On a recent evening, Joann Beard addressed a crowd of avid readers and writing students in a dimly lit auditorium. Beard was getting ready to read a passage from her 2011 novel In Zanesville, but paused to tell the audience she was looking for a buddy to explore the Anchorage Museum.
“So if anybody feels like going to the museum tomorrow afternoon, come see me afterwards and we’ll make a plan to go,” Beard said.
Opportunities to hang out with popular authors like Beard don’t pop up every day in Alaska, but the Northern Renaissance Arts and Science Series helps to foster a more accessible artistic community for writers. Every summer at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, distinguished authors from around the country come to read their work and offer advice to burgeoning writers.
The reading series is part of a two-week residency for masters students in the creative writing program. During the residency, students are plucked from their day-to-day lives as they work non-stop to hone their craft through a series of lectures, workshops, panels, and peer-critiques.
Lisa Sellge-Pachuta, a student in her second year of the MFA program, says that she is able to get more out of the residency than a regular semester on campus.
“I guess it’s the lack of distraction is what makes this so much more productive than a normal semester on campus,” Sellge-Pachuta said. “And we take it with us all year long. We talk to each other all year long, and we talk to our mentors all year long. But when we get here for these two weeks we’re one hundred percent focused and that’s what I love about it.”
But the nightly readings aren’t just for students. Year after year, community members sit in on the free public lectures with well-known writers.
Sherry Simpson, a professor of creative writing at UAA, said the series is valuable in a town where there aren’t many opportunities to hear authors from around the country. Simpson believes that while you can easily pick up a print copy of a book, there is something special about hearing the words read aloud by the writer.
“You can always return to those words, but they probably will never have the same power as when you heard the writer speak them out loud to everybody,” Simpson said.
In June, the state legislature cut $8 million from the University of Alaska’s current budget.
When asked about plans for the future of the residency and reading series, the program’s director, David Stevenson, just hopes to get through the fiscal issues facing public education in Alaska.
“We’re just going to try to keep ourselves viable and moving forward and filled with students,” Stevenson said. “And that’s a big enough task.”
To listen to recordings of readings from this year’s series visit the UAA’s podcast page.