Ernestine Saankalaxt’ Hayes to be named 17th Alaska State Writer Laureate

The 17th Alaska State Writer Laureate will be officially announced tonight at the Governor’s Awards for the Arts and Humanities in Juneau.

In addition to the evening’s awards presentation and live arts performances, Juneau-based Ernestine Saankalaxt’ Hayes will be officially honored as the Alaska State Writer Laureate.

Hayes belongs to the Kaagwaantaan, or wolf clan, on the Eagle side of the Tlingit nation.

She may be best known because of her award-winning book “Blond Indian,” a memoir that chronicles the author’s early life between Alaska and California.

Listen to the story here:

The Alaska State Council on the Arts facilitates the selection of the Writer Laureate. The Governor’s Awards for the Arts and Humanities can be seen on 360 North beginning at 8 p.m.

Beyond publications and awards however, the state’s writer laureate must be nominated to the Alaska State Council on the Arts — in this case it was by Homer-based writer, poet and teacher Erin Hollowell.

“I would like to flatter myself that she recognized lyricism in my prose,” Hayes said.

Most know that prose refers to standard writing — or writing that is not poetry or drama for theater. But what is lyricism?

“It is prose that has elements of poetry,” Hayes said. “So that when we say, What is creative nonfiction? One common understanding is that it is nonfiction writing that has some of the characteristics and techniques of fiction. And, for me, lyrical prose is like that except that it has some of the characteristics and techniques that are commonly associated with poetry.”

Here is an excerpt of Hayes reading from “Blonde Indian.” Note how the writing, especially toward the end of the selection, could indeed be read from a poem.

“…and he’d never take another drink and he’d be a good husband to Mabel and a good father to Patricia and even a good son to Old Tom and a good friend to everybody and he would never let another swallow of saltwater fill his mouth–migod he should never have bought that last pint of vodka or even the beer–he couldn’t feel the tears on his skin or hear his last bubbling gasps as his face sank into the cold wet hidden inlet where the smell of the ocean, the feel of the spray, the sound of the gulls, the taste of the salt, the sight of mountain behind mountain behind island behind island, falling back and back in shadows and gray and dark green would never change.”

When Alaska’s laureate program started in the early 1960s it was only for poets.

In the mid-1990s the program broadened to include all genres of writing, and is now a two-year appointment.

Being the laureate means more than talented writing — it includes working with Alaskans to promote literature in the arts.

Another reason Hayes thinks she was selected was because of her recent participation in the Alaska Reads program. In February she visited 15 communities personally, and later, an additional 18 communities via teleconference.

“I did workshops and readings. I visited book stores, Highland Mountain (Correctional Facility), different sorts of schools, incarcerated people, senior centers, and Bean’s Café in Anchorage,” Hayes said. “I was thrilled and honored to meet so many Alaskans and hear their stories.”

That program, Alaska Reads, was an initiative created by the outgoing Writer Laureate Frank Soos. Hayes said she also has a concept for what she’d like to accomplish.

“Asking people of different generations to write and share parts of their stories and perform one another’s words,” Hayes said.

In the meantime, Hayes can often be found at the University of Alaska Southeast, where she teaches writing.

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