Welcoming literary citizens: An interview with 49 Writers’ new director

For Erin Coughlin Hollowell, the poet who in early July became executive director of Alaska’s largest writing group, 49 Writers, part of being a writer is being a good literary citizen, and part of being a good literary citizen is generosity.

It’s a philosophy strongly influenced by fellow Alaskan poet Peggy Shumaker, a mentor and former Alaska State Writer Laureate whom Hollowell calls “the most generous writer I know.”

“From, really, just watching her, I learned how to meet people where they are, and to see every writer as worthy of nurturing,” Hollowell said.

49 Writers is member-driven; if there’s anything a member would like to see — visiting writers, workshops, programs — Hollowell wants to hear about it. She may have heard even if you haven’t told her: I named two of my favorite writers offhand and she told me one of them is almost surely coming to Alaska in 2016. (I would love to tell you, but I’m sworn to secrecy, as it’s not yet a sure thing. Suffice to say, if you’ve read this author’s gorgeous novels, you will be very excited.)

“It’s our fifth year, and I would just love to see us grow and encompass more people,” Hollowell said. “The more voices, the stronger we are. It would be easy for me to advocate for writers if writers self-identify.”

Hollowell, who moved to Alaska “for love,” lives in Homer. She’s also lived in Ketchikan and Cordova, and has held a variety of art-related positions.

She received a master’s degree from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in 2009.

Hollowell’s first book is “Pause, Traveler,” published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. For that book, she wrote poems about her journey from New York City to Alaska, including poems about roadside attractions like a corn palace and a prairie dog town.

She writes other forms, as well, but poetry “is the thing that speaks to me, and has since I was a little girl,” she said. “It’s my way of processing the world.”

Her second manuscript, “Every Atom,” helped her do just that when, last year, both her parents — and her dog — passed away.

“It’s about my mother’s descent into dementia, and her passing,” she said.

Each poem’s title is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself;” she’s sending the book to publishers now.

Writers don’t necessarily have an easy time touring, reading, and promoting their books once they’re published, however; one of Hollowell’s goals as executive director of 49 Writers is to help guide the organization’s expansion in ways that will improve writers’ post-publication experience, giving touring authors a community to help, host, welcome, workshop and listen, she said.

“I think we’re going to try to take maybe two communities a year, and just kind of slowly move out,” she said. Some of those might first be on the interior’s highway system, but she expects to expand into other Southeast communities in the coming years.

In September, 49 Writers will host a workshop, reading and panel discussion in Juneau, as well as a workshop, reading and online book discussion in Haines, with visiting author Melinda Moustakis.

“The more good writers there are in Alaska, the more people pay attention to Alaska writers,” Hollowell said.


Disclosure: Mary Catharine Martin has been a member of 49 Writers since 2014.

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