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Field Work: Aligning Poetry and Science in Salt Lake City

Field Work: Aligning Poetry and Science 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. Below, Katharine Coles, the Poet-in-Residence for Salt Lake City, describes some of the process of team-building and program development, and the creation of experiential poetry paths, poetry signage, and related scientific information. Coles is working in collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Utah and the Salt Lake City Public Library. Alison Hawthorne Deming is the Poet-in-Residence for Milwaukee.

During our first Field Work meeting in Milwaukee, one of my team members confessed to being not a fan of poetry. I might have seen this as a bad sign; instead, Alison Hawthorne Deming and I took it as a call to wooing and began dropping gorgeous lines into dinner conversation. Whether my colleague ever fully converted, I don’t know.

Our Field Work team began as strangers to each other, more or less. I’d worked a little with our Natural History Museum of Utah team, Colleen McLaughlin and Becky Menlove. But our Salt Lake City Public Library librarians, Tommy Hamby and Sarah Goodrich, I met for the first time on that blizzardy night in Milwaukee, where the Milwaukee Field Work team hosted our first meeting. We had spaces and administrative support supplied by the Salt Lake City Public Library and the Natural History Museum of Utah, and tasks—to create programming and a poetry path connecting poetry and STEM education, or, as I always thought of it, to use poetry to leverage science and vice-versa—set by Poets House. Support was provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the project was facilitated by Poets House.

Out of such tentative beginnings emerged a living thing. Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) brought us remarkable scientific staff and an existing Science Café program, which we quickly decided to adapt into Poetry-Science Cafés, partnering poets with scientists; the library staff had design resources, educational programs, and experience in hosting readings (with their partner organization City Art). Gorgeous buildings house both the museum, which sits high in the foothills overlooking our valley and takes full advantage of its natural setting, and the main branch library, which was designed for its downtown space across the street from City Hall by famed architect Moshe Safdie.

As a group, we have stayed open to opportunity. In the fall, our café program paired poets with an entomologist, a paleontologist, an archaeologist, and a mammalogist. During National Poetry Month in April, we’ve planned additional Science Cafés not only at the museum and the downtown library but also at a branch library, where we partnered a poet with a food scientist and an archaeologist.  We’ve hooked into the library-adjacent Community Writing Center’s annual National Poetry Month “30 Poems in 30 Days” program, presenting objects from the museum and the library among daily prompts on their site, and we are working with them to offer a generative poetry workshop. Again piggy-backing on existing NHMU outdoor programs, in May we will launch a “summer camp for adults” at the museum involving nature walks, a writing workshop, and bookmaking over four weekends. We will also host a walk with a botanist and Utah’s State Poet Laureate along the Jordan River Parkway, where the Day-Riverside branch library is located, and I will do a program on bees with an entomologist and beekeeper.

Unlike some cities such as Minneapolis, where the museum and library are across the street from each other, Salt Lake City didn’t offer one of the likeliest spots for a poetry path. Though there is a sightline between the two buildings, we quickly realized it was impractical to create a path linking them across four miles and a significant climb. We originally decided to build the path at the museum, with poetry etched onto natural stones in a rugged but accessible natural site with spectacular views that include the library, and to place a very short Emily Dickinson poem about bees inside the library near the window to the library’s roof garden beehives (the beehive is Utah’s state symbol). In the end, we couldn’t resist adding a five-poem path at the library, situating the stones in a native-plants garden connecting the library, the Leonardo Science Center, and City Hall.

Poets are not always collaborative creatures. We vanish alone behind closed doors and emerge eventually clutching a few sheets of paper. We may forget that administration done well can be a creative act, from which may arise something better than a single person could produce.

Like a poem, our program began with ideas glimmering and a loose idea of form. And, as with a poem, our biggest problem has been knowing where to stop. Even as we come to the end of our formal programming and approach the April 27th dedication of the NHMU’s section of the Poetry Path (the Library path is still in design phase), Field Work Salt Lake City isn’t finished. Other organizations have approached us about reprising Poetry-Science Cafés at their own locations. And, of course, the poems in the paths themselves, being, as they are, carved in stone, will mystify and delight hikers and downtowners for generations to come.

Part of our own delight inheres in the fact that Field Work Salt Lake City arose not from a singular vision, but from a vision undertaken and developed in collaboration. The final product is not a private message passing poet-to-reader, but a structure that will provide an ongoing, collective experience to an entire community comprising poets, scientists, and anyone else who strolls into it.

Please find a full list of Salt Lake City Field Work events here.

Katharine Coles’ seventh collection of poems, Wayward, will be published in June 2019; her memoir, Look Both Ways, was released in 2018. From 2012–2015, she worked as co-PI with computer scientist Miriah Meyer on the Poemage visualization tool. She is currently Poet-in-Residence at the Natural History Museum of Utah and the SLC Public Library for the Poets House program Field Work. In 2010, she traveled to Antarctica to write poems under the auspices of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. She has also received grants and fellowships from the NEA, the NEH, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She is founding co-director of the Utah Symposium in Science and Literature and a Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah.

Posted In: Essays