The University of Alaska Southeast will host their first community poetry reading on Friday, as part of the Sound & Motion series of events and lectures. The event was organized by the UAS Media Club, in collaboration with UAS marketing director Katie Bausler and UAS communications professor and poet Jenifer Vernon.
The event, organized to coincide with the beginning of National Poetry Month, in April, will feature work from 18 local poets, including Vernon.
UAS Media Club member Daniel Peterson said the criteria for poets was minimal: a five-minute time limit and subject matter appropriate for audience members of all ages.
“We figured if they could be brave enough to share their thoughts in front of an entire audience, they must think it’s worth sharing,” he said. “It’s not our place to impose a theme, or even to rate the poems based on quality — which is so difficult to define anyway. We wanted the voice of the poets themselves to come out, not our own ideas of what poetry should be.”
Other student organizers were James Kelleher and Clara Miller. Peterson and Miller will be the MCs for the night.
The students asked for submissions from the community earlier this month. Other poets in addition to Vernon will be Michael Christensen, Kate Laster and DJ Derago, all of whom participate in the Woosh Kinaadeiyí poetry slams organized every month by Christy NaMee Eriksen and Na Haan, Student poets, including Kelleher, are also planning to participate.
The community reading gives locals a chance to become familiar with their neighbors’ work -- and to see it performed, which is an important aspect of the genre, Peterson said.
“Before novels, before prose, before any of that, Western literature was comprised solely of poetry. And the earliest books that we know about in the Western World — Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc. — were adapted from the oral tradition. Our entire written language is rooted in oral story telling. So performance is key.”
The UAS Media Club, which was formed a couple years ago by Vernon, also hosts a weekly radio show, a connection established with help from KXLL program director Andy Kline. The show, which airs from 5-7 p.m. on Sundays on KXLL, often includes poetry as part of the week’s programming, Peterson said.
“We’ve read poems by Richard Dauenhauer -- a former Alaska State Poet Laureate whom I’ve taken a poetry class from, Sheila Nickerson -- also a former Poet Laureate who lives in Washington now, Ken Waldmen, Namee Eriksen, Lauren Haight -- she’s a friend of mine -- and Joseph Enzweiler. Lately on the show we’ve been pre-recording poems over music and airing them right after a station ID.”
The show also explores the link between poetry and lyrics, recently welcoming Woosh Kinaadeiyí co-organizer Na Haan, who performed an on-air rap, inspiring Peterson to try on-air freestyle himself.
Other inspirational local poets for Peterson include Kate Laster, Grace Lumba and Richard Stokes.
“(Stokes) writes about the urban landscape of Juneau in a particular way that I really relate to,” Peterson said.
Vernon is also a major source of encouragement and inspiration, he said.
Vernon, who is now working on her second book of poetry, does not teach poetry classes at UAS– she’s a communications professor and media club adviser – but she said as someone who is very interested in both poetry and media, she tends to look for the connections between all forms of communication.
“For me media is any communicative form ... and poetry is an arful form of communication.”
The link between the UAS Media Club and poetry was also a result of participants’ natural interest in the form.
“The first year we did it the members all happened to write poetry too,” she said.
Vernon’s communications classes also include elements that overlap with the performative aspects of poetry, such as public speaking and an open-mic type activity, which she has found to be very popular with the students.
“It’s a fun way to try your hand at poetry and try your hand at resonating with an audience, to get under their skin,” she said.
Still, she acknowledges there is a difference between teaching communications classes and writing poetry.
“It works a different part of my brain. My treat is writing poetry -- that’s like my ice cream.”
Vernon’s first book of poems, “Rock Candy,” was published in 2009, soon after she arrived in Juneau. In a review of the book, local writer Jonas Lamb said: “Evocative of performance poetry and the oral tradition, Vernon’s words rise up off the page as if spoken by a cast of readers. Using simple phrasing and structure, and strong repetition of vernacular dialog, bible verse and national pledges, she calls forth central themes of distrust and vulnerability.”
Vernon is now at work on her second book. She said her life as an Alaskan has worked its way into her writing -- as well as her recent experience in becoming a mother. She is currently still in the writing phase of the book project.
“I’m just going to collect and edit and then see what themes emerge, and then see if there’s some kind of narrative structure I can hang it all on. I find that really rewarding.”
Vernon will read one of her new works Friday night.
The Community Poetry reading begins at 7 p.m. in the Egan Lecture Hall at UAS. For more information, visit www.uas.alaska.edu/sound_motion.