Author interview-Shannon Huffman Polson, author of “North of Hope”

Several weeks ago, Shannon Huffman Polson’s book North of Hope was featured on Why The Writing Works. Today’s post is an interview Shannon kindly agreed to, taking time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions.

North of Hope

WTWW: Your memoir North of Hope A Daughter’s Arctic Journey is a very personal story through grief. How difficult was it to not only write this book, but then release it out into the world?

SHP:Writing memoir is a funny thing in that you may include some memories that are so intimate you may only have shared them with a spouse, but I think it’s this willingness to be vulnerable to write toward the truth of the work that is the heart of writing, what allows a book to connect to a more universal human experience. This connection is the whole purpose of writing a book. It’s also important to remember that a book has limitations; 250 pages is not the same as an experience or a life. One of the most difficult things is crafting the narrative, deciding what must be included and what (no matter how important it seems) must be left out in service to the story. I think it’s important for both writers and readers to remember the possibilities but also the limitations of a narrative.

WTWW: Your web address is A Border Life (dot) com and on your website your state you “write about the difficulties of navigating borders.” Why borders? What other borders do you hope to explore?

SHP: The idea of edges and borders has always held me. The idea of “a border life” comes from Thoreau (“with regard to nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays…”- Thoreau, Walking) When I first started writing seriously, one of the tensions I felt most strongly, and still do, was that of life in the city, where work has required I, and now my family, live most of our time, set against life in a more rural setting, the strengths and weaknesses of both. I think a third book might look at this more deeply. I am also aware of borders of life and death, of self and other, of women and men, as those that we are forced to live with every day. I love the idea of the ecotone as well, the border between ecosystems that is a transition area, a place where two ecosystems integrate. Borders are infrequently as hard and fast as they are drawn on maps or held in arguments, and I think this area on the edge, this requirement of integration, is where the possibilities for our own growth lie.
WTWW: You end your book with an afterword about the dangers the fragile ecosystem of the coastal arctic plain face from development. What do we stand to lose if this ecosystem is developed?

SHP: We would love one of our very last wild places, and that part of us that can hold a place as sacred. There is only a tiny percentage of the Alaskan coastline that is undeveloped, and it’s a tragedy that we can’t agree to protect it. Now, of course, the threats are much more complex, from the rapid changes occurring due to warming in the Arctic areas which changes this fragile landscape in unimaginable ways, both on land and in the sea where there is no longer sea ice (where even I experienced it in 2006.) This puts whole ecosystems and the animals and birds that rely on them at risk. What we don’t seem to see is that in our connection to wilderness, it puts us at risk too.

Wilderness is so much more than a place on the map; it is a place in our consciousness, a place that allows us to understand the fullness of potential and possibility, and love in all it’s terrible and beautiful forms. I am afraid of the way our culture seems to be losing the ability to see the sacred, in wilderness, in each other. Our connection to the wilderness, felt or not, is both body and soul. When we destroy the wilderness, we are destroying ourselves.
WTWW: Any other writing projects you’d like to discuss?

SHP: The book I’m working on now is exploring ideas that come from my experience as one of the first women to fly attack helicopters after the combat exclusion clause was lifted in 1993. I’m not yet clear what the key themes will be; certainly connection and aloneness, narrative inclusion and exclusion, and men and women, though I’m constantly surprised at what comes up as I do my work, so I’m not yet prepared to give a full answer about it, but it’s both terribly risky and exciting. Stay tuned!
WTWW:  What are your interests outside of writing?

SHP: I‘m an avid chorister, and sing with an incredible group in Seattle called Seattle Pro Musica. I love to hike, backpack, and ski— nordic, alpine and backcountry. I love spending time outside in Washington and Alaska, or anywhere, with my family, my husband and two happy active boys. That’s most of it!

WTWW:  Anything else you’d like to discuss?

SHP: Thank you for having me visit your blog community!

Thank you, Shannon!

Connect with Shannon:




If you wish to read more of her writing, Shannon also contributes to Image Journal’s Good Letters blog.



Confession in Ai’s No Surrender

“A baby who would inherit the end of the world:”
Confession in Ai’s No Surrender

by Kathleen Nalley

In her posthumous work, No Surrender, the morally defunct characters typical of Ai’s previous poetry collections are nowhere to be found. While there are priests, they are not committing unforgiveable acts on children; while there are mothers, none of them are as cruel as the one who forces her daughter to wear a choke collar and get on all fours.  The personas of No Surrender are not the psychotic outliers no one wants to talk about. Instead, they are seemingly “normal” people, making decisions whose consequences are known and are not that bad (at least, in comparison to previous characters).

Despite the book’s lack of seismic shock value, its voice still belongs to Ai, if perhaps a calmer, less dramatic, in-your-face Ai. No Surrender was written as Ai was dying of breast cancer and published after her death. If No Surrender has any reoccurring theme, it is the triumph of living despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

Most of the poems in No Surrender hint at autobiography. “Baby Florence” appears throughout the book (Ai’s real name was Florence). Racial themes permeate its pages, from Irish to African to Indian to Asian — ironically, all the nationalities and cultures Ai claimed as her own. In “Motherhood, 1951,” the Baby Florence character witnesses her mother giving birth to another fatherless baby (Ai would have been four years old in 1951, which matches the timeline of the poem). In “Discipline,” the poem’s speaker is age seven, which is the age Ai would have been in 1954. The multiracial woman in “Fatherhood” muses “Who couldn’t have imagined/There’d be a place for someone like me in their history”, an idea that seems to have infiltrated Ai’s personal life.


“The Cancer Chronicles” follows a confessional bent. The poet Ai died suddenly from breast cancer — the speaker in the poem dies, also, of untreated breast cancer, knowing the disease is ravaging her body, but continuing in a state of denial: “And she knew she would die of it./But she would not give into it./She would”, and “She would remain among the living,/Giving no sign of her struggle”.

Perhaps No Surrender was Ai’s most confessional, most personal work and, ultimately, what she was leaving behind for the world. Instead of a focus on Dread, Vice, Greed, Fate, Sin or Cruelty (the names and themes of her previous works), this final book emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit — a denial of death and an acceptance of life, no matter the circumstances or fate. It is the culmination of a poet’s reconciliation of the self and the world.

Ai-No Surrender. W.W. Norton & Company
Ai-No Surrender. W.W. Norton & Company

Ai. No Surrender. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.