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  • Jeremy Pataky

Earthquake and Quake Poems on Demand

A 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit before sunrise on the last day of November. It was the worst earthquake to hit Southcentral Alaska since the famous 1964 Good Friday earthquake (the second strongest ever recorded in the world). Though this one didn’t come even close to approaching that in severity, it wrecked roads, bridges, schools, and homes, injured a number of people without killing anyone, and rattled our nerves.

Power in this swath of town went right out. Through wind-whipping trees beyond the window, I saw explosions flash from nearby transformers. The sound was terrific—a guttural roar from the earth itself underneath the other brittle sounds of the building and its contents. Afterward, as the indoor temperature started dropping, we took stock: quite a number of cracks had appeared in sheetrock, art had fallen off walls, dishes and other glass items were shattered. Books and houseplants littered the floor. Some framing nails had backed out from inside walls, sprouting like odd mushrooms. Luckily, no structural damage, though.

Many roads split and cracked open. Arterials, highways, and bridges shut down. Those that were usable were snarled with traffic by spooked people trying to get home. One friend had a bad natural gas leak inside and just managed to shut off the gas line outside before triggering a potential explosion in the furnace room. Another scared friend’s been sleeping fully dressed, wearing shoes, ready to evacuate the house if necessary. (Several people, reacting barefoot in the dark, stepped on glass shards.) All the schools in Anchorage remained closed for the week following the quake while they checked on structures and made repairs. Some schools were so damaged they won’t open again this year at all.

The Anchorage Museum was closed initially, too, and has been slowly opening more and more galleries while they take stock of collections. True to form, though, the Museum was eager to help the community heal, make meaning, and experience some community as everyone cleaned up and tried to re-establish normalcy. Hollis Mickey (the Director of Learning and Engagement at the Museum and an artist) reached out with an invitation to several poets to be “poet responders”—a spin on first responders—at a live, First Friday poetry-on-demand event in one of the galleries (currently showing Elizabeth Eero Irving’s exhibition), happening alongside related action on Twitter.

It made for an interesting way to connect mostly with strangers on our shared quake experiences, and I’m grateful to Hollis and the Anchorage Museum for the opportunity. The format was straightforward—each poet had a seat, pencils and pens, a nametag, and push lights we could use to indicate if we were “open” or busy. A lit light invited anyone to approach and offer a word or phrase that spoke to their experience of the quake, which we used as prompts for short, impromptu poems. I wrote pretty much nonstop for my entire one-hour shift, responding to eight people.

We wrote by hand on old-school, continuous-feed, perforated triplicate carbon paper, generating white, pink, and yellow versions of each piece in one go—copies for the prompter, the Museum, and ourselves. I enjoyed the chance to write for Anne Ward-Masterson, Katie X, Liza X, Andrew M and his partner, Nancy Schaefer, Tracy X, and two others whose names I’ve lost. It was a pleasure to write alongside Kirsten Anderson, Chaun Ballard, Tara Ballard, Gabriela Halas, Joanna Lilley, and X̱'unei Lance Twitchell before swapping out with the next shift of writers.

The aftershocks won’t stop—we got kicked by another strong one this morning, a 5.0, the latest in about 3,000 since the main event. Nerves are frayed, sleep’s been shallow but improving, and much of the worst road damage has already been repaired in record time. Almost 2,000 people hit worse than most have applied for disaster aid. Kids in Anchorage will head back to school tomorrow after a whole week off. The weather’s been lousy since the quake (and is still disturbingly, unseasonably warmindicative of the broader climate crisis, really), but at least the sky finally cleared up blue again today—fittingly, as our community undergoes the shift from experience to recovery and reflection.


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