UAF grad returns as published poet

Lakeidra Chavis/Sun Star Reporter
Feb. 7, 2012

When women came to Alaska in the hopes of becoming rich in the 1920s Alaska Gold Rush, none of them thought their lives would be immortalized in poetry almost a century later. However, thanks to a UAF graduate, they were proved wrong.

The Midnight Sun Visiting Writers Series featured Fairbanks poet, high school teacher and UAF alumna Nicole Stellon O’Donnell Friday night, Feb 4. Guests crowded in the Wood Center Ballroom to hear Stellon’s first reading of her first book, a novel-in-poems, Steam Laundry.

Steam Laundry by Nicole Stellon O'Donnell. Cover artwork by Margo Klass.

Stellon got the idea to write a book about archived material when she was earning her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, although she did not follow the idea until years later, Stellon says. In 2007, Stellon received the Ramuson Foundation Individual Artist Award.

“It allowed me the time to get into the archives and do the research,” Stellon said of the award. Stellon’s research took her about a year to complete.

The book tells the life of Sarah Ellen Gibson through a series of poems. Gibson followed her husband to Alaska during the Alaska Gold Rush with their two sons. After deciding to leave her alcoholic husband, Gibson moved to Fairbanks and raised her sons, fell in love again and opened a steam laundry shop in town.

“Gibson interested me because she wasn’t one of the great success stories of the Gold Rush,” Stellon said. “Things didn’t work out for her. I wanted to explore a life that seemed typical, less fantastic. I found so many connections to our lives today.”

The poems are told from different perspectives of the Gibson family, including Gibson’s lover, two sons and estranged husband. All the events and people are real. Stellon’s poems fill in the possible emotions of the characters that could not be found from readings in the archives. “Steam Laundry” also includes photos, medical surveys and death certificates of the Gibson family and Fairbanks citizens during that time period.

The past and present of Fairbanks were able to connect as friends, colleagues, former and current students of Stellon’s settled down to listen to Stellon’s poems.

Extra chairs had to be brought out to seat the audience of more than 50 people. “I was happy that so many people came out to listen to the poems,” Stellon said. 

Connie Wagner, 59 and visiting from Florida, said she “enjoyed it [the reading] thoroughly” and “enjoyed listening to her [Stellon’s] voice.”

Stellon’s cadence, tone and writing helped the audience gain a better understanding of not only Sarah Gibson but the town of Fairbanks, in 1920s Alaska.

“I was very impressed, I had high expectations and they were surpassed”, said 20-year-old student Fiona Wiebold, adding that she doesn’t like poetry that much. Bruce Landean, a 19 year-old biology student “thought she did a good job at seeing through the characters eyes and filling in the blanks,” he said. Both Wiebold and Landean are former students of Stellon.

Each year, the Department of English presents the Midnight Sun Visiting Writers Series. The series brings a wide range of poets, lecturers, authors and playwrights to the center stage, allowing them to share their work with the UAF and Fairbanks community.

The Midnight Sun Visiting Writers Series’s next guest, UAF’s own Len Kamerling, an associate professor of English and award winning filmmaker will screen his new film and MFA faculty will share their works in progress on March 9, at 7p.m. in the Wood Center Ballroom. All events are free and open to the public.

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