Wendy Willis in Alaska!

Wendy Willis is a poet and essayist living in Portland, Oregon. Her second book of poems, A Long Late Pledge, won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the 2018 Oregon book award. Her first book of poems, Blood Sisters of the Republic, was published by Press 53 in 2012. Her most recent book, These are Strange Times, My Dear, traces her path through this perilous moment in American political and civic life and has recently been named a finalist for the 2020 Oregon Book Award. Wendy is also the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the founding director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table, a project of the National Policy Consensus Center in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.

How are you connected to the Forum?

This is my first—but hopefully not my last—collaboration with the Forum. I am not a complete stranger, though, since I have been deeply involved with your counterpart to the south, Oregon Humanities. Public humanists are my people, for sure! I have written for Oregon Humanities magazine and led community conversations, and, in 2016, I even worked with them on a statewide gathering focused on home and belonging.

One of the things I love about the public humanities is that it values people and ideas in equal measure. As the great educator and philosopher Paulo Freire put it: “To glorify democracy and to silence the people is a farce; to discourse on humanism and to negate people is a lie.” It is a great gift to all of us that organizations like Alaska Humanities Forum and Oregon Humanities are working in our communities to connect us to important and ideas and, even more, to one another.

What’s one Alaskan story you’ve heard or read that you would recommend to others?

I was introduced to Alaska through literature long before I made my first visit. I became enchanted with the far north when I first read Barry Lopez’s Artic Dreams in college. And then, many years later, I came to know the poems of Peggy Shoemaker and Erin Coughlin Hollowell and Eva Saulitis. Sherry Simpson introduced me to “bear TV” at Brooks Falls through her book, Dominion of Bears. (I have to admit that I still sometimes keep the bear TV livestream running on the corner of my desktop at work).

But my literary introduction that turned into my real-life introduction to Alaska came through the incredible writer and Iditarod finisher, Debbie Moderow. I met Debbie in graduate school and had the chance to read and hear her read parts of her memoir—Fast into the Night—as a work-in-progress.

Through Debbie and her book (and eventually through her whole family), I learned about sled dogs and mushing and back-country Alaska. I learned about the teetering edge between finishing the grueling thousand mile race and not. Fast-forward to today. As I write this, I am warming up after watching the second day of the Fur Rondy sled dog races. I am moving back and forth between patting Manicotti, a gorgeous 7-year-old Alaskan husky that has come into the house to recover from an injury and Brie, a 14-year-old elder who is curled up on her bed in the corner of the living room. Through getting to know the Moderows and their dogs, a part of Alaska has come off the page and into my life.

What’s one thing you have been curious about lately?

I have become curious about the very small. Over the past year or so, I have come to realize how much I have gotten stuck in the middle distance. Maybe it’s from reading too much political news, but my attention lingers somewhere in the two-to-eight-feet-from-my-face-range, and it takes real work to train my eye—and even my ear—elsewhere.

I know some of it is because of the mediating experience of the screen, always there, always just a foot or two away. Some of it is because I live so much of my life inside, where the middle distance dominates. And some of it is because I spend most of my time standing up, far from the ground, where so much tiny life goes on, unnoticed. I do a little better at directing my attention toward the massive, toward far away vistas or the big sweeping ideas, but I have some real work to do when it comes to noticing and cataloging the minuscule and the fleeting.

What question do you wish more people asked you?

When my husband and I first met, he asked me: “How’s your inner life?” My reply: “Complicated.” I guess that about sums it up.

I also wish people would ask me about my dogs.

What conversations do we need to be having (or having more of) in Alaska?

Well, I wouldn’t presume to say what Alaskans should be talking about, but I think it is an interesting question for all of us to consider. If I could have my wish, we would feel free to ask one another what breaks your heart? It seems like we spend an awful lot of time and energy papering over suffering just to make it through the day. And, as a result, we do and say things to try to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others. If we asked and answered the questions around deep suffering and vulnerability, I think we would be much less likely to mow others down in our efforts to prop ourselves up. I love these lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem “From the Republic of Conscience”:

The woman in customs asked me to declare

the words of our traditional cures and charms

to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.

You carried your own burden and very soon

your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

And then, after we’ve told the truth about the things that pain us, we can ask one another: what brings you joy?

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