Since 2002, the nationally recognized Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference has aimed at bringing together people of similar talents in order to teach them, challenge them, and provide a venue for creativity, ingenuity and camaraderie to flow amongst them. For 17 years, this writers’ conference, organized by Kachemak Bay Campus Director Carol Swartz and facilitated by a roster of annually-rotating faculty, has achieved and exceeded that goal.
I have attended the previous two conferences in 2016 and 2017, and while they were both memorable and educational experiences, this year’s Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference that took place June 8-12 was certainly one for the books.
Perhaps the greatest thing that made this particular conference noteworthy, according to many of the attendees, was this year’s keynote guest speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr.
Doerr not only provided the keynote address on Friday, June 8 at Land’s End Resort in Homer, but also remained active throughout the rest of the conference, interacting one-on-one with the faculty and attendees and giving talks and public readings as per the conference schedule.
On Saturday, June 9, I attended Doerr’s public reading at the Mariner Theatre in Homer High School. When I arrived at 7:30 p.m., a large crowd of people were already gathered in the commons and several were lined up in front of a table bearing stacks of Doerr’s novels that were for sale. I found a seat in the auditorium and watched as what seemed like all of Homer filed in and squeezed themselves into the limited space. I had no idea what to expect from Doerr or from the reading he was giving that night, but as the starting time drew nearer, an infectious excitement spread throughout the auditorium. Finally, the evening began.
Swartz gave her introduction first, welcoming the audience to “one of University of Alaska’s premier events.” Next onstage was University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen to introduce Doerr himself.
“His love of learning…his care for his readers — it matters how you read and how you understand what he writes, and related to that, his need to get it right … and in addition to all of that, his infectious sense of humor … all that powerful package drives his wonderful work,” Johnsen said. “And that’s why I think we here in Homer, Alaska … are so proud to have him here and why we in my office continue to support this very important event.”
Doerr chose to read his short story entitled “The Deep,” which is set in Detroit during the Great Depression and tells of the life of a young boy named Tom, who was born with a hole in his heart in a time when it couldn’t have been repaired by surgery. The story was inspired by Doerr’s own experiences when one of his sons was born with an atrial-septal defect, or a hole in his heart, as well as Doerr’s musings on whale falls and his desire to create a character who spoke only in similes.
As Doerr unfolded the story, I was transfixed by his use of poetic prose and his command of language. Looking around at my fellow audience members, I could tell that it was a mutually felt experience, and in that moment, every individual in the auditorium was linked by the emotions invoked through the words that poured from Anthony Doerr.
I was able to speak to Doerr for a few minutes on the final day of the conference, just before the closing luncheon and ceremony began. Many people were hoping to catch his attention for a brief minute, to thank him or ask questions or get an autograph. However, I found that no matter how many different directions he might be pulled in from moment to moment, when he spoke to you, he gave you his full and undivided attention and treated you with kindness and respect.
I asked Doerr why, out of all of his available writings, he’d chosen to read “The Deep” on Saturday. He said he’d picked the story firstly because it was short and he would be able to give us something with an ending, rather than simply reading an excerpt from one of his novels. Doerr also thought ‘The Deep”’ would be an appropriate selection the audience could relate to, seeing as the conference is held at the end of the road in Homer, Alaska, right on the ocean.
Out of the entirety of his experience in Homer, Doerr said the thing he would take away was meeting all of the people that attended the conference and hearing their unique stories.
“Also, it’s been a discovery for me that American communities do still exist,” Doerr said. “You know, (Homer) isn’t like the places where we come home, close the door and shut everyone out. No, people here talk to their neighbors, they help each other out, and they always seem to know what’s going on.”
While many conference attendees agreed that having Doerr as the guest speaker was the highlight of the weekend, the conference faculty and presenters also worked hard and contributed a great deal of their time and energy to provide the attending writers with a fantastic selection of workshops, panels, and activities from which to choose.
On Saturday, June 9, I attended local author Richard Chiappone’s workshop on the privileges and responsibilities of the first-person point-of-view narrator. Chiappone held an interactive seminar with his audience, in which they used examples of famous literary works, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” to discuss the merits of using the first-person point of view and its degree of reliability compared to works that use the traditional third-person point of view.
I noticed during this conference that several of the presenters had unique topics for the attending writers, ones that I had never seen before on the previous occasions that I was an attending writer. On Sunday, June 10, resident poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell introduced us to scientific poetry in her workshop “Yoked: How Poems of Science Pull Twice the Load.” Hollowell brought examples of poetry from authors including Elizabeth Bradfield and Linda Bierds to demonstrate how beauty is yoked to science, and how the poets “must include enough of the facts to tell the story while maintaining the compression dictated by the poetic form.” Hollowell also invited attendees to try their hand at incorporating science into their own poetry during a writing exercise.
On Monday, June 11, Hollowell continued to introduce the attending writers to new poetic ideas and forms with her workshop on the ghazal form and content. The ghazal form is an Arabic verse often performed by singers in Iran, India, and Pakistan that consists of highly lyric couplets. Hollowell again provided examples of the poetic form before working with attending writers who wanted to try writing their own.
I asked Hollowell why she’d chosen the workshop topics that she had this year. She was inspired by Robert Hass’s “A Little Book on Form” and wanted to focus on using poems as a container and choosing subjects to fit a certain “container.”
“When I’m pitching (ideas), I tend to choose one thing that no one in the class will have experience in and start with easy poems and forms, as an introduction,” Hollowell said. “Then I choose a second thing that is more familiar to the group but is a step up from the normal.”
This year, Hollowell chose science poetry as the new workshop topic and the ghazal form as a challenging deviation from the usual couplet.
Faculty were not the only ones presenting at this year’s conference. As with every year, attendees were invited to sign up for slots for open mic. I was blown away by the open mic performances given on Monday, June 11, which included excerpts from the memoirs of Homer poet Wendy Erd and author Linda Fritz, niece of the late longtime Alaska doctor Milo Fritz, as well as an excerpt from the action/adventure novel of Homer resident Ellie Sythe and several selections of original poetry from other performers.
At the closing ceremony on Tuesday, June 12, I spoke to several of the attendees to gather their thoughts on the conference and their experiences that weekend. Annette Alleva from Anchorage has been coming to the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference since 2008 and is always grateful to see the quality of the writers and the camaraderie between the attendees and the presenters. Mary Katkze, also from Anchorage, is finishing her first novel and was at the conference for the first time to “get her feet wet in this world” and sit down with an editor to review her manuscript. Justin Herrmann from Homer was a presenter on flash fiction at the writers’ conference in 2015 and was working as a workshop monitor during this year’s conference.
“Every year, the faculty is accessible,” Herrmann said. “Every year, the highlight is just having so many great minds together.”
Doerr ended up giving closing remarks during the ceremony, as the previously scheduled speaker, writer and Native elder Larry Merculieff, was unable to attend due to an unexpected medical emergency.
As the weekend drew to a close, Swartz announced that next year’s keynote speaker will be Diane Ackerman, author of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” which was recently turned into a major motion picture. The 2019 Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference is currently scheduled for June 14-18, 2019. I know that I am already looking forward to what will be in store.