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Field Work: Aligning Poetry and Science in Milwaukee

Field Work is a three-year program conceived of and facilitated by Poets House that aims to foster STEM learning through poetry. Together with natural history museums and libraries in Salt Lake City and Milwaukee, Poets House is exploring the benefits of aligning poetic and scientific thinking for increased understanding of the world around us, creating new interdisciplinary learning models. Katharine Coles is the Field Work Poet-in-Residence for Salt Lake City. Below, Alison Hawthorne Deming, the Poet-in-Residence for Field Work Milwaukee, describes the collaborative process of working with Milwaukee’s public library and museum to bring science and poetry together through programs and the creation of an experiential, educational pathway.

I was new to Milwaukee, but my commitment to the belief that science learning can be enhanced with poetry and that poetry can be inspired by science was long-standing. At our initial planning meeting in Milwaukee, I learned that our two partners, the Milwaukee Public Museum and Milwaukee Public Library, had shared a building for over 60 years. Since 1962, they have been located across the street from one another. With such a strong shared history, the teams from both institutions were eager to partner on a new venture and reach out to new audiences.

We followed up our initial orientation with a team-building exercise. I gave a talk on “Creating the Future: Art & Science at the Crossroads” to the implementation and marketing teams of both institutions. Then the group broke into smaller brainstorming sections combining staff from both institutions into working groups. This brought together the lively creative and collaborative energies of the museum and library to build a wishlist of programming ideas.

Our lead staff people, Meghan Schopp of the Milwaukee Public Museum and Kristina Gomez of the Milwaukee Public Library, worked to refine the list and, when possible, to integrate events into existing programs. Field Work teams came up with a series of programs targeted at differing demographics. “Nature in Your Own Backyard” programs focused on children in each of the library’s 13 branches, in which kids wrote haiku about their “critter” observations. Freestyle performances with the Figureheads, a family of hip hop performers, used language prompts from science to improvise music inspired by nature. They performed on the museum’s “free day,” which draws a more diverse audience, and also at one of the branch libraries.

Fieldwork with Figureheads at Villard Square Branch Library Monday March 18, 2019.

Fieldwork with Figureheads at Villard Square Branch Library Monday March 18, 2019.

The museum’s curator of botany partnered with a local poet to present “The Botany of Beverages” at a local coffeehouse.

Field Work MKE: The Botany of Beverages Lecture at Stone Creek Factory Cafe at 422 N. 5th street Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Wednesday February 13, 2019. Pat A. Robinson photo for the Milwaukee Public Library

The museum and library joined their respective annual poetry contests into one, focusing on the project’s guiding question “How do you see the natural world you live in?” And a series of poetry walks (one actually an urban kayak paddle) brought together a poet and scientist for guided neighborhood experiences of nature observation and creative reflection.

With the Milwaukee Public Museum and Milwaukee Public Library located across the street from each other, the Poetry Path was designed to link them along the sidewalk. Our process in developing the path was collaborative. I came up with 100 possible poem excerpts, following our partners’ guidelines that the poems be accessible, linked to natural history, and inspirational. Then we held a meeting with about a dozen key personnel from both institutions to winnow the list down to 20. This was more fun than it sounds like! And we came to a fairly easy consensus on selections. The final path calls for eight signs that would stay put, with plans to have a few produced as banners that could move to be part of programs offered around the city. I was especially thrilled to see that, with input from the collections and research professionals, each sign offered a science message matched to the poem. These pairings went a long way, in my view, to making “experiences out of facts,” as Katharine Coles had encouraged at our first meeting.

Stay tuned for an announcement of the launch of the Milwaukee poetry path later this month! In the meantime, check out our upcoming events, including Hike & Canoe the Park: Explore Washington Park with Field Work Milwaukee on June 29, 10 am–12:30 pm, featuring hiking and canoeing through historic Washington Park, learning about our urban nature-scape, and hearing poetry inspired by the natural world.

Former Director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Alison Hawthorne Deming is currently the Regents’ Professor and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona, where in 2015 she founded the Field Studies in Writing Program. Her poetry collections include Stairway to Heaven (2016) and Death Valley: Painted Light, a collaboration with photographer Stephen Strom (2016). The essay collection Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit was published by Milkweed Editions in 2014. She is also the author of Science and Other Poems (1994), winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets; The Monarchs: A Poem Sequence (1997); Genius Loci (2005); and Rope (2009), as well as three additional nonfiction books, Temporary Homelands (1994, 1996), The Edges of the Civilized World (1998), and Writing the Sacred Into the Real (2001). She edited Poetry of the American West: A Columbia Anthology (1996) and co-edited with Lauret E. Savoy The Colors of Nature: Essays on Culture, Identity, and the Natural World (2002; revised and expanded edition, 2011).

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