The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2018

All Issues
JUNE 2018 Issue

Alaska Odyssey Essay

(Thanks to the Ford Foundation, I was able to take the film I made with David Grubin, Language Matters, to Alaska for screenings and workshops as part of language revitalization efforts. After spending some days in Juneau, I flew to Kotzebue.)

Right now it is 10am and I am sitting alone in the Kotzebue Heritage Center Meeting Room, letting the workshop that will fill this space tonight spill out of the walls and exhibits. The possibilities! The taxidermied polar bear in the corner is giving me hints for the bilingual Iñupiatun-English Poetry Workshop. But to what extent will it actually be bilingual? Well, that depends on who shows up.

My main contact in Kotzebue has been Tim Argetsinger, Iñupiaq Language & Cultural Manager at Regional Corporation, the Iñupiat-owned regional corporation created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971). Tim speaks Iñupiatun and was instrumental in setting up the workshop. He hopes to bring some Elders, first-language Iñupiatun speakers, tonight -- but there are no promises. Hinton and Montijo (1994, cited in Yamamoto, 2007) estimate that there are 3,000 speakers of Iñupiatun (the Alaska dialect of the Inuit language), just over half the Iñupiat population. upiatun is the spoken language of upiat, the ethnic group. ‘Iñupiat’ means ‘the real people’ [inuit ‘people’ plus -piat ‘real, genuine']; Iñupiaq is the singular form meaning ‘a real person.’ The name of the language, Iñupiatun, means ‘to be like an Iñupiaq.’ The word Iñupiaq is used to refer to a person of this group [‘He is an Iñupiaq’] and can also be used as an adjective [‘She is an Iñupiaq woman’].

I had arrived in Kotzebue straight from Juneau, where linguist Alice Taff had been my first point of contact. She zipped me straight to Mendenhall Glacier, where I saw a bear, an eagle and a raven: the omens were good. Now I was carrying greetings direct from Juneau’s Tlingit community, from poet/language activists, like Nora Marks Dauenhauer and X̱'unei Lance Twitchell. I will pass those on tonight while screening Nora’s poem “For My Grandfather, Jim Nagat’w, Blind and Nearly Deaf” from the film I made for PBS in the mid-90s, The United States of Poetry.

I have tried to break down the prejudice about a ‘poetry writing workshop’ by inviting different sectors of the local population, including John Creed’s Creative Writing class at the local University of Alaska satellite campus, the workers at the Museum, my climatologist roommates at the bunkhouse, the people eating next to me on Restaurant Row (the three restaurants in town).

Tiffany Creed, who works at the local University of Alaska campus, had suggested a poem by a local poet, Stephen Bolen, a member of the 49 Writers Collective (Alaska is the 49th state). And I had two poems of Joan Naviyuk Kane, in Iñupiatun. Without Joan’s Iñupiatun poems, the center of the bilingual poetry workshop would not hold. Kotzebue had also had some recent history that I can include: President Barack Obama visited here two weeks ago to promote the ecological significance of the Arctic to outsiders.

Next came a key preparation for the workshop -- Handouts! Handouts inspire poets, and attending a poetry workshop makes you a priori a poet. I had picked out nine poems, not intending to cover them all, but to take home, look at later and think, Ah! Poetry! Ryan Sherman of the National Park Service, who had picked me up at the airport and showed me around, was also a wizard at the copy machine, reproducing the gorgeous covers of the poetry books, one by Vivian Faith Prescott and two by Joan Naviyuk Kane. When running a workshop with a varied population, visuals are a great complement for text density.

The Hide of My Tongue: Ax L'óot' Doogú, Vivian Faith Prescott’s book (2012), is the first poetry book I have seen dedicated completely to the issue of language revitalization. The cover is a multi-colored close-up of a totem pole with striking reds, greens and whites– it appears abstract at first, then snaps into fierce animal imagery. Vivian is part Sami , the indigenous people of Scandanavia, and was adopted into a Tlingit clan; she has a Tlingit daughter, too. Her poems tell the story of language loss from many angles, including persona poems that read like oral histories. Every minority language has its own horror story of language eradication by colonists– mouths washed out with soap, having to wear a hat or badge of some kind if caught speaking in mother tongue. Nicholas Evans (2010) does a great job describing this in his book, Dying Words. The Hide of My Tongue tells these stories with page-after-page insistence. It concludes with a study guide – a Tlingit language primer by Lance Twitchell. I will leave a copy of Vivian’s book at the Kotzebue Library and with every community on my journey, playing Johnny Appleseed with this relevant text.

The other poems in the Handout are from Joan Naviyuk Kane’s two most recent books, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife (2009), with its cover featuring work by Siberian Yupik sculptor Susie Silook, and Hyperboreal (2013), with its ghost blue landscape, which contains poems in Iñupiatun.

The contemporary poetry workshop is in part the spiritual successor of the poets’ collating parties of the 60’s and 70’s. Then, we would all meet up for a home-cooked meal in someone’s apartment and put together books from mimeographed pages laid out in stacks– I’ll never forget the whiff of the ink, but the whole process had its own distinctive smell: we were producing our own linguistic legacy. The poets would shuffle round the table, building each book page by page, adding covers at the end. A huge stapler pushed staples through the stack, and there you have it – a book. It was a party with a purpose now revived in Kotzebue, circling the table, creating handouts.

I handwrite Nora’s poem on a giant tablet the size of the whiteboard easel, including her name. On screen, we will hear a whistling-wind and music soundtrack, see images of waves and seaweed. Nora delivers the poem in close-up, hair blowing, glasses sprayed with saltwater. We will discuss all three versions of the poem: spoken word, written word, and digital media, and how including the name of the maker is different but important in all contexts. The poem is in English, but uses oral poetry techniques to make its points.

For my Grandfather, Jim Nagat’w, Blind and Nearly Deaf
Nora Marks Dauenhauer

I was telling my grandfather
about what was happening
on the boat. My father
and his brothers were trying to
anchor against the wind
and tide.

I could smell him, especially
his hair. It was a warm smell.
I yelled as loud as I could,
telling him what I saw.
My face was wet from driving

I could see his long eyebrows,
I could look at him and get
really close. We both liked this.
Getting close was his way of

What a treat it had been, making the film of Nora twenty years previous, meeting a poet central to Tlingit oral tradition, who had also translated Wang Wei and e.e cummings into Tlingit. Nora’s late husband, the linguist and poet Richard Dauenhauer, had helped us translate her into English. I had taught this poem in an Endangered Language poetry workshop at Columbia University, as well as at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. One of the students did not show up for class that time, so all twenty of us went over to his bedroom and yelled really loud, Ch'a tlákwdáx si. áat, tlél ch'as yá táakw! “It didn’t just start yesterday,” a line that Nora speaks in the film. That woke him up – in two languages. Nora was the first person I had written to in Alaska, but I knew she was not in good health. Then Lance Twitchell, who visits her every week for Tlingit conversation and to work on a documentary he is making of her, informed me that she wanted to participate in a poetry reading with me at Kindred Post, held in an old post office in Juneau. OMG, as they say (or text, actually). It was a terrific reading– we even made the cover of a local newspaper, the Capital City Weekly.

‘We should all greet each other in Iñupiaq!’: The poetry workshop

As the workshop time drew nigh, we had to make a crucial decision: how many tables? I like a sitting-around-a-table workshop, so everybody can write and talk (not to mention Google, these days). I suggest two large tables, enough to accommodate ten chairs. When the first people walk into a workshop, you want them to relax, think All right, just a few of us. Straight away, however, eight students from the local high school arrive, and as we’re getting more tables out, Tim Argetsinger enters with three Elders. Next some local government representatives show up – we wind up with five tables and twenty-three people crowded around. I warm up the group, talk about poetry and orality, when Hannah Atkinson, Cultural Resource Specialist at the Center, seizes the day, and, Sharpie in hand, bumrushes the notepad!

“We should all greet each other in Iñupiaq!” she proclaims, and writes on the board na atqiń? Uvaɲa _____. (the ɲ in Uvaɲa is an ng sound): “What’s your name?” “My name is ______.” I am surprised: many workshoppers have Iñupiaq names. Lorena Williams, an Elder whose Iñupiaq name is Kapniaq, takes a moment to describe how she had hoped for a while that she would not have to do “this language business” anymore. “It takes up a lot of my time,” she says, “and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” She recounts her life’s experience as a speaker of Iñupiatun: first as a birth-language forbidden to her by the English-speaking teachers at her school, then the stirrings of revitalization during the 60s when Alaskan Native corporations were being founded and a kind of indigenous cultural renaissance began, and now a cultural treasure in high demand as the benefits of language revitalization become known. As a young girl, she was told not to speak her language in order to better assimilate, and now she is being told she must speak her language in order for it to survive. Her husband, Whittier Williams, Jr, speaks next. Lorena darts her hand to remove his ever-rolling toothpick, which seems to be knitting something in his mouth (language?) – but he is too fast. The stories roll out from him, too – about a friend in grade school so intimidated by English he could not say the words for ‘May I go the bathroom?’ so peed his pants.

There’s a deep engagement with language in the room, and we have not even gone round the table introducing ourselves yet. By the time I say Uvaɲa Bob, we have bonded. (I will not get my Iñupiaq name until tomorrow, at the immersion school, – Uqaq, ‘Tongue.’) It must be time for Nora Marks Dauenhauer– greetings from the Tlingit nation. We watch her speak her poem on screen, then, with a flourish, I uncover the easel revealing the poem as text. Many of the difficult-to-dissect intricacies of the oral tradition become analyzable: internal rhymes (‘tell/smell/yell’), shifts in scale (‘anchoring against the tide,’ “I could see his long eyebrows’), engagement with all the senses. I make a point of how orality, literacy and digital each have pros and cons, how the poem is received differently in each consciousness.

Next, we read this poem by Kotzebue poet Stephen Bolen.

301 Shore Avenue

Still, now; the torn tin-wrapped two-story structure stands:
Towards a century ago; its tired timber and stone-age material met
To hold each other unconditionally;
To vanquish Kikiktagruk’s seasons.
Legendary: a hunting-guide, a bush-pilot, a man;
Family spent and shared time and more time.
Liquor and grub given to many at “Marie’s”:
Before the hunt; Roy Rogers ate,
Hunger found Hank Williams Jr.,
Then Mr. Lincoln bagged the record bear: polar.
Floors plywood; careful were the feet of children.
Covered by linoleum; stairs steep, it changed.
Generations abandon their native hallways,
Sheltering memories of lives; so many,
We were raised by those rooms.
Upstairs at the front-room windows we all sat as children,
No matter the day, no matter the Sun.
None of us are around to cherish the crashing shores’ whispers anymore,
Every one of us left;
All of us, but one.
She’s with her home; they grow old alone,
Boxes and boxes; packed and stacked high.
It’s almost deserted: haunting; she’s fervid,

I wish we all hadn’t left you… Mother of mine.

We read the poem as a group, each person taking a line, creating a sense of community. Other elements of orality emerge: whenever a proper name is mentioned, a place referred to, there are nods and uh-huhs, a sort of call and response, generally led by the Elders. “Not since Roy Rogers,comments a young student, whose personal history of Kotzebue has now been extended, thanks to the poetry of Stephen Bolen.

“I Saw Him” - A discussion among Elders

The topic of my ‘advance man,’ Barack Obama, comes up, and when Ernie, the third Elder, mentions his own recollection, “I saw him. He was in an SUV. It was dark,” I pounce. “Haiku!” I shout, and this spontaneous oral-to-text poem goes up on the board:


I saw him
He was in an SUV
It was dark

There is silence. It is that magic moment in a workshop where words spoken in the air become a poem when written down. And in this bilingual situation, power and race and income disparity, language and commerce and poetry are all meshed in what is now a poem, thanks to Ernie. Yes, we are all poets now and it is time to use paper and pen. Words splash on paper as gossip is passed about. Lorena’s Obama poem recalls an Eskimo kiss Barack received, as stereotype meets reality meets poetry.

All the Big Shots got on stage
Somehow the Town Beauty got there too
Everybody shook his hand, but she
Gave him the Eskimo Kiss

The kiss in Lorena’s poem leads to a discussion from many viewpoints. Did anyone think real political change might come from it? Obama, first President to visit north of the Arctic Circle, is a native of the US’s other outlying state, Hawaii. These are the only two states that have an official language along with English. I bring up another Hawaii-Alaska connection: Lance Twitchell is a Linguistics PhD candidate at University of Hawaii, Hilo, studying with Larry Kimura, godfather of the Hawaiian language immersion program. Lance’s three children are reaching school-age years and it’s crucial he get the Hawaiian model implemented: despite renewed efforts at language teaching, many children in that situation begin their school years speaking only English (Dalby, 2003).

After this language lecture, things move to the more sensational – were there snipers on the rooftops and submarines in the bay during Obama’s visit? I’m about to say, “Now this is the stuff of poetry!when Ernie speaks up again.

“I just wrote a poem,” Ernie says. The room stops. Ernie proceeds to read a completely formed poem addressing the birds of the Kotzebue environs– their calls, their geometries of flight, their nesting and eating habits. In each line is a word in Iñupiatun. Somehow, Ernie had followed the instructions of my final assignment before I even gave them! One minute we are talking snipers on the rooftop and the next Ernie is bringing Kotzebue to life in a poem, through birds as varied as the people sitting around the table. It’s poem as intervention: a moment of full participation, as if Ernie had plucked the poem from our group discussion, and it galvanizes the entire workshop.

This affords a perfect transition to a Handout poem in English and Iñupiatun by Joan Naviyuk Kane. The Elders get tremendously excited, begin speaking their native tongue. The rest of the class is spellbound, overhearing a stream of Iñupiatun in all its glottal richness. Each Iñupiatun word in the poem brings up an association. The Elders muse over ‘Uyaġauramik,’ which Joan translates as ‘a shard of rock.’ The Elders know that the ‘shard of rock’ is King Island, a one mile-wide islet between Alaska and Russia with an abandoned Iñupiat village on it; and indeed, Joan’s relatives are from King Island, and, as the locals can tell, so is her dialect. Next come stories of the sealskin kayaks, the perilous trip just to get from one island to another. The Elders talk about visits by the ‘Diomeders’ with their strange accents, the people from the twin islands of Big and Little Diomedes, one Russian, the other American. Because the International Date Line is drawn through the mile-and-a-half passage between them, they are sometimes called Tomorrow and Yesterday. Nora’s Tlingit phrase is brought up: the Iñupiat Elders’ stories “didn’t just start yesterday.” With more efforts at language revitalization, they won’t end tomorrow, either.

The discussion centers on King Island dialect, the way identity and language are so connected, the slight changes from place to place, the ‘taste’ of the different accents, as Lorena says. How they miss the sweet dialect of Barrow – “people don’t travel like they used to.” Sealskin kayaks are less common today, as are people speaking native languages. They talk about how powerful Iñupiatun words are, more condensed – Joan’s poem is 37 words in English, 19 in Iñupiaq. The Elders are speaking like college professors: does “Daughter”’ rhyme with “asunder”? they ask. They discuss the Iñupiatun word “niaquŋ,” which Joan translates as “head.” The Elders say in their dialect it can mean “headache” and now the poem takes on even more meanings. The nonspeakers in the class are hypnotized.

Joan’s English and Iñupiatun versions are nowhere identified as translations. You read an English poem, turn the page, and there is an Iñupiatun poem that seems to have the same structure and line breaks. You must check back and forth to ascertain they are the same poem. “Yes,” Lorena says, “It is a translation.” Except, Walter adds, “I see how ‘Innate’ is the English title for ‘Ilu.’ But we think different in our Iñupiaq.” I asked what he would say for “Ilu.” “‘Guts,’” he says, “We’d just say ‘Guts.’”

And with that, the cold streamed in and the years peeled back and we were all in our sealskin boats struggling against the wind to make it home.


Bob Holman

Bob Holman is an American poet and poetry activist, most closely identified with the oral tradition, the spoken word, and poetry slam.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2018

All Issues