American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities


Theresa Quiner

Theresa Quiner

Kuskokwim Consortium Library

Tell us a bit about yourself, the organization you represent, and the work you do.

My name is Theresa Quiner and I am the library director for the Kuskokwim Consortium Library. I have worked in public libraries in Iowa, North Carolina, and now Alaska. In my spare time I help run the animal rescue organization Bethel Friends of Canines. The library is both the academic library for the University of Alaska Kuskokwim Campus and the public library for the community of Bethel.

Tell us about your community/the communities you serve, and your part of the country.

Bethel is located in rural Southwest Alaska in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, about 400 miles west of Anchorage. We aren't on the road system, so the only way in or out is by airplane. Bethel is the hub community for our region, and people in the surrounding villages come to Bethel to shop and get medical care. We are located on the Kuskokwim River, which is also the local highway. People travel to surrounding communities by boat in the summer and by truck in the winter when the river freezes. The river also provides ample food for our community, and fishing and salmon are an important part of life here. Our community is about 65% Alaska Native, and other than English the primary language spoken is Yupik, one of the largest aboriginal languages spoken in the United States. Public resources are scarce in rural Alaska, and the library serves an important role in the community and region by being one of the only places in the region to access free computers, internet, and books. We also provide a lot of community programming for kids, adults, and families.

What did it mean to you and your community to host the U.S. Poet Laureate? Can you share any feedback you received from event attendees/participants?

It was so special to have Tracy K. Smith, the U.S. Poet Laureate, visit our community and library. We aren't able to get authors to Bethel often due to the high cost and difficulty of getting to rural Alaska, and the community was so excited to come hear her speak. We had a packed house at the event, and feedback from the community was overwhelmingly positive. Tracy was great at engaging the audience to think about and discuss the poetry in her anthology.

What, if any, type of literary programming do you present in your community? How did this program fit in?

We do a lot of literary programming for adults and children, and this event tied in nicely with our book club selection for the month of September. A large group of us were reading the 2017-2018 Alaska Reads selection Steam Laundry by Nicole Stellon O'Donnell for September’s book club. Steam Laundry is a novel told through poems, which is an unconventional and interesting way to tell a story. Our book club members attended Tracy's poetry reading, and the event set the stage for an interesting discussion about poetry at our book club meeting. The English literature faculty at the Kuskokwim Campus also worked the event into their curriculum, and college students attended the event and discussed the poetry in class after.