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“American Conversations” Travelogue: Alaska

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The following guest post is by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer in the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. 

Guy Lamolinara at the Snow City Cafe in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo by Rob Casper.

The beauty of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s “American Conversations” project is that it brings poetry to places most book tours—or tours of any nature—never reach.

The project kicked off August 27-29 with a whirlwind trip to three of Alaska’s five regions. To accomplish this, the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress worked closely with its affiliated state center. The Alaska Center for the Book and Alaska Humanities Forum reached out to the Kuskokwim Consortium Library and the Alaska State Library and Archives to help fill out our itinerary. Robert Casper, head of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, accompanied me on the trip, as well as a reporter from Smithsonian magazine and Tracy’s eight-year-old daughter, Naomi. All were first-timers to the state except for me—I traveled there in 2010 for a ceremony honoring one of the winners of the Letters About Literature reading and writing contest. On that trip I only traveled to Anchorage, the state’s largest city, and afterwards took a glacier cruise on Prince William Sound.

This time, the itinerary was far different. After landing in Anchorage, we drove 40 miles northeast to Palmer (population about 7,000), where we visited the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers Home. To a group of 20 gathered in a common area, the poet laureate began by talking about her belief that poetry connects people in a profound and personal way—no matter where they live. She then read a few of her own poems as well as poems from her new anthology, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, and asked the veterans how the poems made them feel. Silence. Uncomfortable silence. Tracy said later she is used to this and that sometimes she has to keep probing until someone is brave enough to make the first comment.

Leaving Napaskiak by boat. Photo by Guy Lamolinara.

And that a man did. Once he started, his eloquent comments flowed effortlessly. The same was true of the other respondents. Afterward, Tracy and her daughter introduced themselves to the veterans, some of whom suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and were unable to speak.

The next day, we flew 400 miles west to Bethel (population about 6,500) and from there a local guide took us on his speedboat about 30 miles farther west to the native villages of Napakiak (population about 350) and Napaskiak (population about 415), on the banks of the Kuskokwim River. In both villages we handed out copies of American Journal to the tribal offices and the schools and to whoever we ran into, such as a man who watched us sink into boot-sucking mud as we stepped on shore, and a boy and his younger sister who rode up to us on an ATV.

The Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel, Alaska, home to the Kuskokwim Consortium Library. Photo by Rob Casper.

That evening, back in Bethel, Tracy gave a reading at the Kuskokwim Consortium Library. The standing-room-only crowd of about 80—quite a turnout for a weeknight in a small town—included people of all ages, who were happy to get copies of the anthology as they sat down. A number of students sat in the front, and though they were at first shy about Tracy’s questions, they too warmed to the occasion. Not that our poet laureate didn’t have to work a little—she even ran with mic outstretched at one point, just to get a response!

The final day required a plane ride east to Juneau, the state capital (population about 32,000) and quite the change from Palmer and Bethel—giant cruise ships lined the Gastineau Channel, and the city’s downtown historic district was filled with tourists. During the day we visited the Johnson Youth Center, and Tracy spoke to about 20 youths from the center’s short-term detention and long-term treatment units. These two populations hadn’t met before, and there were nearly as many adults making sure all went smoothly. We handed out copies of the anthology to all present, and Tracy managed to get both youth and supervisors to respond to the poems.

Tracy K. Smith reads from American Journal at the APK in Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Mary Lou Gerbi.

The final event of the trip took place at the beautiful Alaska State Library and Archives. More than 160 people attended—so many that we ran out of copies of American Journal. As a result, we asked that anyone who didn’t receive a copy follow up with us—we wanted to make sure all had the opportunity to explore all 50 poems the poet laureate selected. The event began with a wonderful reception featuring Alaska State Writer Laureate Ernestine Hayes, and the event itself was recorded for later broadcast.

For me, this and the other “American Conversations” trips are an opportunity to make good on the connections I’ve had with our state Centers for the Book. Each year, we welcome state center representatives to the library for our annual ideas exchange and hear about their good work across the country; this year I’m grateful I can also travel to select states and see first-hand how that work matters. The “American Conversations” project also offers me the opportunity to travel to places I would never otherwise get to—and see how our affiliate centers champion books and reading to communities of all sizes, in every part of their states.

Stay tuned for more content from the Alaska trip on the “American Conversations” portal. Next stop: western South Dakota at the end of this week, October 5-6.