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Poets, Zoologists, And Bears Are Becoming Friends

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on May 21, 2010 9:25PM

The opening ceremony for the Language of Conversation is tomorrow.
Last week, Brookfield Zoo unveiled The Great Bear Wilderness, a snazzy new exhibit that features some freaking adorable bears. This weekend, they’re highlighting an interesting component of the exhibit: the 38 poems that are artistically “carved in wood, sandblasted in rockwork, stenciled on acrylic, painted on sidewalks, and digitally printed on translucent Plexiglas.” The project is called the Language of Conversation, and it aims to get zoologists collaborating with poets, to get poets collaborating with zoologists, and to bring everyone from the zoo’s staff to its visitors along for the ride.

If you go visit bears Jim, Axhi, and Hudson and their animal friends (the exhibit also includes bison, wolves and eagles), it’s nearly impossible to miss the poetry around them. Expect to see work beyond that of the hoity-toity poets who always seem get their words engraved on statues, public art, and the like. The lines, stanzas, and verses featured throughout the Language of Conversation come from a variety of poets of different ages, heritages, and languages. Dan Wharton, Ph.D., senior vice president of conservation science for the Chicago Zoological Society and co-creator of the program, worked hard with his team to give the whole body of work - and that includes the animals - a common voice. And he said doing it wasn’t hard. “If you put poets on one side and conversationalists on the other side… a message come out that nature, wildlife, and conservation are part of the human soul,” he said.

We were surprised to learn that Brookfield isn’t the only zoo to be launching the Language of Conversation. The program was initially created for Central Park Zoo thanks to a partnership between the Wildlife Conservation Society and Poets House, a literary center and poetry archive in New York. Wharton, who was the zoo’s director at the time, went through a process of engaging zoologists, poets and graphic artists to incorporate poetry throughout the whole zoo. It was a huge hit in follow-up research and surveys. “Even when you didn’t ask visitors about the poetry, people would very often quote it back. There was a sense of finding it inspiring.”

Now the Language of Conversation is being replicated at five zoos and libraries in Chicago, New Orleans, Little Rock, Jacksonville, and Milwaukee thanks to a $1 million National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Brookfield Zoo poet-in-residence Sandra Alcosser had a dual role with Wharton to adapt the program for the zoo here, and the Brookfield and Riverside Public Libraries have related poetry installations, too.

One of the coolest things about the Language of Conversation is that it was designed to be permanent installation. We are tickled pink that every time we go say hi to the Brookfield Zoo bears, we can check out the poetry, too. For some one-time only events, head over this weekend for the opening celebration, which includes a tour through the installation and poetry readings by Alcosser and Joseph Bruchac, a poet and children’s book author. Various events take place both at the zoo and at Brookfield and Riverside Public Libraries. See the schedule here.