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  • Jeremy Pataky

Notes after the '16 Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference

I actually tried, like a fool, not to attend the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference this year. McCarthy, Alaska is a long way from Homer. Fourteen hours of driving each way, barring calamity, distraction, or accident. Too far, I told myself, too much time away from my summer habitat, too many books I would buy, I thought, after too much traveling in the last couple years, anyway. Too many RVs on the summer roads and too much of Alaska's writing population all in one place, sitting ducks eyeballing volcanoes and geologic faults and tsunamious waves and tourists and hungry, cheeky, monster eagles. Better to stay home.

I tried to resist. Fortunately, failure knows best, sometimes. I was sold hook, line, sinker, rod, reel. It really was a poet's year, like Erin Hollowell said, this time around. And it was especially a year for us poets who "also write sentences." Dan Beachy-Quick was back in Alaska, alongside Alison Hawthorne Deming, Forrest Gander, Richard Hoffman, and Pulitzer-winning keynote Natasha Tretheway, not to mention our own keystones, like Peggy Shumaker and Frank Soos, currently serving generously as the State Writer Laureate. The rest of the faculty—visiting and returning alike—was likewise awesome. So I buyers-remorselessly signed up.

It was my charmed third time at the conference—I first went in 2006 (seems like a lot more than ten years ago) on scholarship (thanks, again!), possibly as the youngest participant that year. I struggled to keep my old tent upright on the beach in strong winds and finally retreated to my Jeep to sleep. It was an amazing time that sparked lasting connections. I met Olena Kalytiak Davis, Jonas Lamb, Eva Saulitis, and others for the first time—new friendships that fortunately stuck. Still, I didn't make it back again till last year, when I was lucky to be invited as faculty (thanks, again!) after Overwinter's release. I had a great time, road-worn though I was from a couple months of traveling, teaching, and giving readings.

This year—this 15th anniversary year—seemed particularly remarkable. Poetic, even, in the sense that poems contain multiple forms of intelligence, as Dan Beachy-Quick observed. The braided conversations we all immersed ourselves in, drank from, and floated down were rife with reminders, revelations, and camaraderie. There were serious moments and ideas, and much consideration given to that basic question—why? (in a world of when?)—as framed by Dr. Jim Johnsen, President of University of Alaska, in his opening remarks. There were laughs and tears in abundance. Some tears came from laughter (cue Sherry Simpson: "no coon dongs for you!") and some from grief. We lost many and much, this year, and the collective loss was palpable, at times. Also palpable, and counter to loss, was our shared caring and a sense of genuine community.

Perhaps one unifying principle that several faculty members spoke to has to do with how good writing is symptomatic of a genuine engagement with the world. The things we write aren't the end that writing is entirely interested in, necessarily. Also at stake is the ability to ask useful questions, to live attentively. Alison Hawthorne Deming remembered our own John Haines' explanation: "I write in order to understand the terms of my existence." Nancy Lord described writing as an "excuse" to learn new things. Sherry Simpson admitted that she's not producing much new writing at the moment, but she's actively learning her new New Mexican world in a writerly way, one that no doubt will yield some writing in due time: "the world is teaching me a new grammar and I am learning a new syntax of me," she said. That harkens a bit to Dan Beachy-Quick's idea that "what you have to do in life is make the mind you can live with." Writers are mind-makers (even if we don't always excel at making up our minds).

Hearing Frank Soos joke and talk about how slow his writing process is also sent me away with a certain ease of mind. With company like that, it's a little easier to accept my own slow pace without tripping on my feet trying to go faster.

I left the conference buoyed by new friends, great memories, many new books to read and ideas to consider, and more filled pages in my notebook than I thought. I even learned at least one new word: gurry. How’ve I lived and written here this long without it?

On one of the panels, Richard Hoffman said that a writer “has a relationship with the becoming text. It's something you enter into." I think that’s true, in all its facets. I left Homer reminded, too, that we also enter writing in relationship with becoming communities of fellow writers, including those we know only by way of the page. I left reminded that all writing, like good laughs or cries, embodies a communal endeavor and concern, even when their context is solitude.

The next Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is set for June 9-13th, 2017 and features Pulitzer Prize winning keynote novelist Jane Smiley. This post originally appeared on the 49 Writers, Inc. blog.


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