with Summer Koester:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Summer: I began writing stories in kindergarten – it was my absolute favorite thing to do in class. Then in middle school I started writing historical novels. When normal kids would play outside and go swimming on sunny days during the summer, I holed up in my grandparents’ library researching ancient Rome, Greece, and Middle Ages. I would take pages and pages of notes and turn these notes into historical fiction. With my thesaurus at my side, I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of stories set in these ancient civilizations. I became very involved in my characters, even sketching their pictures. I laid awake at night envisioning what would happen next to them.
In middle school I also wrote a comedic screenplay and invited over some friends from school to do a reading together. It was so hilarious (at least to me) that I probably peed my pants several times.
At some point, probably eighth grade, I realized that I had run out of writing material. I figured it was time to go “live my life,” which meant to get out of the books/computer and, later, go travel the world (although I continued to write songs on my guitar). After living in Kingston, Jamaica and dating a Jamaican “deejay” (rapper), I started rapping and “chatting” (dancehall reggae rap).
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Summer: I love Rena Priest (Washington State Poet Laureate). I also love Sandra Cisneros and Joy Harjo. I have a thing for indigenous women writers. I believe that we could progress so much more as a society if we put indigenous women in more positions of leadership. They have been marginalized, and our culture needs them back in the center of the circle again. Living in Alaska, listening to the indigenous Native elders here, learning about Alaska’s history of colonization, I am learning that we (settler, Westernized, white culture) has so much to learn from them.
Q3: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer/artist?
Summer: My music producer friend from LA invited me into his recording studio to record some of my rap songs. He asked me how I, a white girl from Alaska, got into rapping, and I told him about living in Kingston, Jamaica, “bushing it” with a dancehall reggae “deejay.” That night I searched for my journal and found a whole book of Jamaican Patwah poetry and dancehall reggae lyrics detailing my experiences living in Kingston. I thought “damn, I have to publish this!” I debated how to go about publishing it. Do I annotate the lyrics? That’s when I realized I needed to write a memoir. As I explored the beginning stages of writing again, returning to my writing roots, I fell in love with the writing process again. Now I can’t stop writing, I love it so much. I spent forty something years listening and being quiet. Now I’ve got something to say.
Q4: Who has helped you most with writing?
Summer: #1: My mom. She’s a communications and gender studies professor. I love to bounce ideas off her. She also gives me feedback on stuff.
#2: The internet. I have joined several feedback groups, we help each other out. Thanks to the internet, I have taken poetry workshops, creative writing classes, and lots of humor/satire classes. I’m also part of a Juneau based women’s poetry group.
Q5: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? or travels away?
Summer: I grew up in Juneau, Alaska, known as Lingit Aani by the people who have been here for thousands of years. We are situated in the largest temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass. Our house was (still is) situated on a beautiful rocky beach. I didn’t have neighbors my age growing up, I felt very isolated. That inspired me to create beautiful things, and still does. I have a strong spiritual connection with nature, and there is a lot of pristine wilderness here. I try to breathe that into my prose and poetry when I’m not writing satire. That’s the angel on my right shoulder. When I write satire, I’m all devil on the left.
In my teens and twenties, I traveled, studied, worked, and lived in Latin America and the Caribbean. After college I built a business in Costa Rica, married a Venezuelan, and together we moved to a Venezuelan community in California. My life was mostly in Spanish, as my then husband spoke little English and most of all our friends were from Latin America, plus I was teaching Spanish. Those experiences influence my writing, as living in Latin American cultures allows me to see Westernized/settler/colonial culture with a more objective perspective. So in some ways I consider myself something of a cultural critic. My experience doing theater my whole life gives me skills for feeling, observing, and connecting with the human experience, which shows up in my writing.
Last year, the pandemic forced me to homeschool my own children while I was also trying to learn how to teach Spanish to middle schoolers on Zoom. The challenges of trying to teach my neurodiverse young children, along with learning new platforms and rethinking how I teach, it just about broke my brain. My daughter is on the spectrum and bawled all through the Zooms. To make it worse, I’m afraid of catching COVID (I have aggravated asthma), and coupled with the political climate, the whole experience just made me cynical. When I tried to write poetry, it only made me depressed. I discovered that I could laugh about it though. Humor was the only way into the pain. So I discovered satire, and thanks to the pandemic I was able to take some satire Zoom classes. I had some modest successes – I was published at McSweeney’s twice and had more than twenty pieces published this year alone. Now whenever I get angry, I rage-write satire. It is the comedy of outrage, after all.
Q6: Most meaningful creative work?
This sounds cheesy, but raising my children into being thoughtful, creative, out of the box thinkers who can view things in unique ways is what I am most proud of.
As far as published work, I wrote a piece for Huffington Post about how I pulled my kids out of Zoom school in Spring 2020 and opted into our own form of “nature school” instead. When I published that piece, I got a lot of responses from people who were grateful that I was showing how nature can be healing and help us learn, especially for those with neurodiversity, like my children.
One of my favorite satirical pieces is this one I wrote for Widget Mag about standardized testing.
I also received a lot of gratitude for a satirical piece I published at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency titled “As a Superhero Teacher, I Can’t Wait to Sacrifice My Life for Your Unvaccinated Child.” The piece ran when society was asking teachers to return to the classroom before they had a chance to get vaccinated. Educators were grateful that I was showing their story, and their legitimate fears of returning to the classroom without adequate protection from the virus. As a high-risk teacher myself, I did not want to return to school until I had my shots. I received some hate mail for that piece. People thought I was being insensitive to parents. On the contrary – I was also one of those parents! I had my kids home with me full time while trying to telework. And with a son who has sensory processing issues and a daughter on the spectrum, trust me, I was just as ready for those kids to go back to school as any other parent!
Q7: Favorite activities to relax?
Summer: I write for fun, I read a lot. I try to get outside into the wilderness as much as possible. It is deeply restorative. I enjoy yoga and hanging out with my family. Before the pandemic I performed in plays, belly danced with a local belly dance troupe, and choreographed. I used to write songs on my guitar and sing, and I’m hoping to get back to that as well. My producer friend keeps bugging me about recording an album with him. To me, music is so collaborative, as is dancing and acting, of course. With Covid, and now the variants, I just haven’t had the will to collaborate yet. Living in a cold rainforest has its drawbacks. It’s harder to get together with people outside on a regular basis.
Q8: Favorite line/stanza from writing?
Summer: From “Hands” (first published in Third Wednesday Magazine):
Turn a wrench, turn
the engine, smells like money
fix ‘em an’ flip ‘em
hard earned, profit turned
rough on the edges hands
turnin’ valves, fish-slingin’
hard like my old man
says a ten year old can
do it better, real man’s
work blood sweat tears
not like them
made up jobs, I’d rather
fifteen more years
turnin’ hydrants and
flippin’ cars than
flip the script, ‘cause
let’s face it, money’s just
numbers on paper
I’ll tell u what’s real:
these hands, calloused,
holdin’ on to something
that I can feel.
Q9: Any forthcoming projects you’d like to promote?
Summer: I’m constantly turning out articles and satirical pieces, and most recently had a piece at the Independent about Alaskans who refuse the vaccine. I’m also working on a memoir. Stay tuned!
My website: summerkoester.com