In windy Skagway, the boat people make their way from the cruise ships into town several times a day, clogging the streets and shops. I meet them or walk among them on the seven-minute stroll from my trailer to the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, where I have been attending my fourth edition of the annual North Words Writers’ Symposium from May 28 to 31.
There have been five. I missed last year’s because I had a different trip in mind at the other end of the summer.
As the first Yukoner to attend this conference back at the beginning, and one of two to attend it this year, I do stand out a bit. When I read short essays to the crowd during the participant reading session, there are some Canadian references I have to explain.
Michael Gates, a fellow Yukoner, is on the faculty for the conference this year. He read at the faculty reading, which was held one evening.
Therein lies the difference between a conference and a symposium. There are between 22 and 25 paid attendees at this event, and they are not here to listen. Panels are composed of faculty members, who are matched up according to their writing. Each forum has ample opportunity for the delegates to ask questions and offer opinions or examples about topics at hand.
We chuckle over some of the forum titles, devised by Haines-based writer and theoretician Daniel Henry. They are ambiguous, suggestive, and lead discussions down many byways.
Here are a few of them:
“Breathing Life into Landscape: The Hot Pulse of Indifferent Earth”; “The Winning Memoir: Me, Thee, and Our Moment of Truth”; “My Dog Spot: Making the Ordinary Compelling”; “Edible Poetry: Diet for Small Moment”; “Reality Basted: Writing Readable History that Sticks to the Facts”; “Toot Your Horn: Being Heard in the Traffic Jam”.
The forums are held at the striking but echo-y AB Hall, its exterior veneered in driftwood, and at First Presbyterian Church of Skagway, an octagonal sanctuary with fine acoustics.
The forum was founded by Henry and Buckwheat Donahue, who came up with the idea during his fundraising walk from Florida to Nome, and then from Whitehorse to Skagway, which he began back in October 2005.
The town of Skagway finances this forum, as does Skagway News publisher Jeff Brady, the White Pass and Yukon Route, and several others. A train excursion is part of the event.
This year’s keynote speaker is Simon Winchester, noted American (formerly British) non-fiction writer whose study of earthquakes, A Crack in the Edge of the World, once brought him through the Yukon. He is a fascinating panel member and speaker, and I can almost forgive him for slamming every major town in the Yukon except Haines Junction on that research trip.
Originally conceived as a moveable feast that might be sampled in rotation by Skagway, Dawson City, and Denali, the symposium now seems firmly rooted in its birthplace and is unlikely to shift.
Logistics, timing, and finances have been the main impediments to the original vision, but the event works well in the windy town, and if its main focus is on Alaskan writing, it makes sense for it to be there.
But Skagway is close enough to us that it also makes sense for Yukoners to take part when we can.