Monday, November 8, 2010

Monday Muse: Utah's Poet Laureate

Poetry inflects everything I do.
. . . I always come back to the poems.
~ Katherine Coles*

Katherine Coles began in 2006 a five-year term as Poet Laureate of Utah. Only the third poet to be awarded the appointment, Coles succeeds Kenneth W. Brewer (2003-2006) and David Lee (1997-2002).

Administered by the Utah State Poet Laureate Program, the position was established in 1997. A Utah Arts Council committee whose members represent the state's geographic regions and major literary institutions establishes nomination procedures and criteria; prepares a list of poets who meet the criteria; and then forwards three names to the governor, who makes the final selection. The position has no official duties; however, the Poet Laureate advocates for literature and the arts throughout Utah, appearing at public readings in libraries, universities, and other venues.

If people have 60 seconds for a Pepsi commercial,
they have time for a poem.**

As Poet Laureate, Coles launched a Bite Size Poetry project in 2009, the aim of which was to put before every citizen every month a poem that could be read aloud in a minute or less. Participating poets, all from Utah, video- and audio-recorded their "bite size" poems, released one per month, each sent out via e-mail or featured on a radio station, on YouTube, or on a Website such as NowPlayingUtah. Because the project was so popular, Coles undertook Bite Size 2.0, which channels "home-grown poetry into Utah's cyberspace". These poems, too, are distributed via various media throughout Utah.

* * * * *
[P]oetry, for me, is much more interior [than fiction-writing].
It's about, in a sense, passionate intelligence, it's about the passion
of the mind, the individual mind — that would be mine —
working on the world. . . Poetry is that thing that charts the way
in which the individual mind comes up against the world
outside of it, and engages with it and thinks about it with passion,
with intelligence, with spirit.
~ Katherine Coles*

A professor of English at the University of Utah, Katherine Coles, Ph.D., has published four poetry collections, including Fault (Red Hen Press, 2008), The Golden Years of the Fourth Dimension (University of Nevada Press, 2001), A History of the Garden (University of Nevada Press, 1997), and The One Right Touch (Ahsahta Press, 1992). A fifth collection, Flight, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. Coles also has written several novels, including Fire Season (Juniper Press, 2005) and The Measurable World: An Erotic Urgan Mystery (University of Nevada Press, 1995), as well as stories and essays. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Paris Review, Smartish PlaceThe Kenyon Review, Verse Daily, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry and in the anthology New Poets of the American West (Many Voices Press, 2010).

In addition, Coles' collaborations with visual artist Maureen O'Hara Ure have produced an artist's book, Swoon, and two major installations. Currently, Coles and O'Hara Ure are working on a project based on Coles' travels to Antarctica and her and O'Hara Ure's travels to Italy and Turkey; a book of poems, to be titled Natural Curiosities, is anticipated. Coles' travels in the Amazon and to Cuba, Indonesia, and Singapore as part of a project to write a nonfiction book about her grandfather, a petroleum geologist and explorer, resulted in Burnt Letters; a chapter, "Venezuela Triangle", was published in Ascent in 2008.

A sequence of Coles' poems, "Passages", was commissioned and installed permanently in Salt Lake City's Passages Park. A commissioned poem, "Numbers", is installed permanently in the Leroy Cowles Mathematics Building at the University of Utah.

How do you know that a poem is true?
Because it's beautiful.

Coles' marvelous poems reach deeply into the complexities of relationships between men and women, as in her collection The One Right Touch, from which this excerpt from the spare and elegant "Before Parting" is taken:

. . . No empty cupboard
sends me out in this weather to market,
but a restlessness, the storm,
and your notion of apples

completing a white bowl, candlelight
adrift on  their skins. On the table, only that
lies between us, between our two knives 
parting the meat; and after dinner we watch
every other moment the sky open

into fragile light. For those short illuminations
we hover near the window. We want each other
to believe that distance can't change us....

In her poetry, Coles also speaks to the pleasures to be had in the beauty of nature,  friendship, travel, love for and from companion animals (she's written many poems about her dogs); the intersections of science, culture, and history (especially in Fault); desire and suffering. Her writing reveals a sensitivity to the auditory and musical qualities of words (she's an excellent reader of her own work), and keen mastery of poetic forms (for example, pantoum, ghazal, sonnet, quatrain). She is not, however, in any sense, an ivory-tower poet. When you read her work, even when her imagery is abstract and dense with meaning that challenges, you "get" her. Here's another brief excerpt:

Because time passes more slowly
In water than in air, everything

Floats, even muscle,
Memory, and bone, all
Anything but light. I take

My time, roundabout
Detour and angle, to get
From point to point. Even

Into your arms....
~ From "Refraction"

Coles' awards include fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tanner Humanities Center, the National Science Foundation, and the University of Utah. 

At the University of Utah, where she directs the creative writing program, Coles teaches nonfiction, genre studies, poetry, creative nonfiction, and narrative theory and practice. With mathematician and biologist Fred Adler, Coles directs the Utah Symposium in Science and Literature.

Coles gives poetry readings throughout Utah and has appeared at readings, including open mic nights, in New York, California, Nevada, Arizona, Vermont, Connecticut, Kansas, and Wyoming, as well as Australia, Italy, France, and Germany, among other locales. She also participates in poetry-writing workshops.

Coles is also one of 35 poets (all current or past state Poets Laureate) to be featured in An Endless Skyway: Poetry from the Poets Laureate of the United States (Ice Cube Books), scheduled for release in March 2011. Go here for a list of the poets who will be in the anthology.


All Poetry Excerpts © Katherine Coles

* Quoted from Utah Conversations With Ted Capener, on KUED (University of Utah Education Network), Interview with Katherine Coles, April 22, 2007 (In this interview, the highly articulate Coles discusses the role of poetry and literary arts in our lives. She speaks passionately about poetry as "ultimately about pleasure", as that which "makes people larger inside". She also reads a number of her poems, including her elegy to her dog Andre in A History of the Garden. The interview is just under 27 minutes and is well worth the time, especially as an introduction to the poet.)

** Quoted from "Poetry in Electronic Motion: 60 Seconds? Utah Poet Laureate Katherine Coles Launches 'Bite Size Poems' Project" in Salt Lake Tribune (via McClatchy-Tribune Information Services), May 16, 2009

Katherine Coles' Curriculum Vitae (2009; pdf)

Katherine Coles' Website: Science and Literature

Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute at the Poetry Foundation, Chicago (A description of Coles' project at the HMPI, concerning best practices for "elevating the profile of poetry" via new-media platforms, is here.)

Katherine Coles' Poetry Online: "Numbers" at Verse Daily (2009); "The Double Leash" at Poetry Foundation; "Sex as a Trope" in Weber Journal (Spring 1991, Vol. 8.1), "The Walk-through Heart" in Weber Journal (Winter 1996, Vol. 13.1), and "The Need for Science" in Weber Journal (Winter 1997, Vol. 14.1); "Hawks" in Valparaiso Poetry Review (Vol. XI, No. 1); "Poetry 2.0" and "Refraction" in Diagram; "Hotel Mercure" in Pank Magazine (February 2010; audio also available); "Dog Days" at Able Muse (Vol. 9, Summer 2010; Video and Text); "Love Poem for the Nuclear Age: Utah , 1950—" in College English (1990); "Elegy for a Dog Larger Than Life", Excerpt from Poetry (December 1993); "The Double Leash" in Poetry (August 1998)

"Goats, Atomic Clocks,  and Hotel Fires" , Podcast, Humanities Happy Hour, University of Utah Humanities Department, May 15, 2003 (Coles reads three poems. The podcast also may be viewed in iTunes.)

Review of Fault by Genevieve Betts in Western American Literature (Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring 2009, pp. 86-87 (pdf)

Red Hen Press

Red Rock Writers Guild

Utah Department of Community and Culture, Division of Arts & Museums, Poet Laureate

Poet Laureate Selection Process (pdf)

Utah Literary Arts

Utah Page at

University of Utah New Release on Appointment as Poet Laureate

University of Utah Creative Writing Program on FaceBook

Writers on the Edge

United Poets Laureate

Katherine Coles Performing "Found Objects: In the Mood of Atget" (Video)

Text is here.


Kathleen said...

I love these articles you provide on writers and artists. I learn so much. Thank you.

It's always wonderful to learn what the state poet laureates are doing, and to see all the ways poetry is getting out there to the people in our democracy!

Louise Gallagher said...

Love this line! "If people have 60 seconds for a Pepsi commercial,
they have time for a poem.**"

So true!

And the excerpt from Refraction is stunning -- you make we hunger for more of her words.

Thank you!

Marcus Goodyear said...

I love the Bite-Sized poetry project! It almost makes me wish I lived in Utah--or that they would open up the 2.0 version to other regions.

Fantastic idea!

Anonymous said...

me too
me too
i like the bite size idea too

A. Jay Adler said...

"For those short illuminations
we hover near the window. We want each other
to believe that distance can't change us...."

This series introduces us to to so many interesting poets, personalities, and teachers. What will replace it when you've done all the states? You need something as conceptually complete.