Julie Swarstad Johnson & Christopher Cokinos

The Flight of Humane Poetics

Air Date: November 2, 2020

Julie Swarstad Johnson and Christopher Cokinos on their new book “Beyond Earth’s Edge”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome to our broadcast today the coauthors of a new book “Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Space Flight.” The authors are at the University of Arizona, Julie Swarstad Johnson and Christopher Cokinos, welcome to you both.


JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having us.


COKINOS: Thank you. It’s great.


HEFFNER: It’s great to have you, and I hope you’re staying safe in, in Arizona. Let me start, Julie, if you could tell us about the origin of this project to chronicle poets who are experiencing inverse space.


JOHNSON: Great. Yeah, no good question. So this book came out of my work at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, which is a literary center and a library here in Tucson at the University of Arizona. It’s home to one of the largest library collections of contemporary poetry in the country. So in my daily work, I see a lot of poetry, new poetry, things being written over the past, kind of 60 years is what we tend to focus on. And I also have a lifelong interest in space that kind of goes back to childhood. It is just something that I’ve been interested in, but so through my reading at the poetry center, in my work, I started to see poems about space. And since that connected with my own interest, I started digging deeper and found a surprising number of writers had actually written on this topic from a range of perspectives in terms of time, like time period when they were writing in terms of where they were located; in terms of their backgrounds, in terms of whether they were kind of skeptical about space or really interested in it. And so through all of that, it came together. I started pulling poems together into a library exhibit, which is something that we do at the poetry center to feature works that we have. And I had so much material; it was just too much to even show in that exhibit. And so a colleague suggested have you ever thought about turning this into an anthology? At that point I got connected with Chris and we just started doing more research, which really just exposed the breadth of thinking on this topic and also the depth. And the way that this book really shows, you know, it’s both a really great showcase of contemporary writers, but it also gives us this unique perspective to look at space flight not only in like what has literally happened, but to also kind of dig into what it means or why we’re doing it.


HEFFNER: Chris, can you talk to us about the evolution of our understanding of space and how these poets individually or collectively evolved in, in viewing space and what it means?


COKINOS: Sure. I, you know, it’s an interesting sort of thematic arc in this book. As Julie says, we have this really diverse range of writers across ethnicities, gender, time periods, some famous, W.H. Auden, others not as well known. And as we were putting the book together, we saw this evolution, a sort of attitudinal evolution of a lot of skepticism early on in the writing about the early space age. So in the late 1950s, when Sputnik was launched and then Kennedy engages the United States when he’s elected into this kind of non-combat contest with the Soviet Union. He didn’t particularly care about space, but he wanted, you know, a venue in which American superiority could be demonstrated. Well, a lot of poets reacted pretty negatively to that. So Campbell McGrath, W.H. Auden, Anne Sexton, we have a number of poets in the early sections of the book, the sort of pre Apollo, and then the moon landings responding really critically to this. But as the space, age changes, Apollo ends, the space shuttle is approved by Richard Nixon, finally flies, we begin to see a much more diverse set of astronauts, African-American, women, people from other countries, the rise of robotic probes like Viking in the 1970s, the Voyager missions. Voyager features heavily in a lot of the poetic senses. Something happens. There’s this kind of blossoming of interest and curiosity and even enthusiasm among poets, again, crossing all sorts of categories and seeing maybe more promise in the exploration of space, both robotic and human. And as the book comes to a close, as this anthology comes to a close, we actually have a section sort of the science fictional, almost partly looking back as writers are thinking about how sort of retro futurist Star Trek visions of the future have played out or not played out. As well as again, imagining what role we might have, you know, what is the, why do we do this? Why do we want to go to other worlds? Why should we do this? And the responses are really diverse and interesting from critiques of kind of post-colonial ways of talking about space exploration to one of my favorite poems Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea by Nikki Giovanni the African American poet who talks about the need to go to Mars as rooted in the African American experience. So it’s, it’s you know, without meaning to use the pun, there’s a trajectory of attitudes here.


HEFFNER: Yeah. There did seem to be a diversity in these chronicles and these poems and it is not just moon centered. And it is not just navigation centric but rather embodying the human flesh in the pursuit of space. The, the cynicism hasn’t evaporated, you know, when we look at folks like Musk and Bezos who are instead of deploying more millions here in the countryside and fighting COVID and systemic inequities, they’re looking to Mars or to elsewhere in the galaxy. How would you say Julie, the contemporary poets thinking about space are dealing with the social inequities of our experience here on earth, and whether it is viewed by the contemporary skeptics as a distraction, even in the imaginative literary community, a distraction that is, that is not enough grounded in the human need right now.


JOHNSON: That’s a great question. And I mean, thinking about the context on earth and thinking about these poems of poets, looking to space, there’s always everything that’s happening here on earth goes with us into space. It doesn’t just kind of evaporate into this, you know, everything is possible and everything is equal future. But to think of that, two poems that come to mind in response to that by contemporary writers, so one is by the poet, Adrian Matejka, Those Minor Regrets is the title. And this is a poem that’s looking at space flight in the 1980s from his perspective as a young black kid growing up and kind of a poor single parent family, and looking to space thinking about the space shuttle and also Star Trek in this kind of aspirational way, seeing in it these possibilities for, for black achievement, being in a period where we’ve now had the first African American astronaut in the eighties with Guion Bluford. So seeing possibility, but mixed in that poem with that possibility is the reality of having the electric shutoff at home or dealing with constant break-ins. So it’s a that I think to go back to your question of like, how would a poet, how does a poem like that respond to the things on earth? It’s not at all trying to kind of gloss over racial inequities. It’s not trying to gloss over class differences. But it’s also seeing there can be this imaginative possibility that’s not completely distinct from it, but that also gives you this other way of being. Another poem that comes to mind connected to this is the indigenous poet Tawahum Justin Bige, who’s from Canada. And they write up, they have a poem called Star Lodge in the book that imagines an indigenous future, kind of spread out in the solar system. And in that poem, there’s a sense, there’s a line that says this isn’t a second. It’s not a second chance. It’s this resurgence. So obviously, you know, indigenous, this is an indigenous writer writing from this perspective where kind of everything in the present moment is against that, that lived reality of those communities. But being able to say, well, we’re not going to space as just a way to say, forget what’s going on here, but it’s this extension of life on earth. That’s not without its critiques, but it’s full of these possibilities again.


HEFFNER: Chris, you look like you want to add to that?


COKINOS: Yeah, no, I think it’s a really important question. And I’ll, I’ll share just a couple of line lines from Nikki Giovanni’s poem in a second, I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we put this together and thinking about the moment that we’re in right now, which is the moment, you know, the moment we’re in right now is just laying bare what has been with us for a long time. Ralph Abernathy the civil rights leader, you know takes this poor people’s campaign to, to the Cape for the Apollo 11 launch. And drawing attention to these, you know, the systemic inequities that have plagued our culture for a very long time. And I think that for me, at least, and I think for some of the poets in this book, space is something that we need to understand ourselves and our planet that it is aspirational. And one of the parts, I think one of the things that’s happening in this moment is a disdain for science, disdain for critical thinking. And in here, we have poets in a sense mounting, you know, a poetic defense of the need to ask big questions. And if you’re asking big questions, you have to think critically about those things. So I think the cultivation of what we might call fact-based wonder is deeply embedded in this book. And it’s participatory. NASA is an enormously popular agency, only behind the post office and the National Park Service, bipartisan support in the 80 percent range across demographics of ethnicity and gender and income and education. So I think there’s this, there’s a sense of, we have a stake in this. And for me, at least the choice is between not between space and justice on earth, the choice is between space as a lens to understand ourselves dealing with environmental and social inequities that are tragic and pressing on us. We have not a lot of time left to deal with climate change. All of those things here and the amount of money we spend on defense globally, which is about $2 trillion dollars a year, which is an enormous sum of money. And I don’t think we’ll live in a utopian world where we won’t need military budgets, but about half of that, not quite half of that is the U.S. defense budget, whereas NASA occupies less than one half of 1 percent of the federal budget. So, but let me, if I could share very briefly a few lines from, I have to put my reading glasses on, just briefly from Nikki Giovanni’s poem, which is I think a good response to these issues, these important issues. So it’s called Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, and the subtitle is it’s in parentheses when she says, (We’re Going to Mars.) And she says, “We’re going to Mars because whatever is wrong with us will not get right with us. So we journey forth, carrying the same baggage, but every now and then leaving one little bitty thing behind, maybe drop torturing hunchbacks here, maybe drop lynching, Billy Budd there, maybe not whipping up Uncle Tom to death, maybe resisting global war.” So that’s her answer to that question,


HEFFNER: Right. Right. I, you know, and the difference between the Postal Service and the National Parks and NASA is that, you know, we, one isn’t a kind of abstraction into a universe or environment in which we can’t necessarily access. That may be true to some extent of the National Parks too, for those of us who are denied the opportunity to see this great country and the multitudinous typography and tapestry of mountains and Rockies. But there is something desperately needed when it comes to our own humanity. And as soon as you lift up above, I don’t know if it’s 30,000 feet or 50,000 feet, there is just the question of relevance or irrelevance. And you know, you, I think you came back at the question with, with why it can be relevant. But I think that it’s these poets in your book, many of them like Neruda have a deeply, humane consciousness, it’s about love and truth. And, my two favorite poems from the book are actually back-to-back. “A lady is astronaut as for space, science is good to a point, but how do you measure guts? Can numbers predict who dived through a fire to rescue a child? How will you gauge bravery by dexterity, stamina, reflexes,” and then right after Neruda thinking about our place in society, in the natural habitat, I was wondering if you could kind of reflect on those two poems and Julie, what they say about humanity and that question of relevance and irrelevance to space.


JOHNSON: That’s a great question. Yeah. And so Enid Shomer in that first poem, you mentioned it Lady Astronaut Tests for Space. What she’s writing about is kind of early thinking about, could we have women in the space program that never really took off? But there were tests to see if these women kind of could pass the same tests as the male astronaut candidates. So she’s inhabiting that persona. She’s thinking about what that means and what this poem is really thinking about is, you know, these women pass all the tests. But at a certain point, the, the societal view of women is just not being adequate for this role. It doesn’t matter if they pass the tests; they’re not going to be accepted for this. She says at the end, “here’s the measure of my metal. What testing, what testing can’t reveal launched on a column of fire, into measureless space. I’d brave the dark heart of creation. I don’t care if I never get back.” So there’s a sense that it’s like it doesn’t, she’s almost saying like, I don’t care if I am going to die. If I go into space because I failed this one heart test. I want to get out there and see what’s out there. And to go back to something you were saying in, you made a comment about, like, when you get far enough away from the earth do you start to lose perspective? I think part of what this poem is saying and what some other poets in the collection are saying is that when we go out into that dark heart of creation, we also get a better sense of our own place in it. Another poet, just to, and I’ll go back to the Neruda, but another point related to this Alison Hawthorne Deming in Homeland Security is writing about fracking. She’s thinking about environmental, this really real pressing environmental issue. And she says in that poem, space might be the only way to see the kind of sky we need. So basically from space, we get this much bigger perspective on the changes happening on earth. And I think that’s a little bit of what Enid Shomer is getting out in this poem as well. You need that kind of distance to see clearly the big changes that are happening. To shift back then to the, or shift forward to Neruda’s poem. You know, I think I love that poem also, that’s one of my favorites and Neruda is really thinking about, he’s reflecting on two Russian spacecrafts. It’s, it’s, Vostok three and four. So it’s the first two spacecrafts that are in orbit at the same time. And he’s imagining that with these two men up in orbit, kind of all of earth, all of humanity has gone up into orbit with them. He says, “And not only that, but cities smoke, the roar of crowds, bells, and violins, the feet of children leaving school, all of that is alive in space now because the astronauts didn’t go by themselves, they brought our earth, the odors of moss and forest, love, the crisscross limbs of men and women, terrestrial rains over the prairies, something floated up like a wedding dress behind the two spaceships.” So he’s saying in that poem, there’s the sense of like, well, there’s just the two people in orbit might be one way to look at it, but in a sense, kind of all of humanity. In Neruda’s mind, it’s like all the best of humanity. The springtime of the earth is up there with them. So again…


HEFFNER: Very Kennedyesque.




HEFFNER: You know, the speech at American University, “We all breathe the same air.” And yet we’re at a point of disunity and feel so disjointed. That’s why I made the analogy to flight in, you know, how we can best prepare to view space as sort of integral to if not social justice, our collective humanity here. And I, you know, I think Chris, you could weigh in on this because you look at a decades long period of poems and this compilation, this anthology, but do you feel that we are at a distinct aberration of a, of a moment in American history, if not human history that we find it much harder to have a collective good. And do feel that that distance that I’m describing from the social problems here?


COKINOS: Absolutely. I mean, yeah, there’s no doubt. And I think that well, one of the ways I might respond to that is, you know, a little bit from my own personal experience, I grew up. I was a child of Apollo. I watched those missions, I tape recorded them in my trailer in Indiana. And, you know, it felt like, it felt like both an escape from an unhappy childhood and this sort of like promise of a better future. But that was, that was a strange, you know, unique moment in American history where we were in this contest with another superpower, pouring a tremendous amount of resources into the Apollo program. And I think a lot of the space enthusiasts, you know, have misunderstood, like that moment is never coming back. And so we have to have a different way of thinking about what space exploration, robotic and human, says to us, how it appeals to, you know, the better angels of our nature and how it can be a unifier. There’s no easy..


HEFFNER: One specific example of that. Chris would be finding extra terrestrial




HEFFNER: Molecules that, that will help with human, to help allay human suffering and disease here. I mean, personally, I don’t really give a flying hoot about extraterrestrial creatures. You know, maybe if those creatures possess the knowledge to help humanity, then I do care about them. But you know, one of the things that’s been tested in missions is finding elements on Mars or elsewhere that might help improve human existence here. And to my mind, that’s really one of the only things that could be the similarly unifying purposeful mission, like a man on the moon.


COKINOS: Yeah. I, you know, I think that, that, I think that’s a good point and I would say are a couple of the things I would, I would quickly add one would be you know, the technology that we’re using right now to talk with each other, to have this conversation and ask these, these questions, this, we’re in a satellite economy. I mean we’re completely reliant on satellites for communications, for weather forecasting and climate change and so forth. And it’s easy to say that, but imagine, you know, extricating ourselves, from the computing power that we have in our phones is as a result of the Apollo program, they had to take computers that were the size of rooms and shrink them into pretty primitive computers for that spacecraft. But so we have these sort of practical legacies and, you know, it, and that sort of spinoff argument is one that a lot of space enthusiasts like to like to try it out. But I think the more that sort of more impactful question here is, you know, what is it that might unify us in this cultural moment where divisiveness, and again, disdain for, disdain, for critical thinking, distain for rationality, distain for scientists, so much on the rise. And I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. But you mentioned the parks and I think there’s some kind of connection here between having access to, and having a sense of participation in larger landscapes, whether they’re non-built environments that people can get to and should be able to get to and be able to access or looking at the moon through a telescope. I mean I’ve had like this tremendous joy showing kids in the neighborhood what the moon looks like through the telescope. They just, some of them are so blown away, they laugh, you know, and it’s like, they can’t believe this. So how we translate that into a larger unifying cultural endeavor. That’s, that’s a big question.


HEFFNER: And to close


COKINOS: And the poets are asking that question, right?


HEFFNER: Yeah. And in the few minutes we have left Chris and Julie, you know, not to be so pun worthy, but it may be the stroke of, of poetic injustice or justice, depending upon how cynical you are, that an asteroid apparently is and scheduled to pass by the day before our U.S. election. And, if that’s not poetic something, I don’t know what is. I think that, you know, from, from a very historical position go back to Martians or independence day, but NASA was viewed as favorable because there was the concern or question about whether any foreign objects or people’s aliens might disrupt life here. We’re doing a fine job disrupting ourselves. But at the end of the day, you know, I don’t know if that’s why NASA has preserved its popular position in society, but you know, it is, it is supposed to serve a protective function. And you know, folks have said we were overdue for a pandemic. I haven’t heard quite as much analysis to suggest we were overdue for an asteroid, but 2020 would be the year. And I just wanted to give you both a chance quickly to weigh in on that first Julie and then Chris.


JOHNSON: Yeah, I would say, I mean, I guess I want to, I don’t want to not answer that question, but I want to push back just a little bit and going back to the sense of like this question about unity. One thing, I mean, unity is a good, unity is a good thing. That’s not something I’m going to argue with. But one thing that I think this book really beautifully demonstrates is that you don’t necessarily have to have everybody coming from the same place to feel a sense of connection through something. You don’t all have to be having the same perspective on it. And I think this book demonstrates the many different ways that people connect to space. I think another thing to say about like the scientific work that NASA does and the data that we get back from it, I think that has deep inherent value, not even from spinoffs, but just in the way that it grounds us in the place that we are. I’m somebody that really values knowing where I am on earth, knowing the plants, knowing the landscape that I’m in. But to me, that really extends to knowing the night sky and understanding the solar system and beyond. So I think that is a really beautiful thing that NASA does and that they’re, you know, there are lots of questions to ask and, and hard things to think about. But one of the biggest values that it brings to us is just this enhanced and growing scientific knowledge of where we are.


HEFFNER: Chris, 60 seconds. Forgive me. No, that that’s fine. I do not have a yard sign up front that says Asteroid 2020. Interesting to note that the two priorities that the public, this is a Pew research survey from last year I think: climate change and planetary defense. So monitoring asteroids those are the two big priorities, much lower priorities for sending humans to the moon or Mars, but I’m reminded you invoked Kennedy. And I would just close me, you know, my thoughts here by that wonderful quote of his, where he says, we choose to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard and that, I think still, you know, it’s just a rhetorical flair, but also a sentiment that I, for one believe in. And I think those other things: tackling an inequality, tackling the rise of authoritarianism, tackling this sort of anti-science moment that we’re in, all of those things are still wrapped together with an aspirational sense of, of looking up at the night sky.


HEFFNER: And we’re recording this now on zoom. If all the satellites are demolished, I think it will be on November 2nd. So folks will have seen this and might be directed to some poems before that happens that have relevance to asteroids and planetary defense. Chris and Julie, thank you so much for this enlightening conversation.


JOHNSON: Thank you.


COKINOS: Thank you so much. It’s been great.


HEFFNER: Thank you. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.