Following a hiatus last year in which Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference organizers considered how to reformat the annual Homer celebration of literary arts, the conference returns this weekend May 15-18 in a smaller, virtual format.
That might not have been the restart anticipated when Kachemak Bay Campus Director Reid Brewer postponed the conference because of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cuts to the University of Alaska Anchorage budget in September 2019. Providentially, that decision happened before the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have canceled the 2020 conference anyway.
As a perpetual sign on the annual Burning Basket art project notes, “Prepare for opportunity disguised as loss.” The pause in the conference allowed organizers to rethink how they want to bring together poets, writers and readers in a weekend of discussions on craft, technique and the challenges of making art from language. Aside from not holding the conference face-to-face, other changes include a new conference director, poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell, and a smaller number of faculty members.
“We had transitioned having Erin as the director,” Brewer said. “We thought about reimagining the writers’ conference going forward. With COVID coming, that confirmed our decision not to have it last year.”
One popular event does continue: public readings by conference teachers and attendees. Those, too, will be held virtually through a Zoom link, with the audio portion broadcast by KBBI Public Radio, 890 AM. Readings are 7 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
This year’s faculty includes Alaskans Vera Stabbard, Perseverance Theatre Playwright-in-Residence, and Ernestine Hayes, a former Alaska Poet Laureate. Joining them are Francisco Cantú, award winning author of “The Line Becomes a River”; Victoria Chang, poet and children’s book author; Brandon Hobson, author of “The Removed”; International Poetry Slam winner Anis Mojgani, and Marie Matsuki Mockett, author of “Picking Bones from the Ash” and “Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye.”
Hollowell decided on a smaller group of poets and writers to make events more accessible to literary artists across genres. In past years, the multi-track programs made it hard to attend all presentations.
“This is the year if you were a fiction writer and wondered what would be happening in poetry, you could go to it,” she said.
With the virtual format, potentially thousands of people could attend. Hollowell chose to cap registration at 125 attendees, similar to the size of the live conference.
“I felt as a teacher, as someone who has taught in these Zoom sessions, once you get above 100 people, it’s like talking to a wall,” Hollowell said.
Registration has closed, but there is a waiting list if people want to sign up in the event of cancellations.
The conference also is held in mid May rather than in mid June to better fit the schedule of college students just finishing the semester and before they start summer jobs or other adventures. Brewer said that approach seems to have worked, with a record number of students — 17 — enrolling in the conference and taking advantage of the student fee. Students can attend the conference for academic credit, but Hollowell said that despite scholarships, only one student enrolled, and it had to be cancelled.
Hollowell said holding the conference in mid May also allows it to piggy back on the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, usually held around Mother’s Day. That could lead to some synergy between the two events and maintain the momentum of shoulder-season events that have been a soft opening for the summer tourist season.
The Zoom sessions will be monitored by members of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference Advisory Committee, which includes former faculty like Rich Chiappone, Nancy Lord and Peggy Shumaker. They’ll help with things like monitoring Zoom chats and question-and-answer sessions. Hollowell said she wanted to involve the committee members to see what the conference looks like so far.
“The advisory committee has done so much work from this time last year,” Hollowell said. “This isn’t the finished product. This is the mid-way point between what they and I are envisioning for when we’ll be back face-to-face.”
Live-conference attendees praised the fellowship of being with other writers as one of the attractions. Held at Land’s End Resort, with many visiting particpants staying at the Homer Spit hotel, the venue invited people to mingle. Hollowell said they’ll try to duplicate that virtually with what she’s calling an “open cohort lunch,” where attendees visit in Zoom “break out” rooms to talk about poetry, fiction and anything else. There also will be writing sessions.
With the hope that by next spring the pandemic danger will have lessened to a tolerable level, like influenza, in May of 2021 the conference will be back, alive and in person.
“That’s what we’re planning,” Hollowell said. “… Get your vaccinations.”
Another change for next year might be holding the conference at the Pioneer Avenue location of the Kachemake Bay Campus, right in downtown Homer.
“Part of the benefit of being in town is it spreads the income a little more into town,” Hollowell said. “It’s a little more walkable. We’ll see. We want to use our campus.”
Brewer said the final decision to move the conference from Land’s End has not been made.
The virtual format also allows for the conference to be as ADA-accessible as possible. All presentations will include what’s called “meaning for meaning” captioning, with people writing the captions. Hollowell and Reid said they also sought a more culturally and racially diverse faculty. Hollowell came up with a list the advisory committee generated.
“I told them, ‘Be as diverse as possible. Bring in voices we don’t hear every day,’” she said.
“Our vision for this was we would be as inclusive toward a broader spectrum audience, whether that’s ethnicity or race, but we also wanted to include students in it,” Brewer said.
As the conference looks ahead, Hollowell said she has embraced a mantra that also applies to life in the pandemic: “Make a decision, and then if you need to, make a different decision.”
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via Zoom and KBBI Am 890
7 p.m. Saturday, May 15
Francisco Cantú, Victoria Chang, Vera Starbard
7 p.m. Sunday, May 16m
Brandon Hobson, Marie Mockett, Anis Mojgani
7 p.m. Monday, May 17
Conference participants reading