On Thursday, November 10, the Geneseo Literary Forum had the honor of hosting Inupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane who made her way to Geneseo from her home in Anchorage, Alaska. A faculty member of the MFA Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Kane’s recent accolades include the 2013 Arts and Cultures Foundation Literature Fellowship and the Whiting Writer’s award for her poetry collection, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife. Her poetry, rich with the scenery of her Arctic home, exposes convergences of family and isolation, of geographic and spiritual, and of the translatable and the intrinsic. Most of all, her poetry asks us to question those labels and the fragmented reality they imply.
I’ve studied some of Kane’s poetry in Professor Lytton’s Smith’s poetry seminar. Reading Hyperboreal, her second book, we all remarked on the quietness of the writing, moving us to ask ourselves: What formal elements create this “quiet?” This allowed us to ask questions about language, and how the formal elements of Kane’s poetry create an ambience that flows between mood, sensation, and space. The “geological,” we thought—words like katabatic, words that require a dictionary search to understand, words implying natural processes, familiar to local geology major transferred onto the page, but in a context of their own. Words of music, like fermata, used to title three poems. And, of course, Inupiaq—its presence in the poems questions conceptions of translation and linguistic spaces, and who is welcome into those spaces that aren’t directly accessible to outsiders. These are all questions of language, and how we understand it—Kane’s poetry lends us to those kinds of questions. Does the poetry lend itself to these questions or does it lead you to those?
These were questions that I asked not only when I read, but also when I heard Kane’s poetry. Not surprisingly, Kane’s poetry read aloud is as quiet as it is on the page. The natural imagery, icy but fluid, evoked touches and sounds of softness, of motherhood, and of peace, occupying the space of the Doty Recital Hall and insulating it from the world outside. At one point in the reading I closed my eyes to feel the kiss of snow and the susurrations of moving water, along with woods and quiet air.
Equally engaging were Kane’s honest words after the reading, many of which addressed the questions we had in poetry class. One student remarked on Kane’s usage of geological terms. Kane confirmed that she is a “science nerd,” but also admitted that natural imagery of geological formations, from faults to falls, has more to do with “words that you need to know in order to survive,” than it does with science.
I asked her about the use of Inupiaq in her poetry, and whether it represents a closed linguistic place or “world,” or asks for translation of sorts. Her answer was thought provoking and multifaceted—she remarked that bilingual poetry asks the reader to perform important code switching, and to appreciate the process of shifting between languages. But in the end, she called translatability a sort of fallacy, and gently corrected my use of “world”—languages don’t live in different worlds, they operate within different frameworks of the one we all live on. With Inupiaq-infused poetry, written in books and journals intended for an English-speaking audience, Kane asked us: “What does it mean to be unequipped?” and how does the language’s inaccessibility speak to issues that native people experience since colonization. Even with this in mind, I think many readers would agree that the spaces of Kane’s poetry, although complex, are images vivid enough for a reader to experience in visceral and quiet solitude.