Neither Rudolph nor jambalaya
I have to admit that when I first started teaching in the low-residency MFA in writing at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, I experienced massive culture shock. It wasn’t just the reindeer jambalaya in the dining hall. I’d spent my childhood and half my adult life in apartments in New York City. More recently I’d lived in San Francisco. I was used to high-rises, museums with troves of world art, and Zagat-rated evenings.
When I first started teaching in Alaska, I struck up a conversation in the dining hall with a nonfiction student. I asked her where she lived.
“On an island off the coast of Alaska,” she described. “It’s about the size of Manhattan.”
“And how many people live there?”
That flummoxed me. How could I relate to a state where there are more mountains than skyscrapers, more rivers than restaurants?
I think it was the field trips that started to win me over. We traveled as a group to a stream in a huge park within Anchorage, and I got to see salmon spawning, their final act before they expired. I witnessed the underwater dance of a female after she had let loose her roe, coaxing a male to cover the eggs with a mist of milt.
Another time we hiked in the Chugach National Forest on a glacier that was a blue I’d never seen before, so spectral it glowed. I got to hike alongside faculty member Nancy Lord, then the Alaska writer laureate, who explained that the brilliant magenta flowers springing up along rushing run-off were called fireweed because they were the first to reappear after a forest fire.
But even more than the landscapes of far-greater-than-IMAX proportion and beauty, I got to like the Alaskans themselves. I’ve come to admire their heartiness and positive outlook. In San Francisco, we start oozing self-pity as soon as the temperature sinks below 50 degrees. You rarely hear an Alaskan complain about one of the longest and darkest winters on earth.
In the small towns of Alaska, playing an instrument, telling a good story or joke, writing and reading work aloud, are all survival skills that are more valued and cultivated than in many urban or suburban circles. The students in Alaska also have life experience to burn.
Northern Renaissance Reading audience
Many people in Alaska also appreciate literature. When Program Director David Stevenson announced at the first summer residency that we were going to have a public reading every single night, I thought it was going to be a marketing disaster. If you did that in New York or San Francisco, the audience would quickly dwindle to nil. But in Anchorage, a good audience turned out every night, partly because many Alaskans, who spend long winters indoors, really treasure good books and readers.
Much to my surprise, I’ve come to love Alaska. I look forward all year to the twelve-day residency that the students, faculty, and staff spend together in Anchorage, with its camaraderie, intense discussions of literature, memorable readings, and late-night outings to the Blue Fox bar. This program is that rarest of creatures, a true literary community. And I’ve even come to welcome those meals when the menu features reindeer jambalaya.
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