‘Distinguished Service to the Humanities’

For nearly a dozen years, writers have been gathering annually on the shores of Kachemak Bay, sharing their talents, insights and expertise, and celebrating their enchantment with literature, thanks in no small measure to the enthusiasm of one woman.

Carol Swartz, director of the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College, launched the first Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in 2002 with the able help of her staff, faculty and members of the community. Since then, this yearly congress of novelists, essayists, poets, editors, agents and students in search of inspiration and writing skills has grown to national recognition, and put Homer on the literary world’s map.

Swartz recently was honored for her tireless efforts when Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell presented her with the Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities at a gala affair at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage.

She said she was “numb” and “shocked” when she first learned she would be getting the award. Many of those who know her say the honor was well deserved, citing her dedication to the campus and the conference.

“The college wouldn’t be where it is today if she wasn’t so determined and had the doggedness to make it happen,” said English Professor Beth Graber, who has worked with Swartz for more than two decades. “And the writers’ conference was something she sort of single-handedly put together, and then recruited many others who became key people. But it’s really Carol’s thing.”

“You can’t help but feel good,” Swartz said, “though I was very surprised by the number of cards, emails and letters” and “flattered and humbled by the whole thing.”

The honor, she continued, extends to the college and the community, which are “on the map” because of years of contribution to the arts and humanities by the college’s educators and the public.

“Anything I’ve done, I didn’t do alone,” she said. “It’s a collective award.”

Just prior to heading for Anchorage, Swartz was asked to write out her own introduction for the Captain Cook event. “That got a little weird,” she laughed.

She also had to draft a thank-you speech of a couple of minutes. “I saw it as an opportunity to talk about the campus in Homer and about the conferences,” she said.

Each year, the conference brings in 18 to 20 presenters, including a keynote speaker, and attracts between 120 and 160 registrants who travel from all over the country to attend the writers’ conference by the bay. People arrive from as far away as Florida, Virginia, Maine and Pennsylvania, as well as across Alaska, Swartz said, adding that many are drawn here by simple word-of-mouth, and by the chance to see Alaska at the same time.

There are several online sources dedicated to promoting various writers conferences around the nation, and the Kachemak Bay affair now is prominently included on event lists.

People come for a variety of reasons, Swartz said. Some come just to hear and enjoy works read by their favorite authors, others for education, some for professional development or to fulfill graduate degree requirements.

They get a great deal out of the experience, Swartz said, “in terms of improving their craft, listening to knowledgeable people talk about literature and its role in our culture and the world we live in.”

Whatever the reason people come, in recent years as high as 40 percent of those attending have been returning veterans of past conferences. 

“People say to me, ‘Gosh, this is the best one ever,’ and I happen to know they said that last year,” Swartz said. “The dynamic that occurs because of that is that attendees hit the deck running. They know what to expect, they understand the process, the sense of community. People focus on that — the community building, networking, the fact that you are accessible.” Those who are new “get swept in” to the excitement, she said. 

Hosting the conference means attending to the practical necessity of raising funds. Each year, Swartz writes grants and seeks corporate and individual sponsorships.

“We have been very fortunate,” Swartz said. An endowment to promote literacy left to the college by Caroline Musgrove-Coons has helped make the conference, and other events, successful, and allowed Swartz to leverage other donations, many of which come from hosts of individual supporters who wish to be engaged with the idea of the conference without necessarily attending.

Graber said Swartz’ efforts “made sure that Caroline’s vision came
to fruition.”

As the conference has grown into one of Alaska’s premier cultural events, expectations have increased as well. That’s a good problem to have, Swartz said, but it does add just a bit of additional pressure as one conference ends and she begins planning for the next.

The five-day event includes workshops, readings, manuscript reviews, “open mic” nights, panel presentations, agent and editor consultations and much more. 

Next year’s keynote speaker will be renowned poet Naomi Shihab Nye, author of several books of poetry.

Past luminaries have included such writers as Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote “The Hours,” Bill Roorbach, author of “The Smallest Color,” and Amy Tan, author of “The Joy Luck Club,” who Swartz remembered delivering her keynote address on the Mariner Theater stage still wearing her rubber boots.

Much more about the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, including registration documents, can be found on the Kachemak Bay Campus website.

Planning for, promoting and hosting the popular writers conference is done around a myriad of other management responsibilities. Swartz has directed the campus for 26 years, and has seen it change — a lot. Long gone are the days when the campus was home to a community college. The university system and the community college merged in the mid-1980s. Since then, Swartz said, she’s been battling a lingering perception that the campus is “just a two-year school.”

Fact is, she said, many of her professors are teaching 300- and 400-level courses, and four-year bachelor degrees, as well as assorted certificate programs are available at the Kachemak Bay Campus.