Yeah Write | Reading Spring in the Woods
I migrated back to McCarthy on the second of the month. It had only been five weeks since I was last out, but it had—no surprise—completely changed. The snow was gone. The air was warm. The road’s notable features were no longer “glaciers”—frozen, blistered, sketchy overflow—but animals: several dozen mostly-turned snowshoe hares, piles of trumpeter swans, some moose. The road was half-blocked near the end by a mudslide, but that felt like an improved old road’s mere gesture back to its younger, burlier days.
At the cabin, the water, oils, vinegars, contact solution, hand soap, and the rest were already liquid, not in need of a good woodstove-induced thawing. Unlike arrival in March, starting a fire was not the first order of business.
Thousands of Alaskans migrate seasonally between habitats. Splitting one’s time between two places can split one’s attention, in some respects. That’s the hazard but also the benefit of habitual seasonality… your presence in a place may be twinned by absence, but that negative space lends perspective. I usually spend more time thinking about McCarthy from Anchorage in the winter than I spend thinking about Anchorage from McCarthy in the summer. This endeavor of keeping weekly touch from here will help bridge that divide.
This column is meant to focus on the literary arts and culture scene around Anchorage, and I’ll obviously miss out on some front-row action from out here… like the North by North Festival, and the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Awards ceremony, and CIRQUE journal’s silent auction this month at Great Harvest, and the UAA low residency creative writing program’s reading series, and on and on.
One gamble in physically migrating is guessing at what books to pack. Some books live permanently here at the cabin. Some stay in Anchorage. Some come and go, and beyond the definite must-reads of summertime, there’s guesswork around what I’ll end up wanting to have on hand. There is pleasure in curating that aspirational pile, though, sussing out differences between stuff I know I’ll read and stuff I hope I’ll get around to reading and stuff I might just want to reference and stuff I know I won’t read here, but just want around for anticipation’s sake, I guess, certain I’ll read it next winter.
I don’t usually read ebooks and don’t own a Kindle. I’m a physical books man. Still, it felt fitting that the first cover-to-cover read of the summer was an electronic version of a mini-book of “Twitter poems”. The compilation of lineated tweets by @AKU-MATU, titled “Taimanisaaq/Akkupak /Long Long Time Ago/Right Now”, is being published by the Anchorage Museum as part of the North by North Festival in the Polar Lab Mini Book series. Available in hard copy starting on May 13, poems from the book will also be installed throughout the Museum.
North by North is one part of the Week of the Arctic, a series of events in Fairbanks and Anchorage celebrating and concluding the two-year U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council and the chairmanship’s transition to Finland.
AKU-MATU is the rapping moniker for Allison Akootchook Warden, an Iñupiaq interdisciplinary artist born in Fairbanks who lives in Anchorage. She has close ties to Kaktovik. The name blends two of Warden's Iñupiaq names, Akootchook (from Warden’s Amau, or great-grandfather) and Matumeak (from her Attata, or great-uncle, who was known for composing original songs). Her performance installation, "Unipkaaġusiksuġuvik (the place of the future/ancient)" debuted at the Anchorage Museum in October 2016. Warden was physically present in the installation, an “Iñupiaq ceremonial house that exists in the space between the hyper-future and the super-ancient”, for about 390 hours over two months. She received a 2015 Rasmuson Fellowship and a 2016 Art Matters grant to support the work.
Warden identifies installation art as her preferred discipline, but is perhaps best known for her rap and performance. She’s appeared internationally, sometimes before thousands of people. Increasingly, she’s identifying as a writer, too… having co-written a play, her raps, of course, and the Twitter poems. She has a novel in progress and just wrapped up a residency at Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California. Djerassi welcomes artists across disciplines, and Warden’s was billed as a creative writing residency.
On her website, Warden says “I write twitter poems as I nurture and love my 85,000 twitter followers. I love the challenge of 140 characters and the space of billions of people, connecting all at once.” She’s quoted in Grist saying one goal of hers is to get more Twitter followers than Sarah Palin. She’s getting there.
The mini-book’s introduction says the poems tell “stories in 140 characters or less. Stories of colonization and resistance, stories of animals, spirits, stories of staking out sacred ground and stoking the fire at its center.” She began writing the poems in Spring 2014 on the way to her grandmother’s funeral, it says, (though a few are dated late 2013, mostly self-reflexive apostrophes to would-be readers by a tweeter who was warming up, then, to the task ahead).
Like everything coming out of the Museum over the last few years, the book is beautifully designed. Each spread includes the time, date, and character count of the tweet on the left page, and the Twitter poem on the right. The poems—which mostly clock in right at or near the 140-character limit of the “form”—are not presented chronologically. The book is organized as a book of poems must be—with a sense of progression, a lyric or narrative arc evincing some organizational intent or awareness.
Reading it in a single sitting, one is struck with the immediacy of the tweet form, the raw or intimate presentation that social media allows. These aren’t aloof poems for elites. The capture of the tweets on the page, in a book, imports something of Twitter’s ephemeral veneer and democratic inclusiveness while also transmuting them into something greater than a sum of parts. The book—mini or otherwise, like the poems—also reminds us how tweets are anything but ephemeral (as Trump and others keep demonstrating). She uses the medium to address her varied audiences, her ancestors, and her present community. It’s earnest and funny, succinct but expansive, heartbroken and hopeful. The book’s a concentrate, a juice pressed from one indigenous contemporary artist’s concerns for all the ways the deep past changes into what happens and what comes.
Allison Warden performs at the “Reading and Exhibiting Nature” conference at the University of Westminster, 2014. Photo: Jeremy Pataky