Story last updated at 11/24/2010 - 11:43 am
"I come from many generations of storytellers. Poetry is the medium I use to tell our stories."
So Vivian Faith Prescott introduces Slick, her collection of prose poetry recently published as a digital chapbook by White Knuckle Press.
Vivian was born and raised in Wrangell and now lives in Sitka. She is of Sáami, Suomalainen, and Irish descent, and her children are Raven of the T'akdeintaan clan/Snail House. Vivian's poetry has been published in Kingfisher, Explorations, Avoset: A Journal of Nature Poems, Tidal Echoes, Ice Box, Permafrost, Cutthroat and Cirque.
Vivian holds a PhD in Cross Cultural Studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is the co-director of the non-profit Raven's Blanket, which promotes Native and non-Native Alaskan artists, and advances and advocates for the cultural wellness and traditions of Indigenous people throughout the world.
The Capital City Weekly interviewed Vivian via e-mail (she's currently living on the Coast Guard base in Puerto Rico, where her husband is stationed). She told us about the development of Slick, the storytellers and writers who have influenced her, and the work she's doing to support other writers and artists in Alaska and beyond.
Slick can be read for free online at https://sites.google.com/site/whiteknucklechaps/home/slick.
CCW: How did "Slick" originate? Did the BP oil spill influence its development?
VFP: The poems in Slick originated in stages. I'd been writing the poems, but with a focus on Raven the trickster. I had found out that the Exxon Valdez was refurbished and sent out as a new vessel with a new name so I wrote a poem about it called "Raven addresses Trickery." But since the BP spill in the Gulf, I realized that many of my poems were linked, some rather loosely, by the subject of oil. I came up with the title "Slick," which is synonymous for "trickery."
Slick contains a poem about my son's job with BP and another about my brother-in-law's job with a contractor on the North Slope. In another poem, I personify the Permanent Fund dividend checks. "Living by a Tank Farm Cradle Song" is a poem about my family home in Wrangell that was (and still is) contaminated by an oil company.
CCW: How did the Exxon Valdez spill intersect with and affect your life? Did you write anything in response at the time?
VFP: I was busy raising four children when the Exxon spill happened and I felt helpless at being unable to assist with the cleanup. I didn't write anything on the subject at that time but the poem in Slick called "Response Teams" is a reflection of that helplessness.
CCW: Your Author's Statement in Slick begins, "I come from many generations of storytellers." How have the storytellers in your family influenced you and your work?
VFP: My great-great grandfather, Anton Amundsen, on my father's side, was a storyteller, as was my grandfather. My father is also a storyteller. Most of the stories I heard growing up were fishing and hunting stories.
My grandfather, on my mother's side, Al Binkley, was a writer and he left us with a collection of memoir. Plus, my mother self-published a book about her life in a bizarre UFO cult that she started in Wrangell, Alaska, in the 1960s. My two sisters and my brother and I are storytellers of sorts. My oldest sister is a writer too. And my brother has a novel and a children's book in progress. He's a private investigator in Georgia and he can sure tell stories.
I'm recording my father's stories now. He has a story about the time Wrangell burned down in the 50s. And he's told me the story of how my grandfather was felt up by a giant Pacific octopus that he'd caught while out trolling. His stories are great: trapping, pet brown bears, bounty hunting, lumber mill stories, a tidal wave story. I've woven these stories into my own memoir and I use them in my fiction too.
My grandfather's octopus story is coming out soon in an anthology on man's relationship to animals published by Native West Press. It's called "Devilfish." William Binkley, my outlaw grandfather is fictionalized in a story called "A Boat Named Coffin" that appears in Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska. Also in that same anthology is a true story called "Escape from Planet Alaska." It's an account of the time my siblings and I, as children, were kidnapped by my mother in her attempt to take us from my father to live in her UFO cult, the Family of Aurora Dea.
CCW: Who are some other Alaskan writers and storytellers who have influenced or inspired you?
VFP: From my culture, I'm influenced by Vainamoinen, a bard in the Kalevala as well as Sáami oral traditions. I'm really inspired by Juneau storyteller Ishmael Hope and, of course, Gene Tagaban. I love Richard and Nora Dauenhauer's work and the late Andy Hope's poetry and prose. Also, I really enjoy John Straley and Derick Burleson's poetry. My graduate work was in the study of Native American literature and specifically Alaska Native Women's literature, so Mary TallMountain and Sister Goodwin influenced my early work.
Nancy Lord, our former Alaska State Writer Laureate, has been most inspiring for me as a writer. Her book, The Man Who Swam with Beavers inspired my own short story collection. And I've been reading Peggy Shumaker's work lately. Peggy is our new Writer Laureate. Her memoir Just Breathe Normally is considered a lyrical memoir, which is how I describe my own memoir.
I'm also inspired by other mediums such as weaving and filmmaking. I love that Clarissa Rizal and Teri Rofar weave stories into their raven's tail and Chilkat robes. Then there are the storytellers who participate, every day, in keeping their cultures alive. My husband's friend and hunting partner from Hoonah, Owen James, is a terrific storyteller as is my daughter, Vivian Mork.
CCW: Why did you decide to publish a digital chapbook? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of this form compared to a print chapbook?
VFP: A chapbook is a shorter book of poetry, typically around twenty pages. In researching where I could publish this collection I came across White Knuckle Press' call for prose poems. I read through their submission guidelines and the journals they publish online and felt they were a perfect fit. They were trying to find a manuscript for their first digital publication. I decided it would be good to have some exposure on the internet. I have a blog called Planet Alaska that can be found at planetalaska.blogspot.com and a website vivianfaithprescott.com so I know the power of the Internet. I've had poems and short stories published online at Weird Year, Copperfield Review and Alaska Women Speak. Recently, I won a finalist position at Winning Writers War Poetry Contest. Three of my poems are published online at their website. After these successes, I thought I should publish a digital chapbook that readers can read for free and won't go out of print.
Of course, the disadvantage for us book lovers is that we don't get to hold the book in our hands. There's nothing like that.
CCW: I'm interested in learning more about Raven's Blanket. How did the organization get started, and what are some of the projects you've worked on?
VFP: My non-profit, Raven's Blanket, was started by my oldest daughter, Vivian Mork, and myself. We wanted to be able to fund our own creative ventures plus help the communities in which we live. Our cousin Valerie Ni hEideain is also involved. Raven's Blanket was designed to enhance and perpetuate the cultural wellness and traditions of Indigenous peoples through education, media, and the arts; and to promote the artistic works of both Native and non-native Alaskans throughout Alaska. We were inspired by Dorik Mechau and Carolyn Servid of Sitka's Island Institute plus all the work that Sealaska Heritage Foundation does.
My interests are literary and my daughter's interests are community projects and cultural activities: carving, language revitalization, filmmaking, and storytelling. We eventually want to be a resource for all, both Native and non-Native Alaskans.
Our first project was to create a literary award. We've worked with Cirque's Mike Burwell to create the Andy Hope Literary Award, which will be offered to any writer published in Cirque. Cirque is a regional journal for the North Pacific Rim published in Anchorage. Soon, we hope to work with Tidal Echoes to create another literary award, although they don't know it yet.
In working with the Tlingit language revitalization, Raven's Blanket's co-director, my daughter Vivian Mork, recently moved home to Wrangell where she's creating a Tlingit language nest. She teaches Tlingit language at both the college and community level. Her passion in life is the revitalization of the Tlingit language. She's T'akdeintaan from the Snail House.
When I return home next year, I want Raven's Blanket to start recording more Wrangell stories. Wrangell has such as rich history that many people don't know about. Pat Roppel is probably one of the few Wrangell historians. Not many people know about my outlaw great-grandfather, the Great Elk Slayer, William Binkley, who fled to Wrangell in the early 1900s. Not many people know about my mother's UFO cult that started in Wrangell. The cult members were convinced that a spaceship called the Starlighter had crash-landed and the spirits of the aliens were born into human bodies. Eventually, with the help of my father and a state trooper's threats, the cult members, my mother included, were run out of town. They established themselves in Salem, Ore., where my mother stayed active in the cult for twenty years. I'm writing both poetry and prose about that now. My current MFA manuscript is called Bitter Water People and the poems are all about those Wrangell stories.
Raven's Blanket is also going to start a small press focusing on publishing chapbooks by Southeast Alaskans. We want to publish poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. There are a lot of wonderful writers in Southeast who don't seem to get the same exposure as writers from Anchorage, Homer, or Fairbanks. I love reading Tidal Echoes and getting a sense of the talent. I expect to read Dick Dauenhauer as well as Robin Holloway, Richard Stokes, and Tina Johnson. And I'm also surprised by the new talent. I'm in UAA's low residency MFA and there are a handful of writers from Juneau in the program. So I'm getting to know Southeast writers and their work.
CCW: Has living outside of Alaska changed how you think and write about Alaska?
VFP: For the past year, I've been living at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen in Puerto Rico. My husband and I have one more year to serve. My husband, Howie Martindale, is a reserve officer and an aero-medical Physician Assistant. How did I end up in Puerto Rico? My husband had returned home after being gone for seven months on a tour of duty in Kuwait with the Coast Guard, when he asked if I wanted to go to Puerto Rico. I said, "Sure, why not?" I think it was a rainy day in Sitka when he asked me.
My husband is also in UAA's MFA program so we've had to travel home to Alaska for their summer residency. We started an adult writers group at the air station in Puerto Rico as a part of our MFA practicum. It's still going strong. I also recently started a teen writers group and one for ages 9-12. I have five students in each young writers group. They are very lively and inspiring and I have to do all their writing prompts as well.
Being away from home is excruciatingly painful, especially when my father calls and tells me the salmon are biting at Babbler Point in Wrangell. But, having stepped back from family, friends and culture, I've been able to have time to work on my seven manuscripts. I'm not spending my time out fishing for halibut. Although, I admit that Puerto Rico's tropical beaches and daily 85 degree temperatures are a distraction for me.
Recently, a friend from Sitka asked me when I'm coming home. I told her that when the Cohos are running and the blueberries are ripe, I'll be home.
CCW: What writing projects are you currently working on?
VFP: I'm currently working on the final details for my soon-to-be-published poetry collection The Hide of My Tongue. These poems chronicle the historical and familial loss of the Tlingit language plus the revitalization efforts. It'll be published by Plain View Press in the spring of 2011.
I've also finished a middle-grade fantasy novel set in the Pacific Northwest and I'm shopping around for an agent. My other poetry manuscript My Father's Smokehouse is being considered by a poetry press. And I'm slowly getting pieces from my completed memoir The Wind and the Amoeba published.
And my short story collection is nearly completed. Many of those flash fiction stories are already published: "The-Man-Who-Married-a-Tree," "Salmon Woman," and "Daughter-of-the-Tides." The short story collection is about Wrangell, Alaska, and features fictionalized stories of real people and events: my great-grandfather, William Binkley, Wrangell's UFO cult, John Muir, and Wrangell's town fire. The working title is The Dead Go to Seattle, which is based upon a myth we Wrangellites tell ourselves about missing persons: our best hope is that our loved ones haven't really drowned or disappeared. Surely, they'll show up in Seattle one day.
Vivian Faith Prescott's new chapbook, "Slick," can be read for free online at https://sites.google.com/site/whiteknucklechaps/home/slick. Her personal website is www.vivianfaithprescott.com.