Kate Partridge and Alyse Knorr on the Anchorage Scene Report
Does anybody still refer to Alaska as “Seward’s Icebox”? If they do they’re probably old, and a hater. In fact, distance yourself from the haters. You don’t need that negativity. Gas up your car, crank the heat and head west. Kate Partridge and Alyse Knorr will show you everything you need to know about the bountiful Anchorage literary world when you get there. Don’t forget your scarf.
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Anchorage is the most populous city in the nation’s largest (geographically-speaking) state; as such, it’s home to much of the action in Alaskan literature. Although some of the best-known examples of Alaskan lit significantly pre-date our lifetimes (think Jack London) or are, in fact, written by the people we affectionately call “outsiders” (Into the Wild), Alaska’s spectacular natural environment, history of storytelling, and unique culture of independent artists make it a great home for contemporary writers. Award-winning writers in and around Anchorage include Guggenheim Award winner Olena Kalytiak Davis, American Book Award winner Joan Kane, and novelists Don Rearden and Lee Goodman.
The 49 Alaska Writing Center, or “49 Writers,” as it’s commonly called here, is the leading force for writing culture in Alaska, and it appropriately houses much of its programming in a railroad-era cottage overlooking Cook Inlet. 49 Writers offers classes, readings, professional workshops, craft talks, and social community writing events throughout the state, featuring local authors as well as national names such as (in recent years) Camille Dungy, Ron Carlson, and Pam Houston. 49 Writers hosts several reading series focusing on elements of craft, genre, and publishing, including Craft Talks at the amazing Great Harvest Bread Company, the Crosscurrents reading series at the Anchorage Museum, and a yearly Write-a-thon.
Each fall, 49 Writers hosts the annual Alaska Book Week with their partner organizations, the Alaska State Library, Anchorage Public Library, and the Alaska Center for the Book. The Alaska Center for the Book’s Poems in Place initiative installs poems on plaques around the state on the banks of rivers and overlooking beautiful mountains.
The Alaska Quarterly Review, which makes its home at the University of Alaska Anchorage, frequently hosts readings and panel talks on campus or at local venues like the Tap Root Public House, where launch parties are paired with music. UAA’s campus also features faculty readings throughout the year through an impressive faculty reading series at the campus bookstore, hosted by Rachel Epstein; recent readers have included Alaskans Sherry Simpson and Eowyn Ivey, and events are all recorded for download on iTunes U. During the summer, the University of Alaska Anchorage’s low-residency MFA program hosts events for its visiting students and faculty in this same venue.
Other regular community events include The Siren, a weekly poetry and music fest currently running out of ANC’s excellent gay bar, Mad Myrna’s; poetry slams through the Alaska Poetry League (run by Kima Hamilton); and The Living Room reading series in Eagle River, which happens every 2nd Friday at Jitters Coffee House.
Anchorage, and Alaska at large, is home to many fantastic presses and journals, several of which focus exclusively on Alaskan authors and/or topics. Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press edited by Peggy Shumaker, and the University of Alaska Press publish books from and about Alaska and the circumpolar regions. Boreal has recently released titles by Eva Saulitis, Frank Soos, and Susanna J. Mishler, and UA Press is home to Jeremy Pataky, Mei Mei Evans, and Amber Flora Thomas. The small independent press VP&D House, edited by Vered Mares, also makes its home in Anchorage and has published books by Jim Sweeney and Kris Farmen.
Permafrost, the student-run literary journal of the University of Alaska Fairbanks MFA program, is the farthest north literary journal for writing and the arts (and open to work by writers from any region). Cirque, published in Anchorage and named after a type of glacier, publishes quality work by writers living in the North Pacific Rim. The state’s most prestigious publication, Alaska Quarterly Review, is housed at the University of Alaska Anchorage under the leadership of editor Ron Spatz. The journal’s fall and winter 2014 issue received high praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic Michael Dirda in The New York Review of Books, who noted that AQR remains “one of [the nation’s] best, and most imaginative, literary magazines.”
Alaska writers are fortunate to have a number of generous organizations in the Anchorage area that offer grants, travel support, residencies, and other opportunities for writers, including the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Alaska State Council on the Arts. The Rasmuson Foundation recently launched a great residency exchange program with several organizations in the Lower 48, and the Anchorage Museum’s Polar Lab initiative has recently hosted several writers for residencies and research.
If you’re looking for a good bookstore in Anchorage, check out Title Wave, which buys, sells, and trades used books. Their selection of Alaskan writers is impressive, and their selection of “Alaskana” (writing about Alaskan topics) is incredible.
To find out more about Alaskan writers, visit the Alaska Writers Directory.
Outside Anchorage, But Still in Alaska
Anchorage may be the biggest city in Alaska, but it certainly isn’t the state’s only literary location. Fairbanks, with its acclaimed MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is a great hub for Alaskan literary life. Poets Sean Hill and Frank Soos call this historic prospector city home, and Nicole Stellon O’Donnell has written a wonderful book of poems called Steam Laundry, published by Boreal Books, about one of the first women to move to move to Fairbanks during the 1903 gold rush.
Homer, a small fishing town at the southernmost end of the Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula, offers two charming bookstores in addition to cozy coffee shops and impressive art galleries. Poet Erin Hollowell and writer Tom Kizzia both live in Homer–Hollowell’s book Pause, Traveler is a fascinating meditation on moving to Alaska from the hubbub of New York City, and Kizzia’s gripping nonfiction book Pilgrim’s Wilderness received national attention for its portrayal of a troubled family living in the wilderness near McCarthy, Alaska.
In the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) valley north of Anchorage, the small town of Palmer offers a fine artistic community. Fireside Books is one of the best bookstores in the state (their website URl is “www.goodbooksbadcoffee.com”) and the Palmer Arts Council celebrates Poetry Month in April with many community events.
If you’d like to spend a few weeks or months writing in the North, the state has a wealth of opportunities to offer. Summer retreats, conferences, and residencies abound here, including the Katchemak Bay Writers’ Conference, the Sitka Fellowship through the Island Institute, and the early fall Tutka Bay Writers Retreat. Many national parks also offer artist residencies, and if you want a truly amazing off-the-grid writing experience, check out the residencies available through the Wrangell Mountains Center, nestled in the middle of the breathtaking Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, designated the largest single wilderness in the U.S. The Homestead Alaska offers another unique opportunity for rustic writing in their homestead location just south of Denali/Mt. McKinley.
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