Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Poems for Where the Wild Things Are
Conservation poet Sandra Alcosser inspires her audience to become engaged with the natural world.
Do cougars promote conservation? Can grizzlies teach us about global warming?
The answer is yes—if the millions of zoo visitors who observe these animals equate their welfare with the survival of the planet.
To help visitors make that connection, award-winning poets will curate centuries of world verse for zoo installations in five American cities. Excerpts of poems will appear in bronze pavers and across glass panels, benches and beams—inviting viewers to contemplate the interdependence of humans, animals and the natural world.
The federally funded project builds on the 2004 Language of Conservation initiative, through which poetry from across 27 centuries was installed permanently throughout New York’s Central Park Zoo.
There, among lorikeets and colobus monkeys, a million visitors a year from across the world read W.S. Merwin’s resolve, “On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree,” and W.H. Auden’s judgment that “A culture is no better than its woods.”
Centuries of poetry
The creative mind chosen to curate the Central Park Zoo project was Sandra Alcosser—acclaimed poet, teacher and gentle warrior for nature and conservation efforts.
She combed through centuries of poetry, selecting verses from Sappho, Shakespeare and Netzahualcoyotl, as well as contemporary poets such as Kay Ryan and Gary Snyder, to inspire connections with nature.
Alcosser’s seven books of poetry, including Except by Nature and A Fish to Feed All Hunger, are rooted in nature and the physical world. A poet-in-residence at Yosemite National Park and Glacier National Park, she was the first poet laureate of Montana and the first Conservation Poet for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Poets House.
Alcosser divides her time between a home in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains and one in San Diego, where she founded and currently co-directs San Diego State University’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. The program is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
“Poetry calls into question what it means to be human,” Alcosser said. “It expands the imagination of a culture and suggests ways to become more humane and more deeply engaged with the world.”
Shared language of conservation
Evaluation of the Central Park project showed that visitors engaged with the poetry far more than with other conservation messages and that the verse roused an emotional connection to nature and animals. That success prompted the benefactors—the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Poet’s House—to collaborate on a second, more ambitious venture—this time pairing zoos and community libraries.
Now, Alcosser and her partners in the Central Park project will try to replicate their success in five new cities, creating a model for how cultural institutions such as libraries and zoos can collaborate to promote empathetic thinking in society.
Funded by a $1.5 million grant, poetry installations will be mounted in zoological parks in New Orleans, La.; Brookfield, Ill.; Little Rock, Ark.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Milwaukee, Wis. Libraries in those cities will work with appointed poet-curators, as well as the American Library Association, to provide complementary poetry resources and programs that provoke thinking about the environment.
In her collaboration with scientists and artists, Alcosser is joined by Mark Doty, winner of the National Book Award for Poetry; Pattiann Rogers, recipient of the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry; Abenaki Indian poet Joseph Bruchac; and poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming.
Alcosser has just returned from reading for “Oh Earth, Wait for Me”: Conversations about Art and Ecology, co-sponsored by the Center for Biological Diversity and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. She will speak about the Language of Conservation this spring with, among others, John Felsteiner, a Stanford professor and author of Can Poetry Save the Earth?
“It is a great privilege,” Alcosser said, “to be asked to research habitats across centuries and civilizations, to discover what has been honored, to celebrate through poetry what is sacred between species, to raise public awareness of animal and human habitats.”