Before I came to Alaska this summer I spent eight weeks in Oxford, England wearing very uncomfortable shoes. In hopes of discovering whether or not I am an academic, I split my summer in half. The first part was spent doing a term of study at Oxford University, and the second here, in Anchorage interning for 49 Writers, this fabulous organization which I have come to love. I would like to be able to credit this amazing scenario to my own strategic planning and exceptional qualities, but the truth of the matter is that I am ridiculously lucky. Oxford came through a generous scholarship program (and the fact that I am probably the only twenty-one year old girl in the world weird enough to be fascinated by early modern Baptist history), and this internship came because the ever gracious Deb Vanasse chose to give me a chance. Oxford was wonderful, and there are moments when I look back and wonder if it really even happened. Walking back to my flat in the evenings after formal hall, dressed in sub fusc, making my way down the streets lined with nearly ancient spires—was that really me? But at the end of those evenings, when I finally kicked off the heels, my feet were always miserably sore. And there was something just very unsatisfying about knowing that my blisters were from walking two miles to a five course meal, where I bowed to the professors when they entered and pretended to know when to use each fork and spoon, and then walked two miles back.
Within five days of leaving Oxford I was descending into Anchorage, mouth agape. I am from the mountains, but not mountains like these. I remember after my dad returned from his first trip to Alaska, we were driving down the highway into our little mountain town in east Tennessee, and he pointed to the horizon and told me to imagine mountains twice as tall as ours, that only start getting steep where the tops of ours end, that above the tree line are peaks that reach up to the clouds and even beyond. Even with him trying to put things into perspective for me, I could hardly imagine it, so on my first day in Alaska, as my brother drove me from the airport to his house in Eagle River, I kept the window down and stared, until my eyes dried out, at these massive mountains that took my breath away.
I got a thorough taste of just how different the mountains here are this past week when I went Dall sheep hunting with my dad and brother. I still hurt all over. I am sore in places I didn’t even know I had muscles. But even after trekking up the side of the mountain we climbed-- crawling up creek beds and beating our way through an ungodly amount of alders— I am proud to say that my blessed Merrells left me without a single blister.
Alaska and 49 Writers have exceeded every expectation I had. Since I’ve been here I’ve seen 49 Writers launch a youth writing initiative, start a memorial fund for a local poet, plan and promote A statewide book week celebration—these are things you just don’t find everywhere. A place where writers can work together to promote each others’ work and reach out to their community is not something every literary community has, and I have been honored to be welcomed into this amazing group of people. I think the only reason I was ever torn between creative and academic writing was because I had never seen a community of creative writers in action. I’d never seen a room full of fiction writers and poets chatting about their work, or a group of volunteers gather around a table and brainstorm ways to bring creative writing workshops to kids. If I had found this earlier, I think I would have known without a doubt that writing creatively is for me, and maybe I wouldn’t even have had to go through two boxes of Band-Aids patching up blisters in England to figure it out.
Recently I was chatting with a new friend at a reading here in Anchorage, and she asked me, “Are you a poet?” The question struck me in a way I didn’t expect. No one had every asked me that before, not in that way. Something clicked, though, and with all the honesty and confidence I could muster I said, “Yes. Yes I am a poet.” I am a poet. For whatever reason I’ve been trying to avoid that simple truth. I think it was mainly because I didn’t really know what it looked like, but at my core, at the end of the day, I write poems.
So to answer my own question of whether or not I am an academic, I have decided that my dilemma is really based on a false premise. Academia and creativity are not mutually exclusive: not in the works of writers, not in people’s lives, and not really even in the workplace. The academics I know are incredibly creative people, poets even. And the writers I’ve met this summer who don’t have careers in academe write as literarily as those who do. And as for me, I am a poet, and if poets are academics, then I guess I’m that, too. However, if the question boils down to which shoes I have to wear, I’m going with the Merrells every time. And if that means I have to climb some mountain in the Wrangells to write a good poem, well, I’ve learned that I can handle that.
Thanks, 49 Writers, for everything.