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The written word finds a home in Alaska's state parks

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Posted: Sunday, October 6, 2013 7:30 am | Updated: 9:32 am, Sun Oct 6, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — When Frank Soos discovered the Chena River State Recreation Area in Fairbanks had been selected as one of two sites for Alaska’s Poems in Place project, he was inspired to act.

A retired English professor from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and avid fly fisherman, Soos spends considerable time in the 250,000-acre recreation area east of Fairbanks wading the Chena River and casting for Arctic grayling.

“When I heard it was one of the places picked I said, ‘I probably have something to say about that,’” Soos said.

The result is a poem called “The Blue Fish,” a term old-time Alaskans sometimes use for grayling.

“The first fish I caught in Alaska, back in 1986 or 1987, was an old grayling,” Soos said. “When they get older like that they do start getting blue along the top. I had no idea that particular fish was that unique. I’ve never caught one quite like that since.”

Soos’ poem was one of two selected from more than 120 to be placed in the Chena River State Recreation Area. It now sits mounted on a plaque on the bank of the Chena River in the Rose Hip Campground at 27 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road.

Having his poem selected was “an absolute honor,” he said.

“A lot of people submitted stuff and a lot of them are much better writers than I am,” Soos said.

At the dedication ceremony at Rose Hip Campground on Sept. 15, Soos read his poem to a small crowd that had gathered along the riverbank and joked that it would probably be the most read thing he has ever written.

“I wrote it specifically to go along the river,” Soos said.

Parks and poetry

That’s the whole point behind the Poems in Place project, which is a collaboration between the Alaska Center for The Book, Alaska State Parks, and a volunteer steering committee of poets and writers to celebrate the natural beauty of Alaska’s state parks through poetry.

The three-year project calls for poems written by Alaska writers to be placed in state parks around Alaska. This year, the sites selected by the committee were the Chena River State Recreation Area and Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan. Two poems were selected to be placed in each park. More than 120 poems were submitted.

In addition to Soos’ “The Blue Fish,” the other poem selected to go in the Chena River State Recreation Area was the late John Haines’ “Poem of the Forgotten,” which was placed at the North Fork Cabin at 47.8 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road.

Northern region state parks superintendent Brooks Ludwig has embraced the Poems in Place project and said it was “pretty cool” that the Chena River State Recreation Area was picked as one of the first sites for poems to be located.

“It’s just another nice interpretative opportunity,” Ludwig said. “They were done really well. I think the public will like really them.”

The Poems in Place project was the brainchild of Wendy Erd, a writer in Homer who wanted to honor her good friend Fairbanks poet Kim Cornwall, who died a little over three years ago.

Erd was out running one morning after Cornwall had passed away when she thought about a poem that Cornwall had written called “What Whales and Infants Know.” There was an epigram under the title that read, “Beluga Point, Turnagain Arm, Alaska.”

“It was really very clear in this moment of inspiration that that poem really needed to be at Beluga Point on Turnagain Arm,” Erd said.

Both Erd and Cornwall shared a love of Oregon poet William Stafford, and Erd was aware of a project that Stafford had worked on for the U.S. Forest Service in which he wrote poems that were placed at scenic pullouts along the Methow River instead of interpretive signs.

“The Methow River Poems,” as the book of poems later became known, was the last major project that Stafford worked on before his death 20 years ago and Erd thought it would be the perfect way to honor Cornwall’s memory. She called Chugah State Park superintendent Tom Harrison and told him her plan to put Cornwall’s poem at Beluga Point, which was inside the park. Harrison asked her to read the poem to him and to Erd’s surprise, he agreed. Erd raised the money to build and install the sign and it was dedicated in May of 2011.

Encouraged by the outcome and response from the public, Erd and others, including Charlotte Fox, then director of the Alaska State Council of the Arts, and Claire LeClair, deputy director for Alaska State Parks, decided to continue and expand the project. Erd received grants from the Rasmusson Foundation, the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Alaska State Council for Arts and the Usibelli Foundation to fund the project.

Erd attended the dedication ceremonies in Ketchikan and Fairbanks and said she was “really moved by depth of feeling the poets had when they read their poems and how they felt about their poems being published in that way.” Given their unique locations, the poems will be read by people who might never crack a book of poetry, she said.

The poems are meant to make people think about where they are and what makes that particular place special, Erd said.

“They’re going to be responding to that moment in that place,” she said. “That’s what’s different about Poems in Place and a book.”

Natural inspirations

The background of Soos’ poem features a photo of a large grayling swimming with a Mepps lure hooked in its mouth. It was placed on the riverbank near a deep cutbank that forms a good fishing hole and is close to a popular take-out for canoes, kayaks and rafts.

Soos said he couldn’t have picked a better spot for his poem.

“The day of the dedication would have been a good day to float a wet fly through there and catch a nice grayling,” he said.

Haines’ poem at the North Fork Cabin features a painting donated by Fairbanks artist Kess Woodward, who said it was an honor to be included in the project

Having served on the state arts council, Woodward knew about Poems in Place and was surprised when committee member Erin Hollowell contacted him

to see if she could use one of his images to serve as a background for Haines’ poem.

“I said, ‘Wow, that would be fantastic,’ ” Woodward said. “I’ve always loved that poem.”

Woodward selected an image of a birch tree he painted three years ago to go with the poem, which is about a young man coming to Alaska to build a cabin in the woods.

“I thought of this particular, young, confident birch tree being myself back when I was a young man,” Woodward said.

Woodward sent the image to Hollowell and had forgotten about it when he got a letter and invitation to the dedication ceremony from Erd a couple months later with a finished version of the poem and his painting.

“I was thrilled with what they did with it,” Woodward said.

Ludwig chose the North Fork Cabin as the site to put it because the cabin is the most popular public-use cabin in the rec area.

“It kind of fits the mystique John Haines writes about,” Ludwig said.

Woodward thought it was an appropriate setting for the poem and his painting.

“It was just beautifully placed,” he said. “It was wonderful to see the sign juxtaposed with the fall color and the cabin in the background.”

Fairbanks poet Peggy Shumaker read Haines’ poem at the dedication ceremony in Fairbanks. Shumaker, who served as Alaska’s state writer laureate from 2010-12, said the Poems in Place project will help people connect to the outdoors.

“Any time we are outdoors we’re forming a connection to place,” she said. “Often that connection is one we don’t articulate, we don’t find words for it.

“This adds layer of richness to anyone’s sense of place,” Shumaker said.

Next year, poems will be placed at Independence Mine State Historical Park in Hatcher Pass and Lake Alegnagik State Recreation Site  in Wood-Tikchik State Park near Dillingham. The call for poem submissions for those sites will go out in December.

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