Why did you want to do this interview twice?
The assignment of a self-interview is one of the most difficult things to undertake, particularly for someone like me whose daily face-to-face contact with other grown-ups is pretty much limited to picking up and dropping off my children from school. Like most poets, I’m hamstrung by self-consciousness. I have tried, with notable lack of success, to get friends and family members to do this interview for me. I also debate whether or not to surface some of what follows, but unless I continue to write and talk about some of these experiences publicly, I doubt my capacity to help change things.
What do you want to discuss in the space of a self-interview?
I can’t remember precisely what I asked myself or what I wrote about the first time around with the self-interview, but I do remember that much of it was concerned with being a mother and a woman. I deferred discussing the driving issue that my work (on and off the page) contends with: a dream of post-colonialism. The week that I sent in the first draft of this self-interview last October, I was participating in a poorly conceived roundtable on “real Alaskan” literature. Aside from the discomfort I felt at being the only Alaska Native writer to be invited to speak on the issue, there was only one other Native person in the room: a young Diné man, living in Seward, Alaska, who had traveled to Anchorage to hear me speak.
I happened to run into him last month after a reading I did in Seward. I told him then that I do not think I spoke frankly enough. I held back too many things. One of the other writers told me, prior to our onstage talk, that I would be a much better writer when I “stopped writing Eskimo poems,” and that I “didn’t know how lucky” I was to have been raised in Anchorage, and then educated on the east coast instead of where I “belonged.”
This is a state that doesn’t simply romanticize and revere colonization as the “industriousness of homesteaders,” but requires us, as Native people, to celebrate the homesteaders, to praise them, to continue to ignore the fact that almost every aspect of contemporary life—our astronomical rates of suicide, domestic violence, sexual assault, incarceration—in Alaska is predicated on the assumption that we Native people are not as important as [they are].
What are you writing now?
The group Voices from the American Land has asked me to write a chapbook and have it in to them by May. I hope to have it done by then. It’s a tricky prospect. I don’t know that my voice comes from the land. I think my poems are informed in large part by conflict that continues to arise in Alaska from romanticizing the landscape and all of the feelings of white guilt and colonialism inherent in so much “environmental” writing but I’m reluctant to publish work that plays into those tropes. The poems in the chapbook, though, are about a trip I was able to make to King Island, the remote outcrop of granitic bedrock that juts steeply out of the Bering Sea (arguably the most dangerous body of water on the planet) where my mom was raised until a combination of events led to my family and other King Islanders being dispossessed of our land. The trip, the first I was able to make, and the dynamics around it, were not easy. So, the writing is not easy.
I haven’t heard back one way or another from Pitt Press about my third manuscript, When the World Was Milk, so I continue revising the poems and the collection. Last winter, I had my first (and likely last, at least for a decade or so until my children are in their teen years) residency experience at the School for Advanced Research, where I had the chance to write and revise poems with Malena Mörling. The residency provided me with the first real opportunity to work at length with attention to collection of poems. Malena is a tremendous reader and a phenomenal person, and with patience and kindness she waded with me through a mountain of poems in draft form.
How is this book different from your other books?
The editing process is very different. The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife had my MFA thesis as its beginning. Hyperboreal came into the world about 100 times faster. This third book is challenging me with its proximity to confessional poetry. I’ve always appreciated the distance poems help place between me and my life, and many of these poems, at least in their current iterations, are closer to autobiography than I feel comfortable with. Certainly some come from persona, but others relate more to being a wife and a mother. I’m filtering my experience less, but I want to respect my family’s privacy, and mine, I guess. And so, in revision, I’m trying to be selective and careful about the surfaces of these poems as well as their seabeds.
Outside of writing, what are you working on?
I’m in the last hours of guest-editing an issue of Yellow Medicine Review, a journal of and by indigenous writers, around the theme of climate change and displacement. In the unlikely event that a teaching opportunity—adjunct or otherwise—ever opens up for a Native writer to teach in the university system here in Alaska, I don’t know if I could consider it. I’m beyond fortunate to teach in the low-residency graduate writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. It’s the first place where I have ever felt I belonged. Joy Harjo told us at the last residency, “this school saved my life, maybe it is saving yours, too.” We graduate our first cohort of MFA students this May, and it is an honor and a pleasure to work with writers who are challenging and writing against the expectations of dominant culture. I’m trying to find time to collaborate with the extraordinary visual artist Marek Ranis through the Polar Lab collective on a genre-defying project about climate change and displacement of indigenous people. There are the poems, always poems, and I’m working in prose, trying to sort out my complex personal history from the larger story of Inupiaq people in Alaska, people of Inuit ancestry in the north, and people outside of dominant cultures in urban environments.
As part of that, it could be really helpful to travel with other Native writers to some of the most climate-vulnerable Native communities in Alaska. It’s something I have in mind, but I’m still in the middle of processing my recent trip to King Island.
And later this month, I look forward to a couple of days at BinderCon in L.A. to hear from Erika Wurth, Claudia Rankine, and all of the other attendees in an intensive and intentional space for women.
What’s on your playlist/watchlist?
Officially, I only listen to the Mountain Goats. But I can’t keep myself from Father John Misty, and I’ve been heavy on Buffy Saint-Marie since seeing the re-release of the amazing movie (Attla: Spirit of the Wind) about world champion Alaska Native dog musher George Attla, who recently passed away. She did the soundtrack for the movie, which is perhaps the best Alaska movie, ever, even with stiff competition from Andrew MacLean’s On The Ice.
Which Native writers do you cite as your biggest influences?
Joseph Senungetuk’s book Give or Take a Century: An Eskimo Chronicle broke ground for Alaska Native writers. I wish this book could be brought back into print. Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, and Diane Glancy have done remarkable things for generations of Native poets and for our place in the literature of our country. I consider myself lucky to know the poems and critical, community-engaged voices of Sherwin Bitsui, Jennifer Foerster, Santee Frazier, Layli LongSoldier, James Thomas Stevens, and Orlando White.
Anything on the horizon?
Down the road, I hope to help teach writing workshops in rural Alaskan communities beginning this spring and summer, and to continue to work with other Native poets to create generative and supportive spaces that build upon and extend the environment of Institute of American Indian Arts, but details are still in the works.
I struggled a great deal as a Native writer being so far from home; I hope the IAIA MFA program helps more of our country’s Native people to find traction as writers. Like others, I envision a great deal of hope and possibility sourced from a growing body of indigenous literature.
Joan Kane is the author of The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife and Hyperboreal. She has received a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry from AWP, the USA Projects Creative Vision Award, an American Book Award, and fellowships from the Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska State Council on the Arts, Alaska Arts and Cultures Foundation, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and the School for Advanced Research.
Kane graduated from Harvard College, where she was a Harvard National Scholar, and Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she was the recipient of a graduate Writing Fellowship. Inupiaq with family from King Island and Mary’s Igloo, she raises her children in Anchorage, Alaska, and is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.