FEATURE — Spring 2005
   

 

Looking Skyward,
Writer Earns His Wings

Like a journalist with a poet's eye, Christopher Cokinos, M.F.A.W. '91, pursues stories of the obscure and natural—from extinct birds to meteorite hunters.

by C.B. Adams

Some writers find their genre early and stick with it—once a poet always a poet. For others like Christopher Cokinos, M.F.A.W. '91, writing is a circuitous journey that touches and then later retouches many disciplines.

Growing up on the west side of Indianapolis, Cokinos liked to look at the sky. His top-three interests were astronomy, space flight, and football, but when he was in high school, he became interested in writing. He worked on the school newspaper and attended summer journalism programs at Indiana University, where he later enrolled intending to become a hard-news reporter. After his freshman year, he had an internship at the Knoxville News-Sentinel and learned what daily news reporting was really like.

"I quickly found out that wasn't what I was cut out to do," he says.

While continuing to take journalism classes, Cokinos shifted his interest to English and creative writing, "backing into an English major and finding my real love, writing poetry." Cokinos applied to several M.F.A. programs and chose the one at Washington University in St. Louis, in part because he was offered a generous University Fellowship. However, he became disillusioned after his first year in 1986-87 and took a leave of absence.

"I simply wasn't emotionally ready to handle the graduate program at the time," he says. "I had a hiatus between my first and second year, but in that intervening time I grew up a lot and matured as a writer."

During his time away, Cokinos got married and followed his spouse to Kansas State University, where she had accepted a position. He took an administrative job but was not happy with the work.

"My unhappiness underscored that I really needed to finish my M.F.A.," he says.

Perhaps more important, Cokinos' time in Kansas continued to nurture his recent interests in birding, nature, and environmental concerns. These worked their way slowly into his poetry. Cokinos worked on his master's thesis long distance, then returned to the University to complete his course work. Many of his thesis poems were published in 1993 in his collection Killing Seasons, which won the Woodley Press' Robert E. Gross Award for Poetry. Cokinos considers one of the poems, "Loggerhead Shrike," to be a pivotal work. It begins, "Because thought can be nothing/but what is sensed, can still/sometimes ascend before words, my thought was wholly/what was seen, the shrike/perched on a branch/in a half-dead cedar..."

"That for me was, if not the first such poem I had written, certainly the one that marked my maturation as a poet. All the essential things I had been struggling with as a poet—lineation, voice, engaging the self while honoring the world—all came together in that poem," he says.

Alumnus Christopher Cokinos is the author of Killing Seasons, which includes many of his M.F.A. thesis poems, and Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, a chronicle of the extinction of six species of North American birds. A Whiting Writing Award winner, he is assistant professor of English at Utah State University in Logan.

Around the same time the collection was published, Cokinos embarked on what would become a 10-year project to chronicle the extinction of six species of North American birds. The project began surreptitiously on a blustery November afternoon when he and his wife were bird-watching in the Flint Hills. They noticed a bright green bird that looked like it belonged in the rain forest, not Kansas. Cokinos contacted an experienced local birder who confirmed that the bird, a Black-hooded Conure, was indeed from the tropics and had probably escaped from its owner.

"Seeing this bird (conure) led me to learn of—and revere—America's forgotten Carolina Parakeet, which once colored the sky 'like an atmosphere of gems,' as one pioneer wrote. ...as I traveled to libraries and natural history museums on the trail of the vanished parakeet, I soon learned of other birds, other vanished lives: the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Heath Hen, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, and the Great Auk," Cokinos writes in the introduction to his book Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, which was published by Tarcher/Putnam in 2000 on the centennial anniversary of the shooting of the last known wild Passenger Pigeon, named Buttons. The book received attention from many venues, including NPR, People, Scientific American, and The Washington Post Book World.

The book is part natural history and part chronicle as Cokinos describes his experience gathering the information to complete the book, with the help of a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund Fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society. The project was also an endeavor that drew upon his experience in journalism and his emerging interest in prose and the essay.

"I realized that working in prose would allow me the expansiveness required to write about these birds," he says. "From a writerly perspective, I was haunted by them, and I became fascinated with the obscure, the odd stories tucked away in footnotes and dusty little folders somewhere. I have always had an interest in quirky, odd things that have some historical depth combined with a poet's interest in lyricism. These coalesced for me as I finished the book."

"I realized that working in prose would allow me the expansiveness required to write about these birds," he says. "From a writerly perspective, I was haunted by them, and I became fascinated with the obscure, the odd stories tucked away ..."

In 2002, following a divorce, Cokinos moved west. He is now an assistant professor of English at Utah State University and editor of Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing. In 2003, he was one of 10 national recipients of the prestigious Whiting Writing Awards, given annually to emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise. In addition, he received the Mid-American Review's FineLine Award for his lyric essay, "Blue False Indigo." He still writes poetry and currently has a book-length collection of poetry and a collection of cross-genre pieces that he is hoping will be published.

The $35,000 Whiting Award arrived at the perfect time to assist Cokinos in his latest writing project—detailing the exploits and obsessions of meteorite hunters both past and present. Cokinos, still looking skyward, discovered the topic of his new book when he learned about a woman, Eliza Kimberly, who in the 1880s believed she had found meteorites on her homestead in Kiowa County, Kansas. She had—and sold them, becoming the richest woman in the county.

Conducting research for his next book on meteorite hunters, Christopher Cokinos joined the 2003-04 Antarctic Search for Meteorites expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA. The group found more than 1,000 meteorites. Above is an expedition campsite at the Otway Massif, in Antarctica.

"Her story led to other stories that I found compelling. I thought, 'I can write about these people and their obsessions, go to the places where they collected meteorites, and find out what happened to them.' The rocks themselves often aren't much to look at, but the people and the science associated with them are fascinating," he says.

In researching modern meteorite hunters, Cokinos discovered that one of the places richest in meteorites is Antarctica. He applied to the National Science Foundation Antarctic Visiting Artists and Writers Program and was approved to be a member of the 2003-04 Antarctic Search for Meteorites expedition. Cokinos spent several weeks in Antarctica with scientists—including, by chance, two from Washington University, Andrew Dombard and Gretchen Benedix—as they all searched for meteorites. They found more than 1,000.

The book is still two to three years from completion, but Cokinos knows he has hit his stride as a writer.

"I feel lucky that I was the one who found these stories first and got to tell the story of the last Passenger Pigeon and now the story of meteorite hunters. I am committed to these stories and to telling them as best I can. I still write poetry, but I think of myself now as a nonfiction writer," he says.

C.B. Adams is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.