A Conversation With Pattiann Rogers

Pattiann Rogers

Photo by Richard Brodzeller

Discovering poetry is like learning to ride a bike, says poet Pattiann Rogers. “All you have to do is find one poem that touches and stuns you, and you’re hooked for life.” As the Milwaukee County Zoo’s honorary poet, Rogers selected excerpts from nearly 60 poems about animals and nature. These were then given to the Zoological Society’s artists to create artistic installations to be displayed in the Zoo as part of the Language of Conservation project. This program is presented in partnership by the Zoo and the Milwaukee Public Library. The Zoological Society of Milwaukee contributed the graphic design. For more on this project, please click here.

Rogers, who lives in Castle Rock, Colo., is a longtime published poet, essayist and college professor. She spoke with the Zoological Society about The Language of Conservation, her relationship with nature and why scientific terms can be evocative and lyrical.

How did you get involved in the Language of Conservation project?
I was contacted by Poets House in New York City, which launched this project in 2009 with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and asked to join. The project sounded like something challenging and something I would enjoy working on.  And that’s been true.

You chose nearly 60 poems to be displayed at the Zoo. How did you select them?
I had some poems already in mind. I have a large library in my house. I’ve been a poet for a long time and I’ve taught poetry on the graduate level at various universities; so I am familiar with a great deal of poetry and contemporary poetry. I knew which poets were close to the Earth, which poets have a celebratory tone, which poets wrote about flora and fauna. The signs at the Zoo are not entire poems, but four or five lines that I have excerpted from particular poems. They address a relationship to the animals in the Zoo and the lands they come from, and experiences that all of us have with what is called the natural world.

I wanted the poems to offer a new perspective, a different way of looking at landscapes and animals. For instance, these few words from “Praise Them” by Li-Young Lee will appear on one sign:

The birds don’t alter space,
They reveal it...

“Dreambabwe,” from Learning Human by Les Murray, will be etched on a rock outside the hippo’s outdoor pool.

Streaming, a hippo surfaces
Like the head of someone
Lifting, with still-entranced eyes,
From a lake of stanzas

The following line from “Give me the Splendid Silent Sun” by Walt Whitman will appear in the giraffes’ indoor area.

Give me serene-moving animals teaching content.

Bahatika, a giraffe at the Zoo

Bahatika, a giraffe at the Zoo. Photo by Richard Brodzeller

The poems are not just from America and England. We have poems translated from Spanish and Hebrew, poetry from Australia, Greenland, Africa, South America, and Native American poetry. There’s a wide variety; some poems are very light; some may require more than one reading. My aim was for everyone visiting the Zoo to be able to find one poem he or she really likes. [Rogers and the Zoological Society received permission from poets and publishers to display the poems at the Zoo.]

Some poems will be familiar to people. Others, maybe not. There are two Wisconsin poets represented, including Marilyn L. Taylor, Wisconsin’s poet laureate, who was also Milwaukee’s poet laureate 2004-2006. There are many poems by living Americans–Wendell Berry, Lucille Clifton, Albert Goldbarth, Joy Harjo and others. There are poems by well-known poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson.

How will the poems help people appreciate wildlife and the Zoo?
I’ve learned a lot about the Milwaukee County Zoo. In particular, I learned how involved the Zoo is in conservation efforts. I’m hoping other people will become aware of this, and see Zoo animals not only as beautiful creatures, but as ambassadors for their species. Some animals are representatives of species that are endangered. We are hoping that these poems will help visitors to the Zoo recognize the connection we all have to the animals living here and to their fellow creatures around the world. We hope visitors will take pleasure in that connection and value all forms of life as survivors on the planet with us.

Photo by Margo Pactanac

Another goal of this project is to make poetry less distant, more approachable. The poems we have used are easily accessible as they celebrate the landscapes and lives of the earth.

What do you like about the Milwaukee County Zoo?
At the Zoo, the animals look content. I got to hear the zookeepers talk at the dedication of the new hippo enclosure [the Dohmen Family Foundation Hippo Home]. Their knowledge impressed me. They seemed attuned to all the nuances of hippo behavior. I watched the lions [in the Florence Mila Borchert Big Cat Country], and there was nothing between us but the glass. The lions were relaxed and dozing. The Zoo is just a gorgeous place, with beautiful gardens and spaces that haven’t been touched in any way, like the woods that surround the park. If I wasn’t a poet, I’d be helping at the Zoo!


Themba the lion at the Zoo. Photo by Richard Brodzeller

Tell us about your relationship with nature.
I grew up in a small town in Missouri. My mother was never afraid of letting me play outside and in the woods and creek where our street ended. Today, just to smell the air outdoors lifts my spirits. There’s always something going on out under the open sky. All forms of life are saying “yes” to life, to being. I find the devotion to life that is evident in all living beings sustaining.

African waterhole yard in winter

The Zoo’s African Waterhole yard in winter. Photo by Richard Brodzeller

Because I work with language, science has been very important to me. There’s a well-known scientist who studies a rare snail he discovered on an island somewhere. I remember reading that he said he didn’t care if there were only seven other people interested in the snail and its life process; he was interested. That’s the kind of reverence all the best scientists feel for the natural world and the focus of their studies. Also, science has added a vocabulary to English that’s just massive. Many scientific terms, names and processes are evocative and lyrical. It’s a world of wonder for a writer. I‘m interested in the story science is telling about the physical world.

Kalahari the black rhino

Photo by Richard Brodzeller

How did you become a poet and why do you like poetry?
Many events and experiences in life come about to move a person in different directions. I was always interested in literature and English. It’s a wonderful language, full of all kinds of words and sounds. The possibilities are limitless in what you can do with those words, the patterns, arrangements, and cadences that can be created with them. Poetry is essentially experimenting with language and its music, playing with it, putting it together in new ways to see what happens, to see what it says that you didn’t know before.

You don’t have to like every single poem you read. All you have to do is find one poem that touches and stuns you, and you’re hooked for life. All of a sudden, you know what poetry is. It’s like riding a bicycle. It’s hard to describe how to do it, but once you ride a bicycle–once you experience poetry--you know what it is.  For a writer, when you put words together in a new way–a metaphor and an image happen to make music, make meaning, for example–a pleasant, exciting surprise occurs. Most writers seek that experience again and again. Writing poetry has been an important focus of my life. It has made me much more observant, much more aware of what’s going on around me.  I’m grateful for that. 


A swan glides in the Zoo’s aviary pond. Photo by Richard Brodzeller

Interview by Julia Kolker, Zoological Society of Milwaukee