Poet Joan Naviyuk Kane '00: Creating new songs

Joan Kane
Photo by Tony Rinaldo.
The Alaskan poet embraces her home from afar while at Harvard. She is the featured artist at a free pizza lunch on Nov. 15 at the Office for the Arts. 

By Sasha Barish ‘20

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to write about local crises for audiences outside of the local community. I suppose in my private writings that’s something I’ve been trying to do for years: I grew up in Northern California, with environmentalist activists in the family, and drought always felt like a peculiar part of my everyday life. In recent years, as the effects of climate change in communities across the U.S. have escalated from rainfall averages and water-saving reminders to frequent and severe natural disasters, as the way people talk about the everyday impacts has shifted, the issue has been more and more often on my mind.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to someone who has figured out as well as anyone how to creatively express, among other topics, the environmental and political crises in her home: Alaskan lyric poet and 2019-20 Radcliffe fellow Joan Naviyuk Kane ‘00. Kane will be the Office for the Arts’ guest for food and conversation at ArtsBites on November 15, which Harvard undergraduate students and Harvard Community members can register for here. She will also be presenting her poems at the Radcliffe Institute in February.

Kane’s office at Radcliffe is a family space both for practical reasons and by choice. Her younger son moved out to the hallway for the duration of my visit, and her older son hangs around at the scanner, eagerly digitizing the dictionary of their Inupiaq dialect. Her distant cousin, who’s doing a master’s degree in Linguistics at MIT and is heavily involved in Inupiaq language revitalization, comes to some of her talks. She speaks on the phone with family members in Alaska on a daily basis, and much of her writing is about her home, such as the organizing themes of her Inuit community’s history and culture, and the specific flora and fauna she mentions in her poetry.

“I need to make sense for my sons of why we’re here and why it’s important to be engaged with other writers and thinkers in the native community,” she told me, “and to be able to speak our language here and honor the tradition of Inuit as people who have occupied many thousands of miles of the globe for a long time.”

I asked if it felt strange to be doing this work here in Cambridge, rather than there in Alaska.

“I don’t think it’s that different,” Kane said; she carries her oral traditions and her memories and her physical books with her every time she moves. “I guess in some ways – perhaps it’s romanticization – if you’re writing in exile, it gives you a different perspective. Being here I have some critical distance from it, but also a sense of perspective.”

At the same time, though, it’s more than critical distance that brings Kane back to Harvard.

“Alaska is a pretty grim place right now, politically, economically, and in terms of our natural disasters," she said. "The day we left, there were more than 2 million acres of wildfires burning, and as we were putting everything in these little flat-rate boxes, we had to wear masks. I feel really fortunate to be able to come here and have my sons and me in a safer place, and certainly one in which I can focus more on the projects I want to pursue and worry less about basic infrastructure and other things which are really not conducive to writing experimental lyric poems.”

Kane often incorporates the Inupiaq language into her English-language poetry. In her first book, she minimized her use of Inuit words and declined to add a notes section because she wanted to be read poetically and lyrically rather than anthropologically.

“But after the publication of that book, and having two sons,” she said, “I felt very fortunate to have the language at all. Most people of my generation, our parents were subject to assimilative policies in the boarding schools. My mom was physically punished for speaking the language. When I wrote my second book, I felt more responsibility to use the language, and I felt freer from being lensed as an Inuit poet. Poems create their audience as much as they create their speaker, and they create their context as much as they’re driven by content.”

Kane has also taken inspiration from Inupiaq oral and musical traditions more and more recently, largely because of a recent push to revitalize those traditions in an era where her generation is moving beyond the institutional assimilation forced on her parents.

“One of the things we were doing as a community of King Islanders in Anchorage in 2018 was getting together weekly to practice our traditional songs,” Kane said, and added that her tribal community and others she has worked with have even started writing new music in the old traditions. “In this era of self-determination I feel a lot more empowered to create new songs.”