Poet fiddles around skillfully with language

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

Ken Waldman plays the fiddle, writes poetry and travels the byways of Alaska. But, above all, he tells stories.

Waldman, who calls himself "Alaska's fiddling poet," has published two volumes of poetry: "Nome Poems" and "To Live on this Earth." This year they are being reissued, an honor for any contemporary poet.

He writes a narrative blank verse well-suited to being spoken aloud, and he has recorded excerpts of these verses along with his music on an album titled after his poem "A Week in Eek." Wry and playful, it begins:

"Kids in sneakers squeaking across the Eek School gym floor, streaking towards baskets. Or else sneaking out of class to steal a smoke, or a peek at an uncle's or cousin's sleek new Arctic Cat. Meek kids. Cheeky kids. Rural-chic kids. Geeks."

Most of his poems are more solemn. But they are never obscure, elitist or fusty. Reader-friendly, they are down-to-earth, straightforward and resonate with authenticity.

At the same time, they are eloquent and far from doggerel. They spurn easy answers and ask probing questions. Reading them is like listening to an adept conversationalist tell interesting anecdotes.

The books offer Alaskans a chance to see themselves through the lens of poetry. These poems would be ideal for language arts teachers to use to show students here that poetry can speak to their own world of potholed roads and lingering twilights.

Waldman tells stories -- joyful, tragic or ambiguous -- and he happens to pick poetry as the medium to transmit them.

With the poet's careful ear, he pares them down to spare, telling essentials. The tales are short, nearly all fitting within a single page and the volumes are a manageable size for an evening settled down next to a cozy fire.

Much is humble fare, such as his description of washing dishes on his 33rd birthday or falling in the mud while hiking in to a remote cabin. Others deal with deep mysteries of death and survival.


To Live on this Earth

By Ken Waldman

West End Press


Altogether, the poems show a thoughtful intimacy with Alaska and its uniqueness. For example, he describes the way people unite to survive grueling winters, and he deftly skewers the northern spring as "... a month-long April Fool's slop known as break-up."

"In Anchorage, quick thinkers speed on slippery hillside streets, solve glaze and glare by sliding past stop signs and skidding into Subarus with right-of-way."

Reading the books is like making a road trip with Wald-man. The poems are autobiographical, but he's not an egotist. Although some are intensely personal, such as remembrances of surviving a plane crash and rants about Alaska's politicians, he writes not so much of himself as of people and events that touch him.

What comes across is his passion for rural Alaska, its people and music. We experience the northern landscape through his senses:

"Drowsing, I swerved and barely missed a bear cub crossing the Parks Highway, its wilder stretch between Talkeetna and Cantwell. Four more hard hours to Fairbanks, I veered onto the next wide shoulder, slept, woke to a stranger tapping the windshield, pointing to a double rainbow arched over Denali. I mumbled thanks, pushed myself up out of the seat, stood, and watched the sky pull color apart like taffy while Denali, that big old mountain of mountains, rose like the iceberg king, shrugging sea level and humanity."

Waldman has traveled in Alaska for 17 years, spending much of that time teaching and performing in the Bush. Des-cribing himself as a "higher education missionary," he writes:

"The question: Why had I traveled such distances toting books, a fiddle, and other white man tools? To live Conrad's supreme fictional wilderness darkness? To report we are all kin -- A team of survivors hunting, Dreaming, gathering the edge."

Waldman worked out of Nome and Anchorage, but his verses also take the reader along to Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka and far-flung villages from Barrow to Hoonah.

Along the way, he takes us to cabins, truck stops, bars and dance halls. We taste the cheer of friendly potlucks and the devastation of alcohol and despair. The message is sober, concerned, but ultimately encouraging.

"Here where winter is wintrier, the way to stay sane is to make each day from October to April whole," he writes.

Although Waldman claims he would rather fiddle than write, his love of writing and poetry shine throughout his books. He is no dilettante, and his poetry is gaining wider attention. He has published these verses in professional poetry publications as diverse as "International Poetry Review," "Exquisite Corpse" and "Redneck Review."

He reminds us of the beauty, power and mysteries both in everyday things and in the glorious land around us. He also reminds us that poetry is alive, kicking and even fun.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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