Monday, April 25, 2011

My Alaska Home: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman

These days when people ask me where I'm from, I answer by telling a story. The quick version: officially an Anchorage resident, I left in 2001 to go on tour. For five years I was completely itinerant, traveling from job to job, returning to Alaska as often as I could. Then I spent close to three years touring from a second home in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. For the past two years I've had a second home in New York City, where I live with my partner, who's in graduate school.

So, where am I really from?

Take your choice, I might as well say. When I began this work in Juneau back in late 1994, every job was an airplane or boat ride away. Moving to Anchorage in 1998 allowed me to work more on the road system, and made it easier to get to my rural Alaska jobs. But starting in 2000, once the first book and CD came out, I was increasingly working down South. Having to tack on the cost of a plane ticket and rental car for those jobs quickly proved unsustainable. But if I were to continue on this path, which felt warranted, I'd have to adapt. The following year I drove out of Anchorage to tour more extensively and efficiently. I'd give it a couple of years, I told myself. Either I'd get more established, or I'd fail.

Even today, I tell myself if I'd been less clumsy in getting my business off the ground at the very beginning, I'd still be living full-time in Alaska. Maybe I'd have found more jobs in and around Anchorage; maybe I'd have segued into a full-time job somewhere in the state. But then as I think about it some more, I shake my head. More likely, I'd have only been postponing the inevitable. Despite the support of some friends and organizations in the state, for the most part I've consistently found a much friendlier reception elsewhere.

For a decade now, as I've criss-crossed the continent, though I've been fortunate to meet all sorts of amazing people in all sorts of amazing communities, and though I've spent extended times in Louisiana and New York, I haven't been able to imagine myself as anything but an Alaska resident. So what does it mean to be an Alaskan--and an Alaskan writer--roaming around the country?

For the past two and a half years, it means I get asked about Sarah Palin. For a much longer time, it means I've been in position to correct common misconceptions about Alaska. It means that when do I return to the state, I don't take it for granted. Last summer I finally performed at the state fair, and then for the first time got to visit McCarthy, where I worked for a weekend. I may not be around much, but I thoroughly appreciate that I have friends, and friends of friends, all over.

It means when I see fellow Alaskans in my travels, I feel there's a group where I immediately belong. It means that though I've long been estranged from my biological family, there's truth to my long-running joke that I've replaced my biological family with Alaska. Maybe that's why, in lieu of family, I make it back at least once or twice a year,where each trip I remember why I've loved being here full-time for so long, and also get to directly experience so many of the frustrations that can make this such a difficult place for me.

I began this poetry month series of posts by sharing how I started writing poems in Alaska. These days, I'm barely writing poems, save for acrostic poems for the schools I visit. Earlier this month, I did write the one in memory of John Haines (and if I didn't have the spur here at 49 Writers, I don't think I'd have written it). Now, I'm scribbling notes for this post aboard a plane from Juneau, en route to Seattle, then Los Angeles, where I'll be working for several days (and typing this two days later in a hotel room in Whittier CA).

This past week, it was terrific seeing long-time friends and meeting new ones at the Folk Festival in Juneau. On stage, for my short set I had a pair of Fairbanks friends accompany me. We played a couple of medleys, and I shared two poems. The first one I'd written two months ago in memory of Warren Argo, who I first met in 1984, a Washington musician and festival producer, who for more than thirty years had been deeply involved in traditional music throughout the Northwest. The past fifteen years he'd been head sound technician at the festival in Juneau. The second poem, written close to twenty years ago, fit with a particular fiddle tune about a cat, and was another take on mortality.

How We Scatter
in memory of Warren Argo

A life may begin in Fresno,
Seattle, maybe Philadelphia,
swing you to Spokane, Juneau,
perhaps Port Townsend. We attend
schools, graduate, take jobs,
quit them, move again. We get
married. Or don't. We have
children. Or not. We make
friends--friends, the existential
as we hug hello, exchange smiles
or tears, waltz ourselves across
continent, feet barely touching floor.

How we scatter as the years
have their way. What's the sound
of an intent engineer steady
on board? A festival of musicians
lost in fiddle tunes, clawhammer
banjos making noise? A proud dad
phoning his girl? What's the sound
of collective joy? How we scatter,
settling from Olympia to Opelousas,
Oakland to Santa Fe to Manhattan,
finding community ever more fully
in this world. And then the next.


Purple

Pretend you're a cat
on your eighth life:
the sky, the clouds,
the trees--the world's
a bruise as you leap
clawing ledge to ledge.
One fabulous death left
to fritter, your purr
knows gravel, your meow
the memory of strawberry.
For the first time
you find yourself musing
about muskrat, rabbit,
the meaning of mouse.
Lucid, vulnerable, shy,
you edge to your ninth.

from The Secret Visitor's Guide
Wings Press
San Antonio, TX 2006
(first published in Yankee)


Final words?

I'm of Alaska, and not. Doing what I do, I have a reasonable perspective what Deb, Andromeda, and everyone else helping at 49 Writers are involved in, and it's no small thing. The writing programs at UAA and UAF fill certain needs, as do the conferences in Valdez and Homer, and the new one in Skagway. The work that Carolyn Servid has been doing for years in Sitka fills another need. It's all good. A start-up like this is a monumental undertaking.

I read this blog daily and am grateful to have a writerly way to stay connected to Alaska, despite my time away, and the distance. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share a few posts of my own.

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