of Sexton’s earliest teachers, wrote this endorsement of her first book:
    Mrs. Sexton writes with the now enviable swift lyrical openness of a Romantic Poet, Yet in her content she is a realist and describes her very personal experience with an almost Russian accuracy and abundance. Her poems stick in my mind. I don’t see how they can fail to make the great stir they deserve to make” (Middlebrook 119).
    To W. D. Snodgrass Anne Sexton writes, “I got a nice letter from Poetry Northwest and they are considering the stuff I sent… thanks for writing them about me and so forth” (Sexton, A Self Portrait in Letters 48).
    Louise Bogan writes to a friend,
    "I for one have been made to bloom like a Persian rose bush by the enormous love making of… one Theodore Roethke by name. He is very, very large, (six feet two and weighing 218 lbs) and he writes very, very small lyrics"(Bogan).
    They were friends. Lovers. Critics. They found jobs for each other, proposed the work of friends to editors and nominated each other for national awards. They helped each other.

  3. Thanks Vivian and Sandy, for pointing out how valuable this writing center could be for rural Alaskans. We can have face-to-face workshops but need to also have online access to those or separate programs for online participants.

    Like Deb, my first real "writer" experience was as a teacher participant in ASWC. Later, I started writing more consciously and ended up joining AKRWA (the Alaska chapter of Romance Writers of America). Group support is crucial to my writing, and I'd like to explore that idea further with this Alaska Writing Center. Personally, I'd like to see writing workshops and the kind of writers' community I feel at the Kachemak Bay conferences.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share ideas,
    Cheryl, writing as Lynn Lovegreen

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