New Professor Spotlight: Joan Naviyuk Kane

By Adrian Keller Feld

Professor Joan Naviyuk Kane (she/they) — called for her namesake Naviyuk — started teaching in Reed’s creative writing department this school year – but she’s known about the college for a while. Kane is from King Island, a small landmass in the Bering Sea 90 miles northwest of Nome, Alaska, and grew up in Anchorage as part of the diaspora of her family and other King Islanders. Of Anchorage, Kane said, “It can be a beautiful place to live in terms of being a subarctic place, right on the cusp of Alaska’s ‘wilderness,’ but it’s in many ways a border town, a boom town.” They described it as a city with periods of overpopulation due to the oil industry, and times when very few people stayed. Kane says she grew up, “thinking that people coming and going, and a lot of transience and migration, was just how everyone lived in the world,” and that they only realized the stability in others’ lives when she began leaving Alaska in her teens. Kane later went on to attend Harvard University and Columbia University and teach at the former. They have also worked in other spaces teaching poetry and creative writing, as well as doing plenty of writing themselves, including a period as a journalist.

While Kane has published many works and received numerous accolades, including a recent Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018, a work she is proud of at the moment is a recent essay titled, “Where to? / Naqmuŋaġataqpin?” which was published in The Hopkins Review. Kane said that the essay draws from, “concerns, through my own voice in memories, my maternal grandmother, and parts of my early childhood that I felt I didn’t have the critical distance to write about, until recently. But also understanding the life of my grandmother, who was orphaned in the 1918 flu pandemic, along with her sisters, and raised in an orphanage. To think about her polylingualism, about the way that she was such a verbal person. I haven’t really seen a lot of things that my grandmother wrote, and part of that is due to a lot of material culture loss of migratory people, dispossessed people. In this piece I am able to think about my place in my family but also think through a lot of things I remember in my early childhood about her, and how that has always been with me, as a writer, as a mother, and as a teacher.” The essay starts each section with an epigraph from another writer, the first one being from Barbara Johnston, an influential professor of Kane’s during her undergraduate experience. The essay is available to read online.

Kane came to poetry through being an introverted person, one who changed schools a lot and spent her time at the public library, she said, “reading my way through the world was a way for me to be present, but also keep my own comfort, and figure out as much as I could about how the world worked, without having to be too much in it, in some ways.” When it was time for them to go to college, Kane did consider Reed, but instead chose to go to Harvard, and thinks now on what a different person she could have been if they had chosen Reed, saying Reed seemed like, “a place I might actually be able to be myself, whatever that meant.” 

Now, Kane, “comes on the other side to Reed, with this experience of having written a lot, with the virtue of, when I wrote a lot of my first books, leading a very unintentionally isolated life, as a mom in Alaska, working outside of academia and the literary world. I come to Reed now having seen a lot of different education institutions and a lot of different places in the world, and thinking that Reed is the kind of place that, yes, I can be myself.” She also recognizes that, “especially at this time in undergraduate education, we have been through so much, collectively, but also individually in the last four years that every chance that we have to connect with each other, or find the ways that we can be socially and culturally sustained by each other, we need to cherish those times because, as we now know everything can change in the blink of an eye.”

Kane is currently teaching general courses she inherited from previous Reed professors — an Introductory and an Advanced Poetry Workshop — but works to tailor their curriculum to their students. For Kane, “Poetry is an idiosyncratic form, and it requires and provides so much space for the individual cautiousness of readers of poets.” That space, Kane believes, allows them to make a workshop experience useful, “and valuable to everyone, whatever stage of writing they’re at.” Kane does a lot of writing, but is also, as previously mentioned, an avid reader, and a piece of work she recommends is Heather Clark’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet. Kane praised the first paragraph of the book, a parable, saying,  “to think of all the intertextualities of that first paragraph, but also how much it foreshadows the life that Plath lived. It teems with the fullness and richness of her life.”

When not engaged in poetry and other writing endeavors, Kane enjoys playing Just Dance and was excited to finally unbox the 2018 version after their recent move to Portland. She also enjoys rollerblading and gardening with native plants, and their favorite place in the city is SybiOp Garden Shop on SE Powell Blvd. She also enjoys podcasts, so if anyone has any recommendations on par with the Björk podcast, their inbox is open. Joan Naviyuk Kane has been circling Reed for much of her life, aware of it but far away, and we are excited to finally welcome her into the community as the new poetry teacher in Reed’s English department.

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