Alaskan poet shares traditional culture, appreciation for environment

The Geneseo Literary Forum invites international and local writers to Livingston County to give readings, run workshops and visit classes each year. The campus welcomed Joan Naviyuk Kane, an award winning Inupiaq poet who currently resides in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday Nov. 10. Kane’s poetry centers on themes of movement and nature, as well as ecological, domestic and historical shifts in time. Set in her homeland of Alaska, her work also incorporates the customs of Alaska’s indigenous Inupiaq people.

Kane grew up in Anchorage, but her family is originally from King Island, before they were forcibly relocated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the mid-20th century. Her latest collection, Hyperboreal, sits on a border between cultures and between the past and the future. Through this collection, Kane reveals a way of life that is unfamiliar to many of us—one that has developed and endured in the beautifully striking, stark conditions of the far north.

During the reading, she read poetry in both English and the Inupiaq language, flowing from one to the other so naturally that the audience was taken into the world of her people. The unfamiliar sounds and patterns of speech—so different from English—were so captivating they left the audience hanging on every word. Her voice itself had a rhythm, as if it were moving, walking and treading nimbly through the forests and landscapes of which she spoke.

One poem from the collection is titled “Legend” and is divided into four different parts. The Inupiaq people are said to have survived five disasters throughout history: an eclipse, a flood, a famine, a flu epidemic and lastly, a forgetting of the traditional ways of their people. The four sections of “Legend” correspond to the first four disasters, but Kane explained that she never writes about the fifth. She hopes that her poetry will be a remedy for the last disaster—that she can preserve the Inupiaq culture in her words and poems.

A question and answer session followed the reading, allowing the audience to interact with this transfixing poet. Upon being asked about her living environment in Alaska, Kane explained that Anchorage is the closest you can get to the “real” Alaska without leaving a city. Growing up, on one side of her home was the city and on the other was a large stretch of Alaskan forest. She also mentioned that Anchorage is one of the most diverse cities in the country, with over 100 languages spoken there.

“The north has always been a haven for people who are displaced,” she said.

But this Alaskan landscape that she grew up in is changing rapidly. Kane admitted that these changes are often disheartening. The glaciers are melting and the landscape is becoming warped.

“People’s homes are sinking … I don’t exactly have to imagine a dystopian future,” she said.

The sounds of these poems are so deeply rooted in the natural world and in a culture so connected with the land that they only work to emphasize the current political discussion of the environment.

On a more lighthearted note, when a student asked if Kane had a favorite poem, and if so, why, she curiously responded, “I really like the poems that I don’t quite understand.” Sometimes when we make art, we don’t immediately comprehend the significance that it may have.

Kane’s answer to this question created a sense of hope—we may not always have the solutions, but through insightful thought and creativity, together we can find the knowledge and understanding that we need.

If anything, Kane’s work focuses on the sense of community felt in traditional Alaskan life—both with the natural environment and the people living in it. The words of English Department Chair Rob Doggett can perhaps remind us just how integrated community is to our own everyday lives.

“You came here because you love poetry,” Doggett said. “And that is a community I am proud to be a part of.”

Kane's poetry collection is currently on sale at the Geneseo University Bookstore.