Mary Routt Chair of Writing Joan Kane: Confronting Archetypes and Apocalypse in Literature

By Rachael Warecki ’08

Photo by Brian Adams

For writer Joan Kane, the 2021 Mary Routt Chair in Writing at Scripps, the connection forged between writers and readers is not only vital, but timely. This semester, Kane’s workshop syllabus is focused on themes of archetype and apocalypse across genres, with particular emphasis on works in translation and by Indigenous writers. Her students are examining how these writers invite audiences to complete a work by bringing their own contexts to what they’re reading—in this case, contexts that involves a global pandemic, remote instruction, and political, social, and environmental crises.

“We’re finding moments where writers are speaking to different types of crises they confronted in the making of their work, looking at how writers can negotiate the difference between the contemporary culture of our everyday lives and these larger, more universal themes that literatures confront and present,” she says. “I’m really inspired by what the students are able to bring to the workshop, reading really closely and taking a lot of risks in their creative work.”

The Mary Routt Chair of Writing is named for journalist and former College trustee Mary Patterson Routt, whose generosity enables the Scripps College Writing Program to invite a nationally recognized professional writer to serve as visiting faculty each spring. Kane is the author of eight books of poetry and prose, including the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry-winning collection Hyperboreal, which will appear in translation from Editions Caractères this summer, and she is the recipient of a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award for her first book, as well as fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Lannan Foundation, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and others.

Kane came to poetry as a child in inner city east Anchorage, Alaska, having been raised with stories and songs from her family’s Inupiaq culture. “I found poetry almost by accident,” she says. “I spent a lot of my childhood in public libraries, so I had free range to read what interested me.” Much of her work is written against the backdrop of loss, especially the losses incurred by Indigenous people in the Arctic. In collaboration with Sherwin Bitsui, a Diné poet, and Santee Frazier, a Cherokee poet, she’s working on three books on Indigeneity and craft that explores Indigenous aesthetics and values; connects the intersections of Indigenous, Black, and non-White experiences in literature; and examines poetry as a place where writers can have conversations adjacent to political, social, and ecological crises, while centering Indigenous perspectives. In addition, her new poetry collection, Dark Traffic, forthcoming in September 2021, examines her own and her family’s past, her ancestors, and her Inupiaq community.

Kane describes Dark Traffic as a “challenging, stark book,” but says that even the most apocalyptic moments give voice to a full range of human emotion and experience. As she finalizes the collection and prepares for its launch, she’s trying to envision moments from the future that can give her “hope and perspective” during a time of global crisis. Her writing workshop at Scripps has offered some of those glimmers of hope.

“Since we’re working on this virtual space, with students in much closer proximity to their families than they probably envisioned, we’re having different types of conversations about self and identity than academia usually gives us the chance to have,” she says. “We’re thinking about an intellectual and cultural ecosystem in which we really are all connected, and when students look back on this semester, maybe they’ll see that that’s part of the vision and hope of a liberal arts education: that everything really is interdisciplinary, and that what happens in a classroom has the chance to shape our lives outside of that space as well.”