Creative Nonfiction and Lived Experiences of Power – a talk for the 2020 UAS Power and Privilege Symposium

I recorded this talk as part of the 2020 Power and Privilege Symposium organized and hosted by the University of Alaska Southeast. See the full 2020 Symposium program here.

Writing from life is at once personal and communal. The literary essay, defined first by searching and second by strange discoveries uncovered by the solitary mind, is often surprisingly invested in social participation and in illuminating the wider collective. This talk prepares participants to create their own writing from life by introducing the nuts and bolts—and the simplest but most powerful poetics—of the contemporary protest essay. This talk will draw on short examples from the field’s trend toward local political involvement, searing community insight, and historic recovery by writers like Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Siku Allooloo, José Orduña, Sarah de Leeuw, and Zadie Smith. It will outline and present a literary toolkit accessible to anyone inclined to explore their own lived experiences of power and privilege on the page, a practice participants may engage for reflection, exploration, healing, and teaching.

Fluid Places – a Leavetakings excerpt published in Anchorage Museum’s Chatter Marks

One day I went to the museum and stood a while in front of a photograph by Anna Hoover and later on I thought about swans and squid and high school calculus camp and wrote an essay about the beginning of the universe, “Fluid Places.” It’s in my book, Leavetakings. And here it is published as a book excerpt in Chatter Marks.


Corinna Cook’s Leavetakings brings to mind the sharpness of line drawings so extraordinarily crafted that we reach for the page to feel the fineness of feather. From Alaskan landscapes to human relationships, Cook tests the edges where exterior becomes interior.

—Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers

“…a truly original voice.”

—Sherry Simpson, author of Dominion of Bears

Leavetakings collects nine essays set in Alaska. They ask, what can coming and going reveal about place? Might wandering serve not only to map new regions but also to map the most familiar ones, like home? As the book travels to and from people, memories, beaches, and forests, it also studies the ebb and flow of empathy and alienation that makes friendship, like place, a complex of closeness and distance.

“A stunning debut.”

—Jericho Parms, author of Lost Wax

To order a signed copy / purchase a book from me directly, email

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Breathtaking….  Every chiseled, staggeringly focused experience becomes a window into history or myth or science… This incantatory, elegant book broke my heart in the best possible way.

—Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer
Here you can access a live recording of my book launch, a digital event with reading, conversation, and Q&A. Bonus: see a Visual Scribe’s take on the event.

This lovely book teaches us how to examine and cherish the places where we find ourselves, no matter what rivers carried us here.

—Joni Tevis, author of The World Is On Fire

Advance Praise for Leavetakings

What does it mean to love a place? In Leavetakings, Corinna Cook explores this question via her own unique alloy “of humor and holiness.” Salmon otoliths whisper secrets; teenagers at calculus camp joke “Kiss My Asymptote”; a winged outhouse rises into the air. This lovely book teaches us how to examine and cherish the places where we find ourselves, no matter what rivers carried us here.

—Joni Tevis, author of The World Is On Fire

In this, her first essay collection, Corinna Cook draws for her reader an x-y axis and invites us to journey alongside her—on and off grid—as she plots stasis and change, leaving and returning, meditates on salmon bones and sourdough, friendship and solitude, and the ever-present landscape of Alaska. More than a collection, Leavetakings is a book of curated findings, evidence of a vast and changing northern terrain and the intimacy and wonder it engenders. With clarity, whimsy, and wisdom, Cook speaks to the body, charts under-explored regions of the heart, and presents a unique topography of human experience. A stunning debut.

—Jericho Parms, author of Lost Wax

Again and again I found myself astonished by the incandescence of Corinna Cook’s essays. Her accounts of people and place are thoughtful without pretension, witty without affectation, and poignant without sentimentality because she doesn’t write about Alaska so much as she is inhabited by it. I emerged from the intimate dreaminess of Leavetakings grateful to have encountered a truly original voice.

—Sherry Simpson, author of Dominion of Bears

Corinna Cook’s Leavetakings brings to mind the sharpness of line drawings so extraordinarily crafted that we reach for the page to feel the fineness of feather. From Alaskan landscapes to human relationships, Cook tests the edges where exterior becomes interior.

—Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers

Corinna Cook’s breathtaking Leavetakings is an unclassifiable hybrid of environmental writing and personal memoir—set mostly in the author’s native Alaska—that reads, on the sentence level, as pure poetry. Cook doesn’t write of or at a subject, she writes through it. Every chiseled, staggeringly focused experience becomes a window into history or myth or science . . . This incantatory, elegant book broke my heart in the best possible way.”  

—Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer

More takes on Leavetakings here.

Excerpt from “Traverses,” the collection’s first essay:

It is this simple. I am crossing the continent to look at its shape.

Of the continent: it’s unbelievable that road infrastructure overlays so much of it. Unbelievable that a whole plate of the earth’s crust has a net of asphalt threads laid atop it. Unbelievable, the nonchalance this creates. Crossing the continent to see its shape is less an expedition and more a comfortable contemplation. I will ford no rivers. I will search for passage through the mountains not for survival, but simply to walk my dog, Pep, study the game trails, and enjoy wayfinding on unfamiliar ground. 

I will watch the continent change as I go north in early spring. Then in late summer, I will watch it change in reverse. It is important to go both directions. It takes repetitions to see where you’ve been. And things look different when you’re leaving: even the air is different. Often, what I’m leaving is Alaska, though in my heart I am never absent from the place and my departures probably reflect more obscure schisms. At least the place is a marker, clear enough that I can count the days until I return. When the number is small, I announce it: Dog! I say. We’re going back! She knows exactly where.

[…] It’s mid-May. It’s spring in a place where the land’s memory of winter is strong. I’ll be driving out well before breakfast, well before anyone else awakens. Eventually the day will open behind me; the sky will go from rose to blue. Later, summer will come. People—southerners—will begin trickling through; I’m ahead of the RV roadtripping curve, but it’ll follow soon enough. Visitors will come, then they’ll go, and then the days will zip up tight into fall. That’s when the swampy land all around will blush once, hard, a quick bright red before the snow. I don’t even know if you like winter. I do. It’s very quiet. That’s what will come next.

Circumpolar Duet | Singular Plurality

Circumpolar Duet is a Yukon collaboration between ten word artists and ten visual artists. The process: we made our first round of arts independently, engaging the theme of “singular plurality.” Then the twenty of us came together to exchange words for vis and vis for words. In round two, we made our second contribution of word art or visual art in response to the specific piece we received in the exchange.

The result: twenty ekphrastic dialogues.

Thank you to supporters and organizers who arranged our ekphrastic pairings into a book compilation, and into a gallery exhibit hosted by Yukon Artists at Work.

“Circumpolar Duet: singular/plurality”

“Circumpolar Duet: singular/plurality” exhibition featured 40 visual artists that were combined with literary poems and stories. It was truly a beautiful sensory experience, giving the viewer many sensations of colour, texture, 3D effects, even a slight remembrance of taste, within the artistic works and beautifully written works of literature. The exhibit was truly a representation of team work. Each of these artworks were combined in a collaboration of written works which were then reflected into the other artists choice of medium. It truly is an amazing experience to hear the stories come to life, through the various mediums that were show cased; paintings, drawings, pottery, photography, textiles, sewing and beadwork, among multi-media depictions of their reflections, within a circumpolar duet, coming to life. Hehn and Munro worked together to create the first Circumpolar Duet which was showcased in 2016, whom then wanted to bring back to life the experience of a circumpolar duet, after the theme was picked through the “the Government of Canada chose its role as the guest of honour country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2020.”The visual artists taking part in the project are Nicole Bauberger, Marten Berkman, Heidi Hehn, Jackie Irvine, Astrid Kruse, Françoise La Roche, Leslie Leong, Lillian Loponen, Joyce Majiski and Martha Jane Ritchie.The participating literary artists are Ellen Bielawski, Corinna Cook, Lily Gontard, Jamella Hagen, Susanne Hingley, Ruth Lera, Joanna Lilley, Kirsten Madsen, Laurel Parry and Elisabeth Weigand. Circumpolar Duet is a collaboration by Yukon Artists @ Work and Yukon Writers’ Collective Ink.

Posted by Shakat Journal on Friday, February 7, 2020
Film by Shakat Media.

The Black Spruce – Alaska Magazine

Alaska Magazine’s special issue in creative writing includes my essay about heat, illness, the color red, and black spruce. The essay responds to a painting by Juneau artist Constance Baltuck.


To understand the black spruce, remember it grows from a fist-sized root ball as grey and compact and crucial as a brain. Each black spruce spindles itself straight up into the crack of the cold, stout branches making a skyward scrub from base to apex all winter night. And below that brain of roots lies permafrost, even in summer. This, then, is a tree that keeps ice in mind. Full essay here.

Points of Reference: I Am Here – After the Art

The magazine After the Art asks essayists to blend writing about art – with writing about a text – with writing about personal experience.

In answer to this tri-part prompt, I link a painting by Yukon artist Jane Isakson – to an essay by William Least Heat-Moon – to fragments from childhood in Alaska.


The mountain doesn’t know you’re an expert.

This is how my family reminds each other that life alongside mountains must by necessity be humble. By necessity alert. The tear-shaped island in Alaska on which I grew up has steep, rainforested mountainsides. It has dark, rocky shores. And it has a two-lane bridge to the mainland, where the rest of town is a capital city busy with state politics but rimmed by an icefield so that no road links our community to any other community. Because of this, we have a special responsibility to take care of each other.

Continue reading “Points of Reference: I Am Here – After the Art

The Cut – Ocean State Review

This is an essay about wandering and about fixity. This is also an essay about the body, place of arising, place of rootlessness: the birthed body of a person, the grounds and bounds and turf of home, a region’s ancestry coevolved and coevolving with a people, ancestral symbiosis of biome and culture. This is an essay about my friend’s head, the surgeon’s hands. This essay is also sometimes about leaves, and sometimes about fish.


When Rachel traveled for a holiday by the tropical sea, she hadn’t the ambition to swim out past the breakers. She just sat down in the froth of the waves, plunk, and let the tumbling white of each crash drag her slight frame downbeach, push her back up, tug her sideways, and fill her pajama pants with sand. The French say les vagues for the waves—vagues like the English “vague” (as in “uncertainty” but also related to “vagabond,” to “vagrant”), and I wonder now if my friend’s minimalism in the surf was born of premonition, a sense she might appreciate—though never trust—les belles vagues. But at the time it was her glee that struck me: how satisfied she was with this salty edge, how all she needed was wave after wave sloshing into her lap and sucking sand from beneath her calves. The sea pulled and spun her, sure, but she wasn’t even in deep enough for it to disturb the posture of her slender back.

French waves and English vagueness also share their name with a nerve: the vagus nerve. It’s the one that wanders throughout the body. It livens the lungs. It animates the stomach. It is responsible for the ear canal, for sweating, for the rate at which the heart pumps grief and love over the body’s crags and planes, into its crevices. But for all its wandering the vagus nerve always keeps a firm hand on the throat where it is gatekeeper of each gasp, each sigh, and every gulp or swallow.

Full essay published in the Fall 2018 issue of Ocean State Review.

Her Success – Animal Literary Magazine

Excerpt below.

Someone cries out from the water. She thrusts her head and shoulders upward and lingers in the air for a still silent moment, then peels off sideways. Her buoyancy fails and she slips beneath the sea. An eagle rides the air overhead. On the far side of the water, behind the small circles spreading and already dissipating in the silence, mist clings to a muscle of ice. The glacier is jagged and blue beneath an overlay of snow.

I am a small girl standing on the side of the road looking out over the water and clutching my father’s index finger. He is concentrating. He wonders if he has understood. Someone is brokenhearted in the black and silver sea and there is an eagle overhead. Across the cove, the curving tongue of glacier says nothing. Full essay here.

Background photo credit: Jeremy Pataky.Fonts: Canada 1500 by Ray Larabie and Adobe Jenson Pro by Robert Slimbach.
This was a Hiya, Scout! design.