Pair of Alaskan authors to share parallel experiences at KPC Showcase

“A lot of people are afraid to open a book of poetry.”

Pair of Alaskan authors to share parallel experiences at KPC Showcase

Alaskan authors Mary Kancewick and Monica Devine are hoping to share experiences that will enlighten audiences with three nights of poetry and essay writing.

And to hear it from Kancewick, hopefully gain a few followers along the way.

Kancewick and Devine are embarking on a three-stop tour of the Kenai Peninsula this weekend, beginning with Thursday’s KPC Showcase event presented with River City Books in the McLane Commons. The two authors will also host readings Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the KPC campus in Homer, and Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Community Library and Museum in Seward.

Kancewick — who goes by her pen name Mar Ka — recently published her first book of poetry, “Be-hooved.” Devine also recently added to a growing collection of her own writing withthe book “Water Mask.”

Kancewick took a metaphorical page from Ben Lerner’s book, “The Hatred of Poetry” (in which Lerner explores why poetry and prose is held in such contempt in modern culture), in saying that readers today may have the wrong ideas and preconceived notions about poetry.

“He says people hate poetry because they believe in its power,” Kancewick said. “A lot of people are afraid to open a book of poetry.”

Kancewick likened the enjoyment of poetry to that of enjoying sports; there may be many attending a baseball or football game that don’t understand every rule of the game, but they know a big play when they see it, and they can appreciate the energy and excitement that stirs the souls of sports fans.

“When I talk to book groups, a lot of them say (that they) don’t get poetry or read it, or don’t like it,” she said. “I want them to like it.”

It is the goal of Kancewick and Devine to break that barrier by combining their experiences and life parallels in an evening of reading. Devine will offer excerpts of “Water Mask,” which is a collection of 15 essays that she has written from her experiences in Alaska.

“We both feel we’ve been changed by Alaska in fundamental ways,” Devine said.

Both writers share similar career arcs that led them to the Last Frontier. Both grew up in the Midwest United States (Devine from Michigan and the Chicago area, Kancewick also from Chicago), both are of Eastern European descent (Devine is Polish, Kancewick is Lithuanian), both were drawn to Alaska for adventure and soul-searching, and both spent time working in rural Alaska.

And they both find themselves living just a handful of miles from each other in Eagle River, just north of Anchorage.

“I was looking for daunting, wide-open spaces,” Devine recalled about the years after she graduated from Northern Michigan University in 1978 with a speech and pathology degree. “I wanted adventure and Alaska called first. I jumped on a plane within a week and began working for the Fairbanks North Star School District.”

Kancewick remembers falling on the naughty side of the nuns that taught at her Catholic school in Chicago.

“Instead of working on my schoolwork, I’d be doing these poems and little booklets in class,” she said.

Having come from a poorer family living in an immigrant community, the nuns decided Kancewick’s fate would be journalism school, where she attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Later, she was drawn to the work of Carolyn Forche, who helped inspire Kancewick to fully pursue her love of writing and poetry.

“I was super impressed,” she said. “She was only 5 or 6 years older than me and writing really important, accessible stuff I related to.”

In her almost 40 years living in Alaska, Kancewick has worked as an indigenous rights attorney for Native Alaskans, but the creative side of her needed an outlet.

Thursday on the KPC campus, Devine and Kancewick will be alternating in reading excerpts from their publications, which is done purposefully to contrast and complement the varying styles of similar themes.

In her new book, Devine shares moments and memories of migrating to Alaska, reconnecting with the land and people around the state and dealing with the death of her father. She also shares smaller stories — like navigating sea ice with whalers in the frozen north, flying above the tundra with a rookie bush pilot, and skiing with her baby on her back.

“These essays reflect on family, place, memory, work and Native culture,” Devine said. “They recognize the importance of place in my life.”

Kancewick said she hopes the listeners gain two perspectives from her work — to follow her in walking in the hooves of another species, and to recognize people’s connectedness and mutual vulnerability.

“I’m sharing the way my encounters with Alaska’s land, species and people have changed me,” Kancewick said. “So it behooves me to recognize and shoulder the responsibility with how my life intersects with others species.”

Kancewick said her experiences are organized not by chronological order, but by the season in which many of them occurred.

Thursday’s reading in the McLane Commons on the KPC campus will begin at 6:30 p.m.

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