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  • Jeremy Pataky

Yeah Write | Rewriting the Literary Landscape

A Conversation with Joan Naviyuk Kane on the new Sherman Alexie Scholarship

Strong ties across culture and the arts link Alaska and New Mexico. A major force behind that is the Institute of American Indian Arts. The school serves over 600 Native and non-Native American college students from across the globe, including many Alaskans. Anchorage-based poet Joan Naviyuk Kane serves on the faculty of IAIA’s only graduate-level program, their Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing program, and they just announced a significant new scholarship for Alaska Native, First Nations, and Native American writers.

The first annual Sherman Alexie Scholarship will award $30,000 ($7,500 per semester for four semesters) to a native writer. That completely covers tuition with $6,000 remaining to help cover travel, lodging, books, and meals during the five residencies in Santa Fe. The low-residency model makes it possible to earn a professional degree in creative writing while living at home and continuing to participate in work, family, and community. Students and faculty mentors gather twice a year for an intensive week of workshops, classes, lectures, readings, and individual conferences. At the end of the first week, each student is matched with a faculty mentor who works one-on-one with them for the 16-week semester. The application deadline—May 24—is less than three weeks away.

Joan Naviyuk Kane’s fourth book, Milk Black Carbon, was recently released. She’s ascended in the international eye as a preeminent contemporary poet. I asked her some questions about this new opportunity for Alaska Native writers to pursue a professional degree in screenwriting, fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction with full funding.

JP: What characterizes the IAIA creative writing MFA program? How might it be a good fit for prospective Alaska Native grad students? What about non-native students?

JNK: There's no place quite like IAIA. For centuries, the dominant culture has been hell-bent on our erasure, assimilation, marginalization, disappearance. It's amazing to self-determinedly make a future through artistic practice, through our minds and beings.

The woke non-Native student, like the Native student, will write their ass off for two years AND work with their mentors and other program faculty to revise and prepare their work for publication. And if they can manage not to fuck up their workshops by shedding white tears, they will learn more from their cohort than even the most closely-embedded anthro type could have ever learned 200 years ago.

JP: When did you join IAIA's creative writing MFA faculty, and what does that work entail?

JNK: I joined just at the end of the program’s first semester, in January of 2014. The semesters, ideally, are fast-paced and challenging. I like to invest at least five hours a week in each of my students every semester, which may not sound like a lot, but I don’t know of many institutions that provide that kind of one-on-one attention. We read and discuss eight books in a semester, in addition to weekly theory, craft, and creative writing exercises. I like to work with students to develop a reading list that best supports their work and process.

JP: How is Sherman Alexie connected with the program, and what new opportunities exist for Alaska Native, Native American, and First Nations writers?

JNK: Like most of our continuing faculty, Sherman is and has been incredibly generous with his support of the program and our deserving writers in all respects. First, as founding faculty and program benefactor, and then, as someone who gives a tremendous amount of his time, attention, connections, and presence to our students, faculty, and guests during our semi-annual residencies and the semesters and workshops/events between them. His craft talks and readings at residencies are not to be missed. I think two of our recent alums, Tommy Orange (whose first book “There, There” was purchased for upwards of six figures and will be out from Knopf shortly) and Terese Mailhot (whose first book, “Heartberries”, which will be out from Counterpoint this winter, will have a foreword by Sherman and an afterword by me), can best attest to Sherman’s devotion to our charge of rewriting the literary landscape. The opportunities are manifold for writers who want to be part of the IAIA MFA, particularly with the new Sherman Alexie scholarship: you get to attend one of the few global indigenous powerhouses of art and culture, to contribute to its decades-long legacy, and if you get the Sherman Alexie scholarship, your tuition AND expenses are paid for the duration of grad school.

JP: Sherman Alexie hasn't been to Anchorage since this time of year in 2001. Rumor has it he might be heading back up here soon—any insight on that?

JNK: Sherman’s memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, will be published this summer. He is scheduled to be in Anchorage in September. For anyone who attended his last Alaskan reading way back in 2001, you know that it was one of the bright lights of literary and cultural events here in Anchorage. This reading will be even better, even if it is during moose-hunting/late-berrying season.

JP: I've been to the IAIA campus myself a couple times, and noted the presence of many Alaskan undergrads there. Have many Alaskans participated yet in the MFA program, the sole IAIA graduate-level program, and what would you say to Native writers who might be weighing the chance to apply?

JNK: Alaska's educational system has historically failed Native students. It doesn't seem particularly likely to change, given the economic outlook and mind-bogglingly incompetent political leadership... and anyhow, AK is pretty overcolonial these days.

IAIA MFA provides time, space, and structure for your writing and work. Our alumni are already meeting with great success in career and creative work. We graduate our third class on Saturday, May 13th. Each year we've had graduates who currently live in or have in Alaska.

Our core faculty includes Sherwin Bitsui, Melissa Febos, Santee Frazier, Sydney Freeland, Pam Houston, Migizi Pensoneau, Ismet Prcic, Eden Robinson, David Treuer, Ken White, and Lidia Yuknavitch.

JP: Congrats on being selected as the current Lannan Residency Fellow, a huge honor, and just the latest in a long list of awards signaling the immense talent, intellect, heart, and hard work you bring to the page. What are you working on now?

JNK: I’m just wrapping up a year of judging the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry— indisputably the most generous poetry prize in the world— which awards international and Canadian prizes of $200K each June, and I am postponing from moment to moment the book tour for my fourth book, “Milk Black Carbon”. And I would not be alive as a poet if I didn’t grow up in Muldoon in the shadow of the Chugach Mountains, waiting for the People Mover to ferry me between school, Youth Symphony, XC running meets, and my jobs in downtown Anchorage. I see my family, favorite teachers and old friends every day of the week. I'm a part of a new cultural collective, Alaska Collaborative Media, and hope to announce new programming and projects that we are producing here in Alaska.

Sometimes I get to write. And I know and hope that there are people writing here who bring their own sense of home to the page. I hope we can have more books that speak to and of our experiences as indigenous people. I hope that some who’ve read this will consider IAIA and the light it brings. I’m lucky to raise my kids in Anchorage near my family and community. And I’m lucky to teach at an institution that continues to empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and cultures through higher education.

Jeremy Pataky is the author of “Overwinter” and executive director of 49 Writers, Inc. He migrates between Anchorage and McCarthy, Alaska.


Top: Joan Naviyuk Kane signs her latest book at a 49 Writers Crosscurrents event in February 2017. Photo: Jeremy Pataky Bottom: Incoming IAIA MFA '18 cohort and graduating IAIA MFA '17 cohort with program faculty and guests. July 2016. Courtesy of IAIA


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