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Know the West

What was and what is

Joan Kane's work aims to bridge the gap between past and present


Inupiaq poet Joan Kane grew up on a cul-de-sac at the edge of Anchorage, where the city meets a mossy forest of spruce and birch at the base of the towering Chugach Mountains. There were wandering moose and wild roses in the summertime, but it was no wilderness. Across the street from her duplex, a hastily constructed apartment block housed oil-pipeline workers; down the road were supermarkets, a military base and a tavern called The Cabin. For Kane's family, it was a home in exile.

Kane has never been to her ancestral home, a wild, abandoned island in the Bering Sea whose Inupiaq name, Ugiuvak, stems from the words for "big" and "winter." Kane's Inupiat ancestors inhabited the island for countless generations, and the stories of their life there were an ever-present backdrop to her childhood. Kane, author of the award-winning poetry collection The Cormorant Hunter's Wife, has devoted much of her writing life to chasing down the bones of Ugiuvak and her own place in the Inupiat Diaspora.

Kane's poems are filled with "weather and rock and moss," a "wilderness uninhabitable," with "the verge of land" and rooms that "squall with absence." She writes about staining puffin bills for dance mitts and picking anemone flowers to grind to a fine powder, about the way black cormorants sleep clinging to cliffs above a rough sea. Living far from her people's unreachable island, she tries to find her way back to it, through words.

Listen here!

Listen to Joan Kane read her poem, "Anchorage."

A full-time mother and writer, Kane lives near downtown Anchorage in a tidy townhouse smack in the middle of a gritty neighborhood. She has glossy black hair, girlish bangs, a warm, solid smile and the vocabulary of a person who often finds companionship in books. On this rainy afternoon her infant son, George, is asleep in a Baby Bjorn strapped to her chest; John, her toddler, giggles as he watches a video about penguins on her laptop, a rare treat for a television-less family that also includes Kane's husband, attorney Brian Duffy. It's a comfortable, organized home: There's a Subaru outside, paintings of birch trees on the wall, full bookshelves and Costco flats of canned chickpeas and dishwashing soap in the garage. Sometimes it's hard for her to believe, she says, that just two generations ago her family were subsistence hunters on an island in the Bering Sea.

King Island, as it was renamed by Captain Cook, is small, just two and a half miles long, and far closer to the Siberian peninsula than to Anchorage. From the mainland it looks like a barren meteor dropped into the ocean, terrifyingly remote and exposed. But despite its isolation and harshness, King Island was home to a rich and closely knit society. For perhaps thousands of years, around 200 Eskimos lived in a small winter village of stilt and walrus skin dwellings that clung to sheer cliffs. They called themselves ugiuvangmiut, "the people," shared meat from bearded seals and polar bears and gathered murre eggs from the rocks. They spoke an Inupiaq dialect unique to the island, which they knew intimately: Each hill, crevasse and stone outcrop had a name and a history -- a jumble of rocks called makhhuuqtuk meant "the old language," a mossy cliff called paum inat meant "no one is allowed there." Kane's grandmother and grandfather lived on the island -- her grandfather spoke no English, only Inupiaq. King Islanders had always lived seasonally, hunting in the fall and winter and crossing the strait in skin kayaks to the mainland in the summer to fish and sell carvings in Nome.

But things started to fall apart in the 1940s, when people began leaving for the mainland, in search of jobs and medical attention. Later, the school closed. By 1970, everyone was gone, including Kane's grandparents, mother and aunts and uncles. King Islanders retained their unique dialect and settled in cities in Alaska and beyond. They remain a cohesive group. But as former island resident Mary Muktoyuk says in an oral history, things "probably can never be the same again."

Kane's parents met in Nome and moved to Anchorage, where Kane was born in 1977, during the height of the oil pipeline bonanza. Muldoon's dirt road and the Cabin Tavern, where her dad once bartended, were replaced with bustling strip malls housing Samoan churches, Hmong noodle shops and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. King Island, some 2,000 miles away, was always just offshore in Kane's mind. In the summertime, the family visited relatives near Nome. She remembers the midnight sun and the consuming dust, the endlessly barking dogs and the island itself, looming across a churning gray sea. "I don't remember the first time I saw it from the mainland," she says. "It's just always been there to me."

Kane spent entire days at the Anchorage library, won writing contests and got admitted to Harvard at 17. After becoming the first Iñupiaq Eskimo to earn a bachelor's degree from the institution, she moved to New York City, just days before Sept. 11, for an MFA program at Columbia. The farther away she found herself from Alaska, the more it dominated her thoughts. She kept a copy of Ugiuvangmiut Quliaptuit: King Island Tales, an oral history in Iñupiaq and English, next to her bed in Manhattan. She found Alaska reflected everywhere: When she rode her bike down Riverside Drive and looked out at the Hudson River, she imagined the silt-gray Cook Inlet off Anchorage. And she began to write short, lyrical poems reimagining the landscape of King Island and the lives of her grandparents. "In large part, it was about reclamation of place," she says, a way to know a land that she could not physically reach. After finishing her degree, she returned to Alaska with the sense that it was time to come home. Her notebook of poems became The Cormorant Hunter's Wife, the title a reference to her own grandmother. To make a living, she worked as a consultant for rural Alaskan businesses, traveling to far corners of the state. She was happy to see more economic empowerment among Alaska Natives, but she also observed the deep scars left by the total disruption of traditional lifestyles. Back in Anchorage, she occasionally saw King Islanders she knew who were now homeless alcoholics, living on the streets.

Kane found a publisher in tiny NorthShore Press, run off a solar cell by a woman living on a remote lake in Southwestern Alaska. Kane bought 400 of the 500 books in the press run and took on distribution herself. But Anchorage's main independent bookstore wouldn't take the title. Then, last October, eight months pregnant with her second child, Kane got a life-changing voicemail:  She had won the prestigious Whiting Award. Presented annually to 10 writers early in their careers, it comes with a no-strings-attached $50,000 check and provides, as New York Magazine put it, a "ticket out of water-treading obscurity." Past honorees include David Foster Wallace, Gretel Ehrlich, Ian Frazier and another Alaskan, Seth Kantner. The poet Joy Harjo said that there was "something of Willa Cather's Nebraska in Joan Kane's Alaska."

The award left Kane in a new place: Now that she had won critical acclaim for her work, people were listening. Today, Kane, who is writing a play and working on a second book of poems, has a platform from which to tell the world about the history that separated her people from their homeland. It's an issue that has the potential to resonate widely in Alaska: Villages from the Chukchi Sea to the Aleutian Islands are threatened by climate change, oil development, the high cost of life in the bush and the gradual but devastating attrition of families. "There is only / One way in which everything goes wrong," she writes in a poem titled "Proper."

Kane had planned to go to King Island this summer, using money from the Whiting Award. She hoped to charter a helicopter to fly from Nome to the island, where she and her mother, her husband and her sons could walk on the rocky soil and look at the ghostly old dwellings spilling into the sea. "I think it would be generative for my writing," she says. "It would just close some loops for me."  But after George was born, she realized that -- with an infant and a 2-year-old -- she couldn't even make it to the gym six blocks away, much less to an uninhabited island in the middle of the Bering Sea. And $50,000 can quickly be swallowed by the expenses of a young family. So for now, Kane will continue to write about what it means to be both native to a place and separate from it, how it feels to yearn for something you've never experienced. King Island will always be "the thing that comes before the poem itself." And line by line in her poems, Kane will build bridges over land and sea, between what was and what is.