Linking northern voices

Shannon Gramse, a 1999 graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage Master of Fine Arts program and co-editor of the recently-released poetry collection “ICE FLOE,” focused his degree on poetry. He's taught in the UAA system ever since then and worked last year as a term professor at Kenai Peninsula College, where he taught composition, literature, and creative writing. He's currently taking a break from the classroom this semester to focus on his own writing and on his new job as an academic counselor at Cook Inlet Tribal Council, where he's trying to develop programs to make it easier for rural students to be more successful at both UAA and APU.

Gramse agreed to answer the Northern Light's questions via e-mail about the poetic journal. Here, he responds to the editors' motivation for the journal, how the editors decided on poems and whether they had any red flags that poems might become controversial, including UAA professor Linda McCarriston's poem titled “Indian Girls.”

NL: How did “ICE FLOE” get started, who were the people involved, etc.           

I suppose “ICE-FLOE” started as a spark of an idea sometime when I was in graduate school, maybe when I working as managing editor for “Inklings” [UAA's literary journal]. I don't remember. Over time, I guess I became interested in developing an independent international forum open exclusively to northern poets. As envisioned, the project would have both literary and cultural implications—sort of “National Geographic” meets “Poetry.”

I hoped the journal would document what I believe are exceedingly important voices—voices from the periphery.        

Writers who headquarter themselves in the North are in a unique situation. We are decidedly out of the mainstream; we learn to live with the superlative; we are often overlooked or stereotyped by Outside audiences. At the same time, and for the same reasons, I can think of few places that lend themselves so naturally to poetic composition.

In July of 1999, I asked Sarah Kirk [chair of the Developmental Education Department at UAA] to co-edit the as-yet-unnamed journal. Since then, we've made many international contacts and secured five volunteer foreign editors in various circumpolar nations. They are a pretty distinguished group of scholars, translators, and poets. All of us work as a team to solicit submissions and promote “ICE-FLOE” internationally. Most of the foreign editors make initial selections from their own country, and then Sarah and I make the final choices, including all of the Alaskan poetry. We released the inaugural issue on the 2000 summer solstice.

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From the beginning, we have tried our best to uphold top-quality production values. We've also maintained a particular focus on indigenous languages and literature. One of the goals of “ICE-FLOE” is to print Native languages side-by-side with those languages that have been imported to the North. The 2000 volume featured poetry in Dena'ina, Aleut, Yup'ik, Even, Sami, Greenlandic and Chukchi. It is an important aspect of the project and something of which we are very proud.

NL: Did any of the poems create red-flags for you?           

I'll assume you're asking about Linda McCarriston's poem, “Indian Girls.” From the first time I read the poem, and in my hundred readings of it since, I can only hear the poem's speaker trying to relate a similarity of experience, trying to empathize. This is the precise spirit of everything we do at “ICE-FLOE.”

In my reading, the poem is not “racist,” nor is it an “attack” on Native Alaskans. Of course, there are those who disagree with my reading.

Some readers obviously believe McCarriston's poem fails in its primary gesture, in its attempt to empathize. “ICE-FLOE” welcomes reader feedback, and I've benefited from the more thoughtful responses to the poem and the journal as a whole. I am pleased to see so many people taking poetry so seriously. On the other hand, I lament the hysteria—ignorant calls for censorship and comparisons to “Mein Kampf,” for example—and the hurt feelings that have arisen from this largely manufactured controversy.

Neither do I appreciate the fact that “ICE-FLOE” was exploited as fodder in an ugly and wholly unrelated dispute between a student and her professor. Attempts to make this a university issue are misguided and downright dangerous, in my opinion. Still, a handful of individuals are trying to concoct a connection between McCarriston's poem and her abilities as a teacher. If they succeed and/or if the university continues to give them audience, this institution will have dealt a serious blow to basic notions of intellectual and artistic freedom and the basic purpose of higher education. Faculty and students alike should take pause.

I realize “Indian Girls” raises tough questions. It begs the difficult issue of who can and cannot relate to the experiences of others. And I'm not talking about cultural appropriation — a white goof wearing a headdress — but an honest attempt at compassion. I think these questions are similar to questions surrounding the recent UAA play, “The Inheritance.” It's been asserted that such attempts at cross-cultural understanding are wrong, dangerous, impossible. If this is the case, then human relations are much more flawed than I thought them to be. Without empathy, however imperfect, we will never move off the reservation schemes of our own minds. I'm very glad that “Indian Girls” brought such an important and challenging discussion to the water cooler.

“Indian Girls” is an especially daring poem because it attempts to reach across cultural boundaries even as it speaks to dreadful, intimate truths. That troubles some people and I understand their reservations. And we all know now that the poem makes an insulting blunder (the nonrestrictive appositive phrase “the Snail, the Raven” in line seven). At the same time, I believe those who see the poem's base intention as hurtful, as a direct attack on Alaska Natives, are seriously misreading and have been mislead by the hype.

 “ICE-FLOE” strives to be a poetic representation of the northern experience around the globe. As we all know, this experience includes a dark side excluded from the majestic-moose-on-the-misty-mountaintop genre. We'd be lying to ourselves not to include poems about alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse, and genocide. Several other poems in the Winter Solstice Issue deal with these themes. I encourage people to read “Indian Girls” in the context of poems like Tiina Hattunen's “A Prayer,” and Carina Karlsson's “In the old house.” The poem that precedes “Indian Girls” in the current issue is translated from the Chukchi and, I think, speaks subtly and beautifully to similar issues. The poem, also by McCarriston, that follows “Indian Girls” is simply called “Alaska.” That poem's speaker depicts Alaskan men as infantile misogynists. I am personally troubled by the poem, but I believe it deserves its place in the collection.

NL: How have the sales of the book been?               

Remember that we're talking about poetry here. Nonetheless, sales and subscriptions have been steadily growing. International distribution is difficult and expensive, yet we're doing pretty well. The journal still loses money on every issue. Last time I checked, Issue Number 2 was the 1,489,205th most popular book on We press on.

NL: Have you achieved the goals of the journal?

Nearly so. “ICE-FLOE” still has a long way to evolve and Sarah and I will always have a lot to learn. But I feel the project has been pretty successful. We've produced two issues so far—that's one complete volume with an issue released on each of the solstices. We've managed so far with very little financial support. The overall response has been phenomenal, especially abroad. “ICE-FLOE” has attracted some really fine contributors from across the region, and we've sold far more issues in Norway than we have in the US. Whether we've created a truly meaningful international cross-cultural literary exchange is up to our readers to decide. I've personally learned a great deal over the past year and have thoroughly enjoyed forging connections with other circumpolar poets.