The end is one poet’s beginning

Kate Partridge’s first book of poetry “Ends of the Earth” combines her personal life experiences in Alaska with history, both ancient and contemporary. Partridge published “Ends of the Earth” on July 1 of this year and has had multiple readings since with more planned for the future.

Partridge grew up in Virginia and completed her Master of Fine Arts in poetry in Washington, D.C. at George Mason University. Afterwards, she accepted a position teaching English at the University of Alaska Anchorage where she had “an amazing time.” Over those three years spent in Alaska her writing was heavily impacted.

“I think that I am very interested in observation and looking at location and the people in them,” Partridge said. “After moving to Alaska I really became interested in ecopoetry, things like climate change and how humans are impacted by the environment around them.”

She’d always been interested in using historical documents to aid in her writing and “Ends of the Earth” wasn’t an exception.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is the first piece of human literature that exists and tells the tale of a man who is part god and has incredible adventures. One of those adventures takes him to the ends of the world, similarly to how Partridge felt after her move to Alaska, and thus Gilgamesh became a creative aid to her writing. Teaching literature at UAA increased her awareness of the tale of Gilgamesh.

The first poem in the book, also titled “Ends of the Earth,” was placed there to establish all the different ways the entire book was going to work as a whole. Within the first poem, mentions of Gilgamesh and Siduri (goddess of wine making and brewing) are extremely prevalent and tied into some narration about Partridge’s life, and some meditation on the idea of cartography. All of these appear later in the book, though they normally are found in separate poems.

“I wanted to braid together a lot of things but not force them all together, just put lots of layers right next to each other,” Partridge said. “For example, that poem touches on what its like to try and understand the geography of a new place, also what it’s like to have those necessary human things that are happening in your brain. What ever happens to you is influenced by what’s going on around you.”

Siduri is a character often used within this collection of poetry and was a “testing ground for extremity.” In the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” Siduri’s main role is as the innkeeper at the edge of the world, but she also has a position of wisdom throughout the epic.

“She gives Gilgamesh a piece of really good, really cryptic advice,” Partridge said. “Life, which you look for, you will never find. I think of her as someone trying to figure out a system of ethics within the idea that there isn’t something else to ‘find’ — that whatever life is to us is simply what it is, and there is enough meaning in exploring those parameters.”

Partridge takes her interest in this character a step further and gives Siduri her own, credible, backstory. There are two “Babylonian Commercial Company Interview Excerpt” poems that focus on just that while using Partridge’s knowledge of Alaskan history. These narrative scenes do their best to explain why Siduri is who she is, where she is, and doing what she is doing.

“I thought maybe this person might work for an outfit like the Alaska Commercial Company, although I really just took (and) torqued the name and made up everything else about the interviewing process,” Partridge said.

Real people can be found within the poetry of “Ends of the Earth” as a result of a comment that caught Partridge’s attention. She claims it’s a stylistic choice that feels the most natural to her. Alyse Knorr, Partridge’s partner, has a powerful presence in many poems from the experiences the two of them had during their time living in Anchorage.

“I guess that’s just one of the risks of being friends with a writer,” Partridge said.

The sea monster on the front cover of “Ends of the Earth,” although ultimately chosen by a designer at UA Press, depicts another one of Partridge’s interests, cartography. Some of the first mapmakers to draw maps of Alaska put mythical sea creatures along the coasts.

“I thought that was kind of delightful thinking of Alaska as a place where anything could happen, also a little ignorant, but overall kind of charming,” Partridge said. “It resonates for me with the idea of traveling to a place that has been framed in a speculative way by the colonialist imagination, and also with the different mythical monsters from the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’.”

Her writing style is not through the use of a regulated writing schedule. Collecting random tidbits of information and noticing how they rub against each other is more her cup of tea.

Going off on an adventure to a new or exciting landscape helps spark the creative genius inside of Partridge. Also, history museums are known to assist her through the collection of challenging information they possess. It’s about being with someone else’s thinking while not looking for anything in particular, she said, and being in that sort of environment is a way to discover something you’ve never thought about before.

Her research for this book of poetry took her to the Library of Congress where she looked at some of Walt Whitman’s notebooks and made her own handwritten transcriptions of passages that interested her.

“I think he is a fascinating figure and has been for a lot of people,” Partridge said. “The idea that there would be someone who’s the father of poetry is both really interesting and problematic. I studied his work doing my MFA. I had read a bunch of excerpts from his note books. I thought they were so strange. I tried to keep that weird-ness.”

All of the elements of Whitman’s punctuation, notation and peculiar focus can be found inside some poetry in the middle section of “Ends of the Earth.” The poem “Inhabitiveness” uses direct quotes from Whitman’s notebook and also touches on his idea of democracy as kinesthetic, simultaneously playing off of Partridge’s own memories of training for different sports.

“I played on a lot of teams in high school and college for different sports (field hockey, rugby, swimming), so many of the people who have shaped my thinking have done so around athletic activities,” Partridge said. “There isn’t a particular team or coach that I’m talking about in this book; different coaches and teammates pop up here and there.”

The poem “Bell” shows how Partridge works as a writer. Her process in writing “Bell” took months of moving sections of it around, cutting things out and allowing her to be “kind of messy.” The format of the entire poem shifts dramatically at points. And the reasoning behind that was her way of giving the reader not only different layers to work through in the context of place and time, but also how language works differently in the sections of the poem, which changes how you read it. Going from free verse to a table of decimal levels and then back to a section that talks about Alexander Graham Bell works through association and opens the doors for the reader to connect things they may have never thought of before.

“In my mind, this is a book about place, inquiry, and grief. I think of it as demonstrating how my particular brain reads the experience of moving to Alaska through a piece of literature (Gilgamesh) and the experience of losing several people close to me during the years I was writing these poems,” Partridge said.

Currently she resides in L.A. where she is working on her Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. She’s also working on a new project she started with a grant from the Anchorage Museum that will be looking at photos from the construction of the Alaska Railroad and what life was like during those times to build off of and create more poetry. Partridge has already been back up to Alaska to do a few readings of “Ends of the Earth,” but she will be returning again on Oct. 6 for both a reading and a signing in Anchorage.

“Of course, I miss Alaska… I can’t stay away. Alaska will always be a part of my life, I couldn’t imagine it not being,” Partridge said. “After seeing how beautiful it is, it kind of ruins you for everywhere else.”

• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer living in Juneau.

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