AQR is ensuring that writing from Alaska means more than just Robert Service and The Milepost.
By Scott Woodham
On a Friday evening a few weeks ago, an intern at the Alaska Quarterly Review stood outside Bernie's Bungalow Lounge, bumming cigarettes and looking agitated. He asked passers-by if they'd seen the guy who had the PA. He asked people to point out local poet Arlitia Jones. Three writers, including Jones, were supposed to read that night, in an AQR-sponsored event due to start five minutes earlier. The intern was the emcee. Despite his concern, the crowd that recent Friday was busy, chatty, and milling, unaware of the missing PA.
AQR has been sponsoring readings at Bernie's, a popular downtown bar, each First Friday since January. For one evening, writers read in Bernie's Starlight Room, unchained from the page. About 100 people have been attending these events, probably more than the room should hold. It's been standing room only, and the most consistently available standing room is behind a potted jungle plant, next to a heavy glass door that doesn't quite close.
The AQR readings have had great success confronting diverse audiences with local writers. But the confronting can go both ways. At one event, local poet Olena Davis was roundly booed for sanitizing a blue poem so that her brother, in attendance, wouldn't hear the sexy part. Yet even that kind of artistic cowardice can't keep the crowds away.
Most performances of creative writing intended for the page happen in semi-isolation, in bookstores, libraries, classrooms or lecture halls, for a specialized audience. AQR, however, is about as formal as a literature organization can get these days. It's an internationally known art and literature journal headquartered at UAA. For the nearly 22 years of its existence, it's hardly seemed an integral part of Anchorage. The reading series at Bernie's is changing that, and AQR's Outside fame is one reason it's happening.
Ron Spatz, AQR's founder, has kind, prehensile eyes and wavy, Alaska-short gray hair. His gold-rimmed glasses are larger than current styles dictate. He wears a well-cared-for, classic Omega DeVille wristwatch. Not even living in Alaska for 22 years has removed the abrupt cadence and matter-of-fact terminal syllables of New York City, where he grew up.
Spatz was raised, he says, in a “brick forest with two brushy trees growing out of holes in the sidewalk on a street coming down to a dirty river.” He fondly recalls the season when nature came to the city, as new snow covered a dismal, coal-fired scene. Jack London's story “To Build a Fire” piqued his interest in a land where winter lived, a place where the relationship between man and nature was stripped to the waist and taking on all comers.
In addition to AQR, Spatz has helped build UAA's graduate writing program. More recently, he's been helping create an honors college, and an undergraduate research program to encourage young scholars. For a man so driven to make lasting projects for Alaska's future, he's humble: “Changing people's lives,” he says, “is an honor if you can do it. A privilege to do it.”
Spatz had big ambitions for AQR when he and James Jakob Liszka founded it. Spatz wanted to make a forward-looking literary journal in a state mainly known for travel writing and anachronisms. Since then, AQR has collected honors while making sure people across the globe know that literature from Alaska means more than just Robert Service and The Milepost. Pieces first published in AQR have won or received special mention in such validation-machines as the O. Henry Awards, Best American Essays, and Best American Short Stories. AQR's list of contributing editors includes hot movers in contemporary literature such as Billy Collins, Patricia Hampl and Maxine Kumin. The list of other editors and interns, who regularly work on the journal, is full of people who write well all over Alaska, some from UAA's writing program, some not.
The best literary magazines, such as Harper's, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and Arts & Letters, are in part so highly regarded because they've been consistently good longer than most. It's a competitive field. Apart from consistency, a magazine needs a way to stand out. “There's always a gimmick,” Spatz says. (One of his few gimmicks for AQR is using a color photograph from an Alaskan artist on the cover of each issue.) For AQR, though, he says, “There's not so much pressure to change, but to stay the course, to have courage in your convictions.”
AQR has remained primarily a printed journal even as so many other journals post much of their content online, barring themselves from coffee tables and from being passed around. That's what Spatz means by “convictions.” He means co-sponsoring a local contest, the Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest, instead of a national one reserved for professionals. He means keeping the price of his journal at just $6.95, even when comparable journals charge twice that or more, and price-snobs mistake it for an indication of poor quality. He means presenting new and emerging voices alongside established writers. Perhaps most of all, he means a steady, unassuming advocacy of the heart and mind working together to say strongly what needs to be said.
Yet the journal treads so lightly in Alaska that Alaskans would almost never know it stomps around literary circles Outside.
Once literary magazines reach a certain renown, they may be tempted to rest on past achievements, let the flame die down a little. It would have been easy for Spatz to just keep printing the elite story and essay submissions that recognition brings, but AQR has begun parlaying its reputation to benefit its readers and its writers, and, especially, a local audience.
Spatz asked his graduate interns to devise a way that AQR could confront a living audience and make a more aggressive connection to the community. “Then they came up with the idea for the First Friday readings,” he said. “It's their genius. Use that word, 'genius.'”
He left the details to the students, he said. “And you know what? It's better because of it. I have a high degree of confidence in our team. We're jazzed.”
The current issue of AQR, Volume 22, issues 1 & 2, is about as formally diverse as is possible for a literary journal, and it includes a clutch of wonderful writing from Alaska and Outside.
Ever since poets Stuart Dybek and Jane Hirshfield guest-edited separate poetry sections for AQR, poetry has been gaining a larger footprint in the magazine, and submissions apparently are increasing in quality and appeal. The current issue features new poems from Maxine Kumin, James Allen Hall, Nance Van Winkel, and Richard Spilman, among others who publish good work in journals across the country.
Among the bright lights in poetry, there are a series of highly imaginative, slightly bizarre prose poems by Dag T. Straumsvågg, a poet from Trondheim, Norway. (The poet and Robert Hedin translated the poems from Norwegian to English.) In “The Child's Shoe,” Straumsvågg sets us down in a new place, strange, but every bit natural:
A child's shoe sprouts up between two cobblestones in the street. A man notices and thinks something is missing - a child or, at least, a child's foot. He buys baby food, and matches so he can build a picket fence around the shoe. Patiently, he feeds the toothless hole; patiently he paints the tiny fence.
The poetry section also features several poems from the New West, concerning pastoral waste and urban guilt, from Michael Walsh, a Minnesota State Arts Grant winner, and novelist Clint McCown. In “Total Balance Farm,” McCown tells us of a thistle's deep sting, then reminds us, in a powerful, one-line turn, “Nothing friendly grows in fence rows.”
Also included are several poems from war zones around the world, from Eastern Europe to Africa to the ecosystem. A few address scientific principles better than most. If only physics teachers regularly gave perspective to subatomic particles as Frank Montesonti does in “Dark Matter Theory”:
imagine a man losing
his balance and careening
into a small tree. Imagine between each
tree a thousand miles.
All of the fiction in the current AQR is uniformly careful prose with often interesting dialogue. Most of the stories concern issues arising within contemporary families. The most formally daring piece is a two-part narrative about a family near the breaking point because of an industrial accident. “Separate Kingdoms,” by Valerie Laken, is told through facing-page sections, each coming from a separate voice, the left a third-person account concerning the parents, the right arising in first-person italics from the mouth of their conflicted teenager, who, between the usual teenage concerns and passages of onomatopoetic drum practice, says things like:
“I still don't see why they couldn't have just sewed them back on. Put the bones in place, in the sockets, stitched the skin back over. And then under the bandages would be his thumbs, curled up and waiting to hatch fresh. They would grow back and we could pretend this never happened…”A”
Aside from yet another piece of fiction told from a writer-character's perspective (“Squeeze the Feeling,” by John Dufresne), the fiction section is hefty, gives windows into many regions around the country, and easily withstands multiple readings.
Non-fiction is represented well by four ravishingly bittersweet memoir pieces, by Sarah Manguso, Sarajane Woolf, Lee Montgomery, and Marie Sheppard Williams, and a fish-out-of-water essay set in Thailand, by Bonnie J. Rough, a writer from Iowa City, that broad-shouldered stacker of prose. Rough's first nationally-published essay concerns travel, race, and notions of place, but she subverts her efforts at the end, asking the reader, “Why read someone like me, a mass-produced middle-class American, on Trinidad when you could read [V.S.] Naipaul?” But for that, Rough manages a lush, sensual, tropical telling, an indictment of the tourist over the traveler.
Two pieces in particular sit outside traditional genre divisions. “Holy Land” is by Sandra Klevin, author of The Right Touch, an acclaimed book on preventing child sexual abuse. Her dramatic monologue comes from a Bush Alaskan, and is a powerful example of a writer becoming intimate with a character and being led to a strong voice because of it. A couple of places drag a bit, but that's often the case with such a long piece of verse. The tension comes from a single, tragic, violent death, but we don't hear that immediately, we just sense it as we hear one example of neglectful violence after another. The Native monologist takes us all for white people, Gussacks, then proceeds to tell a story that amounts to an act of violence itself:
Today, I will show you this place.
I will make introduction.
We will walk to boardwalks
and the graveyard
so you can learn.
The other genre-busting work comes from Fairbanks painter Kessler Woodward and UAF English professor emerita and former NEA Poetry fellow Peggy Shumaker. The two artists are neighbors on the banks of the Chena River, and their collaboration, “Blaze: Paintings & Poems,” is printed on a glossy section, one poem facing one painting. The paintings capture the lives of Birch trees in strong light, slanting at high incidence against their peeling, curling bark. They are simple, vivid, and emphasize the calming quality of solid trunks. The poems are simple, short, and closely tied to landscapes. They don't want to tell us how to vote; they simply are, just like the birch trees. The synthesis between the two has the force of a Zen koan.
Amy Groshek, a student in UAA's poetry master's program, has a poem titled “Gdzie Napisane.” That title comes from a Polish phrase that means “Why don't you just write it on the chimney?” At an AQR reading at Bernie's, Groshek explained that when she'd visit her grandmother with still more piercings in her face, the elder woman would chastise her mildly with that saying from the Old Country.
In Groshek's poem, incomprehensible modern underwear is folded by two generations:
Knuckles, sunmoled and marled,
lift panty after panty to the summer light:
red lace, black thong, silk bikini.
I can't make front or tail of these,
the old woman laughs
But laughter cannot save any of us:
To watch is to feel illness begin in you,
To know there is a day, however far,
When you will fail all you think you have become.
As Groshek read her poem at Bernie's, this tender, funny memory of her grandmother came alive. She left a fortunate audience with an elegy to the oldest generation fleeing a broken world.
This is literature, heard straight from the mouth that first spoke it. Writing the language down is the first step to a civilization's downfall, but reading aloud is a leap toward its salvation. Too often people forget that artful writing is not about public relations, but about relationships.
AQR was always interested in publishing work for the page and the stage, Spatz says, but now, no matter the work - fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, local or Outside, new or very old - it has a stage on First Fridays.
Many industries boast people who aim to build something for Alaska that will last longer than one lifetime. Impatient ambitions have killed more writing careers than syphilis, editors, and drug abuse combined. Yet ambition, private or public, is absolutely necessary to propel writing beyond forgettable. Thwarted ambition is one of the most painful things a literary person can endure, and many choose to have none rather than dare the hurt, but patient ambitions often lead to durable wonders.
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