The idea of a poetry exhibit made me smile. That’s where we began about a year ago. As we were discussing exhibit ideas for the Conner Museum of Natural History, which I direct at Washington State University, I mentioned to the curator that I was thinking about doing a poetry exhibit. I next brought up the idea with Debbie Lee, who is a good friend and a professor in our English Department. Debbie and I chat frequently over tea. We’ve hiked and backpacked together, critiqued each other’s writing, and we’ve taught a course—on scientific travel narratives—together. We have also discussed a lot of poetry over the years, venturing quickly from Wordsworth to Eliot and well beyond. Last year, I asked Debbie if she would create with me an exhibit of poems for the Conner Museum of Natural History.
The idea was
to match poems with the taxidermy mounts of animals on display in the
museum. We went in search of poems
about animals—particularly those animals that we have on display, which are
mostly from the American Northwest.
Debbie’s expertise is the Romantic era, and she readily provided poems
from Coleridge and Keats. My
reading tends more toward the modern, and I suggested poems by Wallace Stevens
and Gary Snyder. As we looked at
the poems, we found that many didn’t correspond well to the animals on
display. We have few British birds
in our museum collection, and, thus, out went Wordsworth’s cuckoos, Keats’s
nightingales, Hopkins’s skylarks, and Hardy’s thrushes. We found other marvelous poems,
such as R. S. Thomas’s “Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man,” which I wrote about
here several weeks ago, and A. E. Stallings’s “Extinction of Silence,” which is
about understanding life from museum specimens.
and I e-mailed back and forth our ideas, we also tried-out various title for
the exhibit. Debbie suggested we
consider a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson that began
A Sparrow took a Slice of Twig
And thought it very nice
I think, because his empty Plate
Was handed Nature twice—
“Nature Twice” struck us as apropos for the exhibit name. Our exhibit would offer two views of nature— one manifest in the animal mounts on display and the other in the poems.
considered how to do the exhibit, we decided to invite graduate students from
both the Department of English and School of Biological Sciences to collaborate
with us on the development and curation of the exhibit. We e-mailed an invitation to students
and eleven decided to join us.
Last spring, the graduate students, Linda Russo (a poet in our English
Department), Debbie, and I took our large pile of possible poems for exhibit
and spread them through the museum, matching poems with animal specimens. We discussed the physical spacing of the
poems as well as their contents and lengths—and this led us to select 40 poems
for the exhibit.
We wanted also to offer visitors to the exhibit a guide. Over the summer, the students, Linda, Debbie, and I wrote essays about the poems. Those essays have now been assembled, printed, and bound along with a preface and introduction to make a compact book.
The “Nature Twice” exhibit opens this week in the Conner Museum of Natural History. Our opening on Thursday evening will begin with the poets Linda Russo and Ray Hanby reading from their work. Both Linda and Ray have explored the natural world in their poems and used nature in the broadest sense to comprehend life. Debbie and I hope that visitors to the opening and the exhibit will gain insights into both animals and poems. We hope the exhibit will encourage visitors to consider diverse and creative ways to understand nature.The idea of exhibiting poems delights me. We look at poems in books and little magazines—not in museums. We think about reading poems or listening to them. We question whether poems can change the world. I wanted to mix these perceptions together to create something slightly new.
I have imagined visitors to our exhibit reading the poems—even just stanzas or lines—aloud to themselves or to friends while in the museum. I think about that reading and listening, while these visitors are at the same time looking at the animals on display in the museum. The conversations that emerge from the experience of the exhibit may not change the world, but I think the context, this new setting for poetry, will encourage new perceptions. Our exhibit will help visitors to the exhibit see that science and art are miscible and a mix of both inevitably influences our understanding of nature.