• Jeremy Pataky

Yeah Write | Ten Years of the Northern Renaissance Reading Series


For ten consecutive Julys in McCarthy, I’ve felt a certain kind of FOMO that recurs Groundhog Day-style. It’s not so much a fear, though, but a resigned certainty (COMO?) that I’ll miss out on the annual Northern Renaissance Arts & Sciences Reading Series. For nine nights each year, the University of Alaska Anchorage Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing welcomes the public to join its faculty and students for a fantastic lineup of nightly readings featuring a wide array of authors and genres. Sometimes I manage to catch a night or two here and there—like Gary Snyder’s keynote address one year, and a powerful reading by Eva Saulitis another.

This year, the series runs July 9-18th, headlined by the renowned essayist Jo Ann Beard, who appears Saturday, July 15th. Her essay "The Fourth State of Matter" is considered by Robert Atwan, who edits the Best American Essay Series, to be one of the ten most outstanding essays written since 1950. The events are popular—often drawing audiences of 100 people or so—and worth slating in between fishing runs, peak bagging, and out-of-state-guest-guiding.

The MFA is a 45-credit degree program taken over a three-year period. The readings are one feature of the MFA program’s 12-day-long July Residency, an intensive convening that gathers far-flung faculty and students together three times during the graduate track. Course work—otherwise done via distance—culminates in book-length creative theses in fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry, accompanied by critical essays and annotated bibliographies. Students “work toward a mastery of craft, read classic works that define the evolution of their genre, and develop skills to balance the demands of life with the discipline of writing.” The reading series is a fantastic opportunity for anyone in the public to meet famous writers and inject a solid dose of inspiration into their Alaskan summer.

This will be the tenth residency session for the “new” low-residency program, which evolved from UAA’s old traditional residential MFA program that was more akin to UAF’s program, the other creative writing MFA program in Alaska. The low-res program attracts students from the Lower 48 and from all over Alaska, with students hailing from our urban hubs as well as Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel, Haines, and more.

While they work from home, wherever it may be, independently and through correspondence with mentors, the chance to gather face to face is “the exhausting and exhilarating highlight of the year.” During the residency session, students and faculty “establish a sense of community that sustains them throughout the rest of the year.”

Since its inception, the low-res program has been directed by David Stevenson. He’s taught creative writing for over twenty years at the University of Utah, University of California Davis, and at Western Illinois University, where he was full professor and director of the Graduate Program in English. He was educated in the west at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (BA '78) and the University of Utah (PhD '94). He writes often about the mountaineering experience in fiction and nonfiction and has published widely in journals like Ascent, Alpinist, Isotope, and Weber Studies, and in The American Alpine Journal, where he’s edited book reviews since 1996. His first full-length book of fiction, Letters from Chamonix, was published in 2014, followed by his latest, Warnings Against Myself: Meditations on a Life in Climbing, in 2016. That collection of 21 essays covers three decades of his time in mountains both in and out of Alaska.

I suppose spending time in my Wrangell-St. Elias summer habitat counts as an excused absence from the literary hubbub around the program in Anchorage each year. My own ways resonate with the program’s mission, which “emphasizes a literary approach to exploring and redefining relationships between people and place.” Stevenson first came to Alaska in 1977 on a ski mountaineering expedition to Mt. Kennedy, a remote peak near the Alaska-Yukon border in the St. Elias Range. The program he leads “takes advantage of the North's boundless terrain to help writers discover their own place in the world. This philosophy encompasses a landscape of memory, family, and culture, making it possible to imagine anything and to write about it—from the local to the global, from the personal to the communal, and from the unlimited mind to the infinite universe.”

So far, the program has weathered the state’s fiscal upheavals and its ripple effects at UAA as well as the rapid proliferation of low-res MFA programs across the country. “I think originally they were suspicious that we’d succeed,” said Stevenson. “I originally just had a three-year contract.” When the program launched, there were 156 MFA programs in the country; today there are 244. Stevenson is tenured, now, and more than capable of keeping his eye trained on the ball, curves and all. Once a stand-alone program, the MFA is now housed in the English Department, with Stevenson as the only full-time MFA staffer—there used to be another.

Commenting on the restructuring of the MFA program to its low-res formant a decade ago, he said “the administration was looking for a way to cut the costs of an expensive traditional program. They were perhaps prescient in making the change because now we don't offer the same kind of program they offer in Fairbanks and can't really be seem as a ‘duplicate program.’ Our program and Fairbanks' program draw from a different pool of potential students. We attract people who want to stay where they already live and work from home. To enroll in a traditional program, you have to uproot your life completely and move and do the work full-time. Our students tend to have full-time jobs and/or families and are willing to work a bit more slowly toward their degree.”

While I hope readers in Anchorage will take advantage of the Northern Renaissance series and attend some events, I’ll console myself in being away with what Stevenson observed: “The literary landscape here in Alaska is astonishingly vibrant, as you know,” he said. “We have not only our program and 49 Writers, but Alaska Center for the Book, The Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, and the Anchorage Museum—I've just heard they're bringing Sherman Alexie here in the fall. Ernestine Hayes is doing terrific work as State Writer Laureate, Joan Kane keeps winning national awards and publishing new work. Alaska Quarterly Review continues their amazing work. A new independent bookstore, The Writer's Block, is expected to open in the fall. So many good things are happening in our world it's hard to keep track of it all.”

One more good thing to add to the list: several years’ worth of recorded readings from the series are available for download from the program’s website. It’s got a long but worthwhile URL: https://www.uaa.alaska.edu/academics/college-of-arts-and-sciences/departments/creative-writing-and-literary-arts/podcasts.cshtml. No replacement for the live event, but something those of us who can’t be in two places at once appreciate.

All events from July 9-18, 2017, including a 10 Year Anniversary Reception and a reading by Jo Ann Beard on July 15 take place at 8 pm in UAA’s Fine Arts Building Room 150.

Originally published in the Anchorage Press.

#YeahWrite #DavidStevenson #MFAprograms

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© 2020 by JEREMY PATAKY

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