Poems by local writers Emily Wall and Ernestine Hayes have been selected for permanent placement in Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan as part of the Alaska Center for the Book’s Poems in Place project. Wall’s poem, “This Forest, This Beach, You,” and Hayes’ poem, “The Spoken Forest,” will be installed on signage in Totem Bight later this summer during a formal dedication ceremony at the park.
Two poems were also selected for installation in the Chena River State Recreational Area near Fairbanks: Frank Soos’ “The Blue Fish,” and the late John Haines’ “Poem of the Forgotten.”
Poems in Place is designed to give voice to the Alaskan landscape through an original work of poetry by an Alaskan writer, while establishing a strong connection between poetry and place. The project also offers a way to bring poetry to people who may not normally read it, Wall said. Both Wall and Hayes are professors of English at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Wall’s poem, “This Forest, This Beach, You,” was written specifically for the site this past winter. Wall said that though composing a poem to reflect a particular park was a new experience for her, she’s used to writing poetry that reflects her love of where she lives.
“My poetry is very placed-based,” Wall said. “The natural world in general and Southeast Alaska in particular informs all my work.”
Wall has published two collections of poetry, “Liveaboard” and “Freshly Rooted.” She also heads up publication of the UAS literary journal, Tidal Echoes.
Hayes said her poem “The Spoken Forest,” is an excerpt from a longer work published a couple years ago in Tidal Echoes. The idea for the poem came to her while she was riding the bus to work, she said.
“It just occurred to me one time as I was going by the forest and the scenery, that the animals that live in the forest are holding our memories and our stories and our dances for us,” Hayes said.
That idea also extends to the totems of Totem Bight, Hayes said.
“The idea that they are holding everything for us … can be understood not only as the forest animals but also as the totems that are looking out onto the sea,” she said. “So I knew (the poem) would be appropriate (for the site).”
Hayes is best known for her prose; her memoir “Blond Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir” won the American Book Award in 2007. But she said the barriers between poetry and prose are largely blurred in her mind.
“Emily‘s the poet,” she said. “I like to flatter myself that I write lyrical prose that I then turn into verse, at times.”
Hayes said that she was flattered to be included in a group that includes poets Wall, Soos and Haines.
“Those are very impressive names and I’m humbled to be involved,” she said.
Wall agreed, adding that she’s been walking on air since getting the phone call a couple weeks ago.
”This is seriously the biggest thrill of my writing career,” she said.
The Poems in Place project is a collaboration between Alaska Center for the Book, Alaska State Parks, and a committee of writers and other Alaskans. The first installation, spearheaded by Homer writer Wendy Erd, was “What Whales and Infants Know” by Kim Cornwall at Beluga Point in Chugach State Park in 2011. The success of that poem-place pairing, reflected through public feedback, inspired Erd and others to expand the program to other areas of the state. Following this year’s installations at Totem Bight and Chena River, two new parks will be selected in 2014 and 2015.
A similar project launched in 1992 in Washington state has also proved quite popular. That installation was begun by two creative Forest Service rangers, Curtis Edwards and Sheela McLean. Charged with updating interpretive signage along the North Cascades National Scenic Highway, the rangers asked well-known poet William Stafford to contribute some place-based poems to accompany the signs, and he agreed. The seven plaques, a different kind of “interpretive” signage, were installed along the Methow River in 1994, the year after Stafford’s death.
In addition to setting a precedent, Stafford’s work is personally inspirational for Wall: she got to know the poet while she was in college in Oregon, and considers him a mentor. Her decision to write the Totem Bight poem in the second person is a nod to Stafford, she said, as his poems often directly address the reader in that way.
Erd said Poems of Place organizers plan to withhold publication of the winning poems until the formal dedication of the signs, likely in August. Thus far the project has been a huge success, she said.
“It’s really great, we got nearly 100 submissions from people all over,” she said of the most recent statewide call.
“And these are just wonderful poems.”
The project is supported by Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska Humanities Forum, Rasmuson Foundation, the Usibelli Foundation, the Alaska Poetry League, Alaska Center for the Book, and numerous individuals.
Information about the next round of poetry submissions will be posted later this year at www.alaskacenterforthebook.org/id112.html.