It was a letter from John Haines, dated March 1993 and sent from Tennessee, where he must have had a visiting writer position—something he was doing at that time in his life. I sat down and reread the letter, one of many we exchanged over the years. It’s a quintessential John letter, exuding disappointment in most things—weather, state and national politics, a pending development of some kind in Fairbanks, doubt that the state arts council would ever take his advice and change the Alaska Poet Laureate position to include prose writers as well. The last paragraph is the only somewhat upbeat one—praising a “fine novel” he was reading, by a Viennese writer from a century before, “so eerie in its echo of our own time.”
I sat there, and a vision came to me, of the first time I ever saw John Haines. It was in the late 1970s, at the Midnight Sun Writers Conference in Fairbanks. He was sitting on the far side of a room, perhaps on a fireplace hearth, surrounded by young women and glowing in the attention. I kept my distance. What would I have said? “I love your work?” That seemed so trite, so fawning. He didn’t need me to have an opinion of his work. I’m sure he gave a reading and a class or talk at that conference, but I remember nothing of that—only of him sitting in that room, and my sense that the artist who could seem so lonely and dark in his work could be so joyous in life.
By the time of that conference, I already felt deeply connected to Haines’ work—both his poetry and his prose. As a fledgling writer, I’d come upon the small green book with a cover of footprints in a desolate landscape of snow and ice—Winter News. This was a true discovery for me—the first writing I’d found in Alaska that told me something I recognized as authentically true about the North. Not just true, but deep, insightful, knowing. I didn’t understand all that I found there, but what I did understand was that art could be made in this place that I, like Haines, had adopted as my home, and that that art belonged to the place as it could belong to no other.
About that same time I first read, in three newspaper installments, Haines’s essay, “The Writer as Alaskan: Beginnings and Reflections.” “As a poet I was born in a particular place, a hillside overlooking the Tanana River in central Alaska . . .” I wasn’t a poet, and my place wasn’t interior Alaska, but I felt Haines was speaking to me. I carried around Xerox copies of that essay for years, and return to it still. Alaska, Haines told me, was a place “where we can stand and see the world and ourselves.”
My memories after that are indistinct, but I continued to see John at readings and other writing-relating events over the years. He was always kind to me, and he encouraged my work. We shared an interest, not just in books and writing, but in Alaskan politics, history, and conservation. He encouraged me to read Scandinavian and Scottish writers. He was the first person to tell me there were such places as writers colonies, and he wrote me an occasional recommendation and, eventually, “blurbs” for three of my books. We corresponded by mail, not regularly, but enough to maintain—a friendship? a mentorship? (I was not the only such beneficiary; John was generous in this way with many other younger writers.)
But John did not give praise lightly. His standards were high, and he could be brutally honest. His was and will always be the voice in the back of my head, warning me from the commonplace and cliché (“the dead odes to dead salmon” he lamented in “”The Writer as Alaskan.”) He was like the father who can never quite be pleased but that one spends a lifetime trying to be worthy of.
I also learned from John much about living a writer’s life. In a world where most writers retreat to academe for their support, John set a singular example of being an “outsider.” His art depended upon the richnesses of his homestead life and surroundings, including the great quiet that allows deep, slow thought.
The last time I saw John was in early 2009, shortly after I was appointed Alaska Writer Laureate. (The state arts council had indeed changed the position from “poet” to “writer,” beginning in 2000.) The University of Alaska Anchorage bookstore brought together four laureates—John (appointed 1969), Richard Dauenhauer (1981), Ann Hanley (2002), and me (2008)—for a panel discussion and reading moderated by UAA’s Kathy Tarr. The topic was “Alaska’s Land and Literature.” The space was filled, and it quickly became apparent that most of the mostly-young audience was there for John, who spoke eloquently about the topic and read in his sonorous voice. Afterwards, the laureates and our moderator had dinner together—all of us, even John, in high spirits.
Perhaps because it came to me at the most formative time of my writing life, John’s early work still speaks to me most strongly. It seems proper to end this with the first lines of the first poem in Winter News:
IF THE OWL CALLS AGAIN
from the island in the river,
and it’s not too cold,
I’ll wait for the moon
then take wing and glide
to meet him.
. . .