Sitka Sentinel story on Nikki Zielinski

Shannon Haugland wrote this story for the Sitka Sentinel about Island Institute poet-in-residence Nikki Zielinski. The story appeared on Oct 28, 2016. 

For centuries fairy tales have been used to introduce and address difficult subjects to children and adults.

But Island Institute’s current artist in residence wondered whether the same method would work to tackle uncomfortable topics in today’s world.

“It’s interesting to see how different cultures approach those subjects,” said Nikki Zielinski, a Cleveland, Ohio, poet who has been in Sitka since mid-September. “A lot of the history of folklore and fairy tales emerged not only as a form of entertainment but also (as lessons) about the possible dangers of growing up in the world and making it through adolescence.”

The idea of using well-known – and not so well known – fairy tales to address a difficult topic came to Zielinski after she lost two friends 16 years ago in a violent act. She initially started writing poetry about the incident but it felt somehow wrong.

“How do you write about something that didn’t happen to you that had an effect on your life?” she said. “So that this emotional, intense personalization didn’t take over. ... How do you do it so you’re not exploiting it but still being honest?”

Zielinski said she decided to take an indirect approach, using various fairy tales and stories – mostly from western European cultures – to approach the subject. The result is “Crawl,” a collection of 60 poems that work together as a single long elegy about the two women who were killed more than a decade ago.

“It was a way to approach this scary event,” Zielinski said. “It’s hard to look directly at something sometimes.” 

During her residence here, she has fine-tuned the unpublished collection and written some new poetry inspired by Sitka. The reading will include her work on “Crawl” and her new poems. 

She said in Sitka she was interested in the juxtaposition between the “threatening wildness, and the pristine quietness, with the weak salmon run and starving bears coming into town.”

In researching for “Crawl,” she spent a lot of time reading folk and fairy tales, and some that came from her own roots in Appalachia. The collection includes direct and indirect references to such familiar tales as Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and Pinocchio to name a few.

“It’s trying to channel personal experience through the fairy tale and bring out some elements not as prominent in the tale,” Zielinski said.

Zielinski, a freelance science editor in Cleveland, earned her undergraduate degree in English and creative writing from Antioch College in Ohio, and her MFA from the University of Oregon.

Another project the Island Institute has been working on during Zielinski’s time here is a collection of her poetry presented unbound as a set of broadsides in a small box. The Island Institute is printing the 14 broadsides, which are illustrated by local artist Rebecca Poulson.

Zielinski is leaving Sitka soon, heading to Gustavus, Petersburg, Juneau and Anchorage before returning home to Ohio.