Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference continues to inspire writers, readers and poets

by cmmyers  |   

Every year as spring gives way to summer in Alaska, authors, writers, poets and those who have a passion for the literary arts trek from across the state and the country, and descend upon the scenic arts and fishing town of Homer for the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference (KBWC). Organized by the Kachemak Bay Campus, the four-day event is held at the Land's End Resort and offers attendees an extra long weekend of writing, workshops, seminars and public readings - all against the stunning backdrop of Kachemak Bay, where land and mountains meet the sea.

"It's a literary sanctuary for everyone to have a shared experience around creative writing," said Carol Swartz, KBWC's founder and director of UAA's Kenai Peninsula College, Kachemak Bay Campus (KBC). "It's a writers' conference that focuses on literary arts. People who enjoy literature, reading literature, writing - come together for these four days to learn about the craft of writing and discuss the role of literature in our cultures and country."

Swartz, who's helmed KBC for the past 32 years, started the conference in 2001. Now in its 17th year, the conference has earned a reputation as one of the more prestigious writing conferences to attend. From its inception, the conference has brought up authors and poets well known in the literary world, as well as writers and authors in the Alaska community. Along with others, Swartz began the conference because she saw the need to carve out a creative space for Alaska's writers to come together and share their ideas. Before the creation of KBWC, there had been a handful of writing conferences scattered across the state, but some of those conferences started losing steam as organizers moved on to new projects.

Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference keynote Anthony Doerr spoke about the importance of failure when writing. (Photo courtesy of Carol Swartz)

"The faculty is always fabulous," said Swartz. Each year there's a faculty group of about 16, both from Alaska and out of state that present the workshops, seminars and panels at the conference. Additionally, Swartz says she brings up an editor and publisher to help those better understand the publishing process, query letters and how to develop a book concept. "There's a lot in the conference for every writer at every stage in his or her career. A lot of people come who aren't even really writers - they're thinking about writing in the future or they just enjoy the readings, workshops and being with writers."

This year's keynote speaker, Anthony Doerr, novelist, short story essayist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the critically acclaimed novel, All the Light You Cannot See, presented an address about writing and artistic failure, as well as a public reading and book signing at Homer's Mariner Theatre.

Swartz said that the conference has always attracted novelists and poets, all well known within the literary community, but admits that the big names like Doerr, Billy Collins, Amy Tan or Tobias Wolff do attract a larger crowd. She added that, despite the many new authors that come up, the conference does have its regular participants, some who have attended since it began.

"About 49 percent of the people come back year after year and the age range is 17 to 80 from all walks of life," Swartz said. "Several of the people who have attended were so inspired that they applied to UAA's Master of Fine Arts program."

She said the conference is a great way to connect with UAA's low-residency M.F.A program. Many of the university's M.F.A students come to the conference to hone their skills and dip their feet into Alaska's literary community and culture.

Faculty from coast to coast

Nancy Lord, former Alaska Writer Laureate and adjunct faculty at KBC, has lived in Homer for 45 years and has been involved in KBWC as a faculty member since the beginning. According to Lord, she's only missed one year in the conference's 17 year run.

"It's been really fun to have been involved from the beginning, to see it develop and to see the whole Alaskan writing community develop right along with it," Lord said.

What Lord enjoys about the conference is that it caters to "every writer at any stage" in their career. This year she hosted two workshops, one that focused on narrative science writing, and the second, "Created Personas," which taught writers how to present themselves as the narrator in a piece of fiction or nonfiction work. Lord says she hosts workshops every year ranging in a wide variety of topics and enjoys getting creative in what she teaches each year.

Barbara Hurd, a faculty member in Vermont College of Fine Arts' M.F.A. in Writing Program flew across the country to serve on the KBWC faculty. She is a poet who has published eight books and has recently switched primarily to writing lyric essays, which are focused on themes of nature.

"It's been a wonderful adventure," said Hurd of being invited to join this year's faculty. She remembered thinking when Swartz emailed her with an invitation to attend, that going to Alaska was crazy because it was so far from her home in Maryland. But, she said there was no way she was not going to go. Hurd had heard of KBWC before and believes it has a growing reputation - even as far as the East Coast. She was impressed by the top notch writers of conferences past and was excited to be included in this year's event.

"To be here when Anthony Doerr is here, that's just a wonderful honor," Hurd said. "I think it is a growing conference and I was told that they are attracting more and more out-of-state folks."

Hurd presented two different workshops at the conference, one titled, "Literary Bonzai," which explored short form writing and how to take a longer piece and trim it down to smaller bit-size snippets. Her second workshop, "Obstacles," challenged writers to purposefully create literary blocks in their writing path to push them beyond their usual comfort zones.

"We all get into ruts - thinking the same way and writing similarly about familiar topics that we're comfortable with - and it's hard to suddenly be more innovative than we've been," said Hurd. "Sometimes it takes somebody throwing down something across our writerly path to get us out of our ruts."

Hurd is no stranger to Alaska. It's her fourth trip to the state, but she had never been to Homer and said that this trip takes the cake.

Looking forward

Swartz is excited for KBWC to continue to provide a program of excellence and an engaging opportunity for Alaska's writing community to come together in an inspirational setting to share their creative ideas and writing, as well as network with writers from the Lower 48. She said a large part of the conference's ongoing success has been the support of the Homer and greater Alaska community. Although she is the main conference organizer, she says the event would not be possible without the helping hands of many from the university, granting agencies, individual donors, local businesses and corporate sponsors. She's happy that the Alaska community recognizes the important role the literary arts serves in our society and to its economic and cultural development.

"There are many goals of the conference, to expand writers' skills in writing, opportunities for writers, readers and teachers to learn new techniques, to strengthen the writing community in Alaska and overall to inspire people to read and write," Swartz said.

Did you miss this year's conference? Save the date for June 14-18, 2019, when Pulitzer Prize finalist poet, nonfiction essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman will serve as the 18th conference's keynoter.  For more information on the Kachemak Bay Writers' 2019 Conference, visit http://writersconf.kpc.alaska.edu.

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