Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Warm and getting warmer": conference report from Nancy Lord, back from Victoria B.C.

Thanks to Nancy for this; continuing reports from all conferences still welcome!

Quite a number of Alaska writers address, in one way or another, the Alaskan environment. We’re not all conventional “nature writers”—whatever that label implies—but it’s hard to ignore the influence of big spaces and wildlife on our experiences and imaginations. A number of us have gravitated to an organization called the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, which publishes a journal (ISLE) and hosts a biennial conference.

I’ve just returned from the most recent ASLE conference, held in Victoria, B.C., with the theme “Island Time: The Fate of Place in a Wired, Warming World.” It’s an academic conference but, like the organization and the journal, includes creative writers as well as scholars. Four of us presented a panel called “Warm and Getting Warmer: Alaskan Writing on the 50th Anniversary of Statehood” and other Alaskans shared creative and scholarly work on other panels.

There were hundreds of people in attendance and 15 sessions going on concurrently for four days—lots of people to meet and choices to make. There was also a publishers’ exhibit and a session where writers could sell and sign their books. And plenary events with great speakers--including Karsten Heuer, who wrote Being Caribou, and Andrew Revkin, the environmental reporter for the New York Times. Plus receptions with free-flowing wine, outings (I went birding and saw a skylark), and a big final banquet. Did I mention that the campus at the University of Victoria was beautiful, with gorgeous flowering plants and rabbits running all around, and it was sunny and hot? I came away with a pile of books and lists of more books and writers I want to read and get to know.

So, here are a few of my “take-aways:”

If you’re going to get friendly with academics, it’s nice to find a group of smart people who also love to get out and hike and paddle and look at birds and lichens. ASLE is a fun group.

I never could have been a scholar. I admit, I just don’t get the value of analyzing texts for their tropes, homogeneity, the dystopian pastoral, and the commodification of nature, just to mention a few of the “ecocrit” words and phrases I heard, often repeatedly, at the conference—words that mean something to scholars and absolutely nothing to me.

It’s a bit unworldly to sit through, say, a panel about maritime literature and to understand little of what is being said while knowing, from the way those things are said, that the speakers don’t actually know anything about being on an ocean. Which is not to say that they don’t know how to read and analyze a text, which I imagine they might do very well.

These scholars are our friends—people we writers need. Whatever they think of our work and however they interpret it, they do think about it and they teach it to students. I was pretty pleased to find how many people knew my work and had even taught it. (Just don’t expect me to be able to answer any of their ecolit questions.)

And, lastly, what shone through for me, in the presence of my Alaska writer-friends, is what a wonderfully supportive community of writers we have in our state. As each of us on the “Warm and Getting Warmer” panel presented our 15 minutes of thought, the central theme was the same: we all mentioned writers who have come before us, from whom we learned so much, and other writers, our colleagues doing the important work every day, who we value and continue to learn from and share with. I gather that this valued connectedness is not the case everywhere, in competitive academic settings or simply where people are less connected and go their own ways. At the end of our session, after a good and substantive discussion with our audience, I was left with a nice warm feeling about both the state of our Alaskan literature and the people we are. Many thanks to Eric Heyne (who organized our panel), Peggy Shumaker, and Sherry Simpson (who, alas, couldn’t get there but whose paper was read by a newer Alaskan, Kevin Meier, of Juneau), and to Marybeth Holleman, Liz Bradfield, Gretchen Legler, Anne Mareck, Kathy Moore and other current, former, temporarily missing, and part-time Alaska writers who joined us in Victoria and who continue the conversations.

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