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Reading and Writing

Home  >  Reading and Writing  >  Creative Contests  >  Creative Writing Contest
18th Annual Creative Writing Contest, 1999  -  Susan Alexander Derrera - 1999 Grand Prize winner
By George Bryson « Prev   Page 2 of 2  

The Writer

Anchorage Daily News

Maybe it was in the stars.

Susan Alexander Derrera was born in Juneau on Aug. 26, 1958 -- the very day that Alaskans marched to the polls to vote for statehood.

Her mother, Alaska pioneer Katie Hurley, literally wrote the state constitution (as chief clerk to the 1955-56 constitutional convention) and later became president of the State Board of Education.

Derrera would graduate from Wasilla High School in 1976 (the year of our nation's bicentennial) and later become a local English teacher who would encourage her students to enter writing contests.

So perhaps it was providential that Derrera would win a big statewide writing competition herself, as she and Alaska both turned 40.

Her poem, 'Vow' (page 4), was awarded Grand Prize this week in the 18th Annual University of Alaska/Anchorage Daily News Creative Writing Contest. It also won first-place honors in the College Poetry division. There were more than 1,900 entries in the contest, which was open to all Alaskans.

Judges praised 'Vow' for its evocative language and imagery, but also for its narrative content, which glimpses the course of a marriage.

Now a half-time teacher at Dimond High School, Derrera says her poem began as a writing exercise in a poetry workshop she attended recently at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she's enrolled in the graduate writing program.

Professor Linda McCarriston had asked her students to describe someone's hands -- Derrera imagined her husband's -- then see where that image took them. There could be dialogue and possibly some failure to communicate.

Derrera simplifies the movement of her own poem to: 'Marriage now . . . marriage then . . . 'I miss that time' . . . 'Here we are now, and' . . .'

And what? Does love endure the passage of time?

In the poem's closing image, a husband and wife sit in separate vehicles trying to revive the battery in a car that won't start. 'Vow' suggests perseverance, without any pat conclusion:

I roll down the window
and yell, Are we OK?
my breath a vapor
flower, and you . . . nod.

Derrera began writing poetry as a child.

Her father, Joseph Alexander, worked in Juneau as a studio photographer. Her mother, born to Norwegian immigrants, worked as executive aide to Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening, then as secretary to the Territorial Senate before helping make state history by serving as chief clerk for the Alaska Constitutional Convention.

Susan's parents divorced when she was very young. When she was 2, her mother moved their family to Palmer, where Katie rewed, marrying Valley businessman James Hurley, by turns an agricultural chemist, sawmill owner and banker. She remained at home for a while, raising Susan, her younger sister Mary and older brother David.

As a student at Wasilla Junior High, Susan began trying to improve her poetry. The conflict in Vietnam was lurching toward its conclusion and most of what she wrote then, she says, was 'fairly morbid anti-war poems.'

'Then (in high school) they changed into unrequited love poems, and that lasted far too long. Then I just stopped for 20 years or so.'

After graduating from high school, Susan attended Stevens College, a small liberal arts campus in Columbia, Mo., then later Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Or., where she earned a bachelor's degree in English. After receiving her teaching certificate, she returned to Alaska and began teaching English at Palmer High School.

Nine years ago, she married Curtis Derrera, a teacher and old high school friend, and moved to Anchorage. She taught at Gruening Middle School for two years, gave birth to a daughter (Alexandra, now a 6-year-old), started teaching at Dimond, THEN gave birth to a son (Aidan, now a 4-year-old).

Derrera once read something about the emotional impact the birth of 'the last child' has on a mother, and she thinks that might explain why three years ago she decided to enter UAA's creative writing program: to pay attention to life -- 'It all goes so fast!' To get it down on paper.

She's officially enrolled in the program's nonfiction track, but she's also taken several poetry courses, resulting in a couple of dozen poems. Similar to 'Vow,' several of her poems explore human relationships.

'The best are about people,' Derrera says. 'Particularly my own children, where I try to come to terms with what they're teaching me.'

In 'The Three-Year-Old Prepares for Bed' -- a poem that received honorable mention -- Derrera describes the dressing ritual her son employs to protect himself against night fears:

First, his black Batman pajamas,
the golden emblem of the bat
spanning his chest, the fire-retardant
buckle protecting his coiled navel,

the mortal mark. Next, the synthetic
Spiderman costume, worn at Halloween,
the webbing crosshatched and stuck
to him like food wrap. . ..

The mother in the poet can't help but notice the vulnerable places, even after her son sheathes his plastic sword and pulls down the hood of his jousting helmet:

'I'm ready,' he says, muffled

and moving awkwardly, static crackling
between his layered thighs. What plows
his dreams that he must go to them
so armed? The old story of the dark.

Having explored her world both as wife and mother, Derrera is about ready to turn the clock back to childhood. She wants to write nonfictional essays about growing up in Wasilla in the '60s and '70s. But she envisions more poems, too.

'I've been having a lot of fun writing poetry,' Derrera says. 'This really came at the right time.'

About the Author: George Bryson is editor of We Alaskans.
Pages:  1  2 

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