Closed-circuit writing: In search of the Juneau literary scene

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2010

There's certainly no shortage of artistic expressiveness in Juneau. Historical Alaska Native art shares space with contemporary works all over town; even Fred Meyer has totem poles as part of its façade. There are plays and indie films continually in our theaters, from Douglas to the Valley. Photographers and other visual artists have catalogued every bald eagle and glacial crevasse available in myriad media.

So where are the creative writers in all this?

The local conditions seem ideal for the craft: An eclectic population dwelling in a David Lynch municipality nestled between mountain and sea, perpetually shrouded in clouds. The climate alone could create novels - without foul weather we would not have "Frankenstein." With a sharper lens, it can be seen clearly that the hills of Juneau are in fact lousy with writers, if you know where to look.

One such enclave is the Focus Critique Group. Organizer Burn Thompson says the group has been around for four years and that up to eight people show up for the Monday meetings, held at 6 p.m. in a library conference room. Once gathered, they read and workshop each other's pieces.

Thompson cited Juneau as being inspirational in her own writing, and believes the city's remoteness is an asset to the craft.

"Juneau's mountains and water along with architecture, plants and animal life have all influenced my work," she said. "The isolation of Juneau seems to have fostered a closeness among writers here."

Edward Hoch, a recent addition to the Focus Critique Group, said it has been an important contact in town.

"It's been a great experience, meeting local writers and getting some really well-considered feedback on my writing," he said.

An erstwhile auroral physicist, Hoch recently relocated from Fairbanks, and he is still absorbing the city as a newcomer.

"So far, Juneau has only inspired one poem" he said. "But in general I spend a lot of time here just standing still and taking in the scenery. I was born and raised in Fairbanks, a place both flat and dry. Juneau is neither of those things, and every day I am presented with sights and sounds that until recently had existed for me only in movies and picture books. Even simple things, like whitecaps and mountain mist, I find mysterious and inspiring. Eventually, the wonder will diminish and Juneau will find its way into my writing."

Poet Emily Wall, assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast, said she found a profound muse for her writing upon her arrival in town.

"Juneau felt very redemptive to me," she said. "I suspect there are many others who have moved here for similar reasons. There is a purity, and a sense of possibility here, that I've never found anywhere else. The work I'm doing now is about the stories of those I know in town; I'm really interested in the average, everydayness of those of us who choose to live in this extraordinary place."

Wall, one of many local authors you can find on the shelves of Hearthside Books, said that UAS provides an outlet for Juneau writers both in and outside of the classroom.

"The students at UAS have created an open mic series that's been a lot of fun," she said. "They generally hold one a month and it's been interesting to see how many writers show up - both from town and campus. There's a lot more writers-especially poets-in this town than you might think. At the last reading someone read a moving poem about their father; some else beat out a song on his bare chest - another person performed a short story, standing on a table. It's always entertaining and inspiring."

Ernestine Hayes, fellow UAS assistant professor and author of "Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir," says she feels strongly attached to Juneau, both personally and professionally.

"Juneau is my hometown and is featured prominently in most of my writing," she said. "In my other writing, its presence is less overt but no less important."

Hayes says there are many manifestations of literary arts throughout the city.

"As I'm something of a homebody, most of my knowledge [of the literary scene] comes from my work at UAS and the local news," she said. "It's clear, though, that efforts undertaken by the city library, local bookstores, Poetry Omnibus, Silverbow, UAS, the Empire and other forums add much vigor to the literary arts scene here in Juneau."

Juneau's literary arts scene is still a work in progress. Each new writer that is tagged and identified adds depth and variety to our microcosm, and it seems this will only continue to cultivate more emerging works of staggering genius. The closed-circuit of road we live on, after all, does not seem to hold back the creative drive.

Anyone coming into contact with a creative writer can approach without caution. They are generally not aggressive, though they can and will appropriate your likeness with impunity. Unlike the other Alaskan fauna, you may feel free to feed them. They are usually hungry, and as a rule will never turn down a free lunch.

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