How do you find the words to describe something when even the best superlatives you can think of — words like magnificent, overwhelming, stupendous, other-worldly — seem inadequate?
That is both the challenge and opportunity facing Utah Poet Laureate Katharine Coles, who recently visited Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.
As a poet and as a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Utah, she finds words to be both her passion and her business, but they still don't come easily when she thinks of the vast, ice-shrouded continent that sits at the bottom of our planet. Still, over the next year or so, Coles will be forming those words into poems that will become her next book.
Visiting Antarctica was an incredible experience, she says. "It's one of the spaces that occupies at least a bit of everyone's imagination. I know it does mine. I didn't think I would ever actually get there, but I've always wanted to go."
When she learned about the program allowing artists to visit the continent, she was excited. "I knew I'd never qualify to go and do oceanography, but I could go and write poetry."
She flew to Santiago, Chile, and then on to Punta Arenas, where she boarded a research vessel for the week-long sail to Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. The first test of endurance was the famed Drake Passage, known in some circles as the "Drake Shake." "But we only had one day of really rough seas, with 20-30-foot swells, when everything that wasn't nailed or bungeed down went flying."
Coles spent her days at the station going along on whatever scientific activities were planned for the day, whether it was measuring water, counting birds, collecting plankton or something else.
"You never know how scientists will feel about a poet tagging along, but they were very accommodating, very friendly. They made me feel like they were happy to have me, and I tried to make myself as useful to them as I could. I didn't do anything that might screw up an experiment, and I probably wasn't all that useful. But I wanted to at least be more help than I was trouble."
In addition to working with the scientists, and trying to come to terms with what she was seeing, Coles also spent a lot of time reading. "I tried to learn as much as I could about the natural processes, the physical processes that generated the landscape I was seeing. It was while I was reading Shackleton [an early explorer] that it all fell together for me. He talked about mirage and refraction, and how they cause everything to look different. And I realized that was exactly what was happening. You never see the same ocean twice. The mountains offer multiple images; the horizon is so deep. Optics create different views of land, water, wildlife. Reflection, refraction, mirage. Half the time the eye's trying to see what's not there. No wonder it seems strange. But it's also very taking visually."
However, the first poem she wrote had nothing to do with landscape. "I was looking through a microscope at plankton that had been infected with viruses. It was so incredibly beautiful. I thought, this I can write about."
All in all, she says, "it turned into the most productive writing experience I've ever had. Every night, I was physically tired. But there was so much mental stimulation, it was hard not be productive. My challenge now is to keep the momentum going."
There is nothing Coles would rather be doing; poetry has been a lifelong love. At age 7 she announced to her parents that she was going to be a poet and a fireman. "I started reading at a very early age. As soon as I figured out that people actually wrote those books, I knew that was what I wanted to do."
Over the years her career goals changed somewhat: a poet and a lawyer, a poet and a marine biologist, a poet and an actress. But always a poet, "and finally I said OK I'll just try that." The fact that she has been able to make a living at it has pleased her parents no end. "They thought I would be a poet and a waitress."
After a two-year hiatus, while she worked to establish a poetry think-tank (the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute at the Poetry Foundation) in Chicago, Coles is returning to full-time teaching at the U. this semester.
She is serving the final year of her five-year appointment as Utah's Poet Laureate. "That has really been one of the most rewarding kind of experiences you could imagine," she says. "It has caused me to stretch myself in how I think about my work, especially in relation to audiences."
As Laureate, she acts as an advocate for literature and arts throughout the state. She has given readings before all kinds of audiences, at all kinds of venues, from senior centers to elementary schools to art galleries, national parks, Rotary Clubs and more.
One of her special projects has been Bite-Size Poetry, which has involved asking other poets to submit a poem that could be read in a minute of less. She worked with KUED to get them videotaped, and they have run on television and radio, and have been archived on a website: arts.utah.gov/area_interest/literary_arts/poet/bite_size.html.
A lot of people are intimated by poetry, says Coles. "For many people, their only exposure was in school, so they think it is going to come with a quiz. We want them to find pleasure. They need to relax and know that their only job is to experience pleasure and nothing more."
For someone in her position nothing is as fun as "being engaged with words, as playing with words and language." Her very favorite words are actually the most ordinary nouns, she says. "I love how they can come together and illuminate each other. I love how they come together and play. Something happens that is magical."
Almost as magical as what happens when a penguin hops into your Zodiac for a ride across the Antarctic Sea. "They tell me that's extremely rare," she says, but it happened to her, not once but twice.
Antarctica: The cold, hard facts
Size: 5.4 million square miles, making it the 5th largest continent
Amount covered by ice: 98-99 percent, this represents 90 percent of the world's ice
Average depth of ice: 1 mile
Average temperature: -56 degrees F.; however, summer temperatures on the peninsula can reach 20s and 30s F.
Coldest temperature ever recorded: -128.6 degrees F., on July 21, 1983
Average precipitation: 6-8 inches of snow
First confirmed sighting: 1820, by Russian explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen and Mikhail Lazarev
Name: From the Greek, meaning "opposite to the north"
Permanent population: 0
Temporary population: between 1,000-4,000 at any given time
Vegetation: Mostly mosses, lichen, bryophytes, algae and fungi
Wildlife: Penguins (Emperor, King, Chinstrap, Gentoo, Adelie, Rockhopper), blue whales, orcas, colossal squids, fur seals, Snow Petrel
Time zone: goes by New Zealand time, as all time zones converge at the South Pole
Heights: South Pole sits 10,000 feet above sea level; highest mountain is 16,066 feet
Government: An international treaty signed by 46 countries prohibits development and military activity