Bird Cries and Saxophone Sounds – Artists of Alaska: Through the Eyes of 49 Writers

The Artists of Alaska series is an ambitious, statewide project curated and coordinated by the Rasmson Foundation and 49 Writers. The project pairs Alaskan writers with Rasmuson Foundation grant awardees. The result: a growing compilation of narrative-driven artist profiles of and by Alaskans. 

Here’s an excerpt from my profile on composer Rick Zelinsky:

Ice cracks against the teeth of Rick Zelinsky’s crampons. A few yards ahead, the scrabbling of Koda’s toenails signal the Samoyed has found an area of windblown crust beginning to form on the final rise. “Look at that,” Zelinsky says to his dog. “Ascent No. 128.” The pair steps up onto the broad expanse of Peak Three overlooking Anchorage’s city lights. Together they pause. Their breathing slows.

“It’s a different world up here,” Zelinsky observes.

It’s also a different world when Zelinsky, a jazz saxophonist, writes a new composition. “When you create a tune, a jazz tune, you’re creating a planet,” he says. “And then when you improvise, you land on that planet and you explore it.” With different chords, rhythms and meters, Zelinsky and his jazz ensemble not only travel over and across new terrain — they create it as they go. “That’s what I love,” Zelinsky says. “I love exploring the mountains and music.”

Full profile here.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Crockett.

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 Whole Body Carves – Artists of Alaska: Through the Eyes of 49 Writers

The Artists of Alaska series is an ambitious, statewide project curated and coordinated by the Rasmson Foundation and 49 Writers. The project pairs Alaskan writers with Rasmuson Foundation grant awardees. The result: a growing compilation of narrative-driven artist profiles of and by Alaskans.

Here’s an excerpt from my profile on Alison Bremner:

Dancers become birds, become predators, become fish, become legendary characters. Drums pound. Voices rise and pulse. Knees bend and shoulders swoop so that blankets come alive. Arms fly out to strike angled postures — here a poised spear, there a wingtip, flight feathers angling in complicated winds.

The body: It is always the first site of transformation. It is where varying truths coincide. That is why Alison Bremner (née Marks) works with blades, wood and paint. She carves because of a dance.

Full profile here.

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.

Excerpt:

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.

Excerpt:

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

Comminglings of Law and Literature: Thoughts from Yukon Territory – Pedagogy and American Literary Studies

“Comminglings of Law and Literature” aptly titles much of this piece, but the truth is that the more you read, the closer you will come to a life-sized, pink, papier-mâché moose. Opening excerpt:

I am presently on a Fulbright in Whitehorse, Yukon (northwestern Canada) to write essays. Politics-wise, this year gives me a little window through which to watch Indigenous land claims unfold in the Yukon, and pedagogy-wise it gives me time to observe the special relationship that Yukon College (the future Yukon University) maintains with the territory’s fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Though I’m researching/writing full time, I’ve also been thinking about the pedagogy of Indigenous literature. I’m wrestling with this question: in what ways can and should an Indigenous literature course engage local Indigenous politics?

This question fits into a much larger one, of course. I.e., what are the special pressures—and the special opportunities—that local histories, local memories, and local politics present to instruction in the humanities? Particularly in a community-based, post-secondary teaching context?

This piece includes a crash course on Yukon’s colonial history. Then it turns to a Yukon College English class and their reading of artist/political scientist Lianne Charlie’s pink, life-sized, papier-mâché moose. Full piece here.

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.

Excerpt:

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.

Listening the Lyric Essay – New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing

ABSTRACT
Constructions of the ‘I’ in nonfiction receive ample study – particularly in discussions of memoir – yet when it comes to forms of the lyric essay, the narrator is unmapped. This article fills that gap in two ways: first, I question the convention of referring to lyric essay narrators as ‘speakers’. Reinscribing concepts of ‘speaking’, ‘speech’, and ‘voice’ within the historic development of Western metaphysical tradition reveals that those terms entail a complex of philosophic problems, namely, a deeply ingrained relationship to authoritative truth. This article takes the position that lyric essay narration cannot be accurately analysed with language invoking oppressive histories of systematic silencing and speech-based authoritative control. As a conceptual alternative, I argue that lyric essay narration more closely parallels listening than it does speaking. Adopting and adapting ethnomusicologist-anthropologist-linguist Steven Feld’s work with the Kaluli in Papua New Guinea, this article outlines and dialogues with a Kaluli concept called ‘lift-up-over-sounding’ to propose an analytic framework in which listening emerges as a multifaceted theoretic concept useful to studies of the narrator in creative nonfiction lyric essays. Full citation and article access here.

Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay – Pedagogy and American Literary Studies

Research and teaching often cross-pollinate. A favorite example comes from the semester I taught lessons in ekphrasis in a creative writing workshop.

Excerpt:

Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, and author of The Weight of Shadows visited.

The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.

He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.”

“The occasion to write” helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.

Full piece 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.