Who gets to write about it?

Sunrise through new snow on the Cottowood. (4/1)

It’s always good to examine your strong emotions. Recently, I’ve read two poems that feature Alaska written by poets that have only visited for less than a week. Two poems that are in anthologies and being publicly lauded. They are good poems by great poets, but both of them reinforce a vision of Alaska that has little nuance. Because nuance comes from existing in a place for more than a week. The poems made me angry. Like hornets in my head angry.

The anger comes from the fact that there are so many fine writers who live in Alaska who never get the opportunity to be chosen by a “famous” poet to be in an anthology. And lest I sound too altruistic, I’m also disappointed for myself, for the poet me who has lived in Alaska for 24 years and can write about things that someone who only visited cannot.

Which is where the self-examination comes in, because remember I’ve been working on a project that takes place in Ireland. I was there for two weeks last November doing research, getting a boots-on-the-ground level of immersion that was meant to help me give authenticity to the work.

I haven’t written a single poem in that series since I returned. I learned while I was there that it isn’t enough to know what plants grow along the side of the road, to write honestly about it, you must have a storied relationship with those plants. More than two weeks can give you. More than a four-day trip. 

But here’s where it gets slippy. I mean, how much connection is connection? How long do you have to live someplace to form a true relationship that goes beyond extractive? 

I have a friend who is writing an elegant essay about this and I’m going to point you all to it whenever she finishes and some smart publication picks it up. 

But for now, I realize that my project in Ireland is on indefinite hold. And I know that I’m looking more deeply at the poems that I am writing to make sure that they’re not extractive, but rather storied. That I’m not deep in the groove of some trope or more importantly, not seeing what’s actually there because I’m seeing the glossy layer of what has already been said about what should be there.

I guess I’m not angry anymore (or maybe just a little). I am just very disappointed that the writers in Alaska are not getting the opportunity for their work to reach a larger audience, I think I’m even more disappointed for readers who are not getting to see this amazing place through the eyes of people who live here, who have a storied relationship with it, who can show it in its true complexity. 

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