THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE: WESTERN HORIZON (APRIL 18, SANTA CRUZ)
With necessary regard for the resilience of life as we face its fragility together, both spring 2020 events have been cancelled due to COVID-19. But a digital pop-up counterpart is in the works, hoping to offer people around the world something beautiful and assuring to gather around in these uncertain times — a broadening of perspective, scientific, poetic, and humanistic. Keep an eye on this page for further information and a livestream link when it becomes available.
“We, this people on this mote of matter,” Maya Angelou wrote in her stunning poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” that flew to space aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft — a poem inspired by Carl Sagan, a poem in which she traces our traversal of space, “past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns,” to invite the elemental question: What are we, “this people,” and what is life itself, by measures both human and cosmic?
The fourth annual Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of science through poetry — explores this very question from a cosmic kaleidoscope of vantage points. I have joined forces with astrophysicist and two–time Universe in Verse alumna Natalie Batalha, who led the search for habitable worlds with NASA’s Kepler mission and its triumphant discovery of 4,000 potential cradles for life beyond Earth, and who has since founded an inspired astrobiology initiative at UC Santa Cruz to explore what it means for us humans to be good interplanetary stewards as our understanding of life evolves and our search for it beyond our home planet continues. In a majestic 3,000-person outdoor amphitheater in the redwoods, we will celebrate the marvel and mystery of life with poems spanning centuries of human thought and feeling, performed by a cast of extraordinary humans: playwright and activist Eve Ensler, Nobel-winning physicist Kip Thorne with artist Lia Halloran (premiering their extraordinary poetic collaboration years in the making), author Rebecca Solnit, artists Debbie Millman and Dustin Yellin, poets Donika Kelly and Marie Howe, radio pioneers Krista Tippett and Jad Abumrad, musicians Zoë Keating and Morley, and writer, producer, Cosmos co-creator and re-creator, and Golden Record creative director Ann Druyan (the love of Carl Sagan’s life). We will be honoring SETI co-founders and search-for-life pioneers Jill Tarter and Frank Drake, who are both joining us with poems. As usual, there will be music, storytelling, telescopic observation, and some thrilling surprises.
Proudly presented in partnership with Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, cradle of The Universe in Verse, the 2020 show splits all proceeds in half between the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works and La Noche de las Estrellas — a lovely initiative by Lick Observatory, providing free astronomical observation and science education, in Spanish, to Hispanic youth from the local community, one of the largest migrant farm worker communities in America.
April 18, 2020
UC Santa Cruz
1156 High St, Santa Cruz, CA 95064
Show: 7:30–10ish PM
EARTH DAY @ 50 (NYC, APRIL 22)
“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” the marine biologist and poetic science writer Rachel Carson wrote as she was incubating the ideas that would become Silent Spring — her epoch-making 1962 book, which awakened the modern environmental conscience, made ecology a household word, fomented the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, and inspired the creation of Earth Day.
Part protest and part celebration, the original Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, on the steps of The New York Public Library, setting into motion a movement of civic engagement and citizen-driven environmental advocacy that would pave the way for heroes like Greta Thunberg and triumphs like the Paris Agreement. Besides the half-century anniversary of Earth Day, 2020 marks the 125th anniversary of NYPL’s founding, which the library is celebrating with a reading list of 125 books that have shaped the modern mind, Silent Spring among them.
On April 22, it is my joy and honor to join forces with NYPL for a singular Earth Day celebration inspired by The Universe in Verse, with readings of Carson’s poetic prose, ecologically hued poems, and nature-reverencing passages from other books on NYPL’s list, featuring performances by some extraordinary human beings: playwright and activist Eve Ensler, musicians Rosanne Cash, Amanda Palmer, and Morley, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, authors Jennifer Egan, Masha Gessen, and Jacqueline Woodson, poets Donika Kelly, Jennifer Benka, and Marie Howe, astrophysicists Natalie Batalha and Janna Levin, artist Maira Kalman, composer Paola Prestini, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. There will be music, some thrilling surprises, and a locus of largehearted love for our irreplaceable Pale Blue Dot.
Join us between Patience and Fortitude — the iconic lions guarding the library steps at Bryant Park — at 5:30PM on April 22 to reverence and rally. Free and open to all creatures, no RSVP required.
RECORDINGS OF PAST EVENTS
CELEBRATING “A VELOCITY OF BEING” (December 15, 2018)
After eight years of labor, I was thrilled to birth A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, published in collaboration with my good friend Claudia Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books — a collection of original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books shape our character by 121 of the most interesting people in our world, including contributions by Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, Shonda Rhimes, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and other remarkable humans living inspired and inspiring lives. (More about the book here, including a peek at the art by some of the most beloved children’s books illustrators of our time.)
On December 15, 2018, several of the contributors joined me to read their letters (and play some music) alongside art from the book in a special evening at The New York Public Library — our only live event for the book, at the most fitting venue for this many-peopled endeavor of goodwill, for we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to our local public library system in New York.
Readings by Adam Gopnik, Janna Levin, Jad Abumrad, Amanda Stern, Alexander Chee, Sarah Kay, Paola Antonelli, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Mohammed Fairouz, William Powers, Naomi Wolf, Paul Holdengräber, Sophie Blackall (reading Neil Gaiman’s letter), and Helen Fagin, and music by Dawn Landes and Morley, who also read their letters from the book.
THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE (APRIL 28, 2018)
In the spring of 2018, after the improbable success of the inaugural show in 2017, I once again joined forces with Pioneer Works and The Academy of American Poets to host The Universe in Verse — an evening of science-inspired poems read by artists, writers, scientists, and musicians, part protest and part celebration, with all proceeds benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“The real wealth of the Nation,” marine biologist and author Rachel Carson wrote in her courageous 1953 protest letter, “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” Carson’s legacy inspired the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose hard-won environmental regulations are now being undone in the hands of a heedless administration. Carson was a scientist who thought and wrote like a poet. As she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring, she was emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.
Dedicated to Rachel Carson’s legacy, the 2018 show was a sort of prelude to Figuring. More than a thousand people packed in to celebrate the Earth — from the oceans and trees and volcanos to bees and kale and the armadillo — with poems by Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Walt Whitman, and more, read by musicians Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, and Sean Ono Lennon, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, authors A.M. Homes and James Gleick, poet Terrance Hayes, artist Maira Kalman, bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and actors, writers, and directors America Ferrera and John Cameron Mitchell. Three of the great poets of our time — Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, and Diane Ackerman — will read their own work. Gracing the evening was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion, and a special musical surprise.
Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:
- “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, read by Janna Levin
- “Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov, read by America Ferrera
- “The World Below the Brine” by Walt Whitman, read by John Cameron Mitchell
- “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Natalie Batalha
- “The Fish in the Stone” by Rita Dove, read by Zöe Keating
- “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by James Gleick
- “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, read by Terrance Hayes
- “Singularity (for Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe, read by the poet herself
- “The Explorers” by Adrienne Rich, read by A.M. Homes
- “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Jane Hirshfield and animated by Kelli Anderson
- “Cosymbionts” by Vicki Graham, read by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- “[bee]” by Emily Dickinson, read by Maira Kalman
- “The Consolation of Apricots” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
- “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics” by Roald Hoffmann, read by Sean Ono Lennon
- “After Silence (for Rachel Carson)” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
- FINALE: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Amanda Palmer and performed by The Decomposers: Amanda Palmer (vocals), Zöe Keating (cello), Sean Ono Lennon (guitar and vocals), and John Cameron Mitchell (vocals)
THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE (APRIL 24, 2017)
“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy famously wrote. Half a century later, with art, science, and the humanities under assault from the government, this intersection of science and poetry, truth and beauty, is an uncommon kind of protest and a singularly fertile frontier of resistance.
On April 24, 2017, I joined forces with the Academy of American Poets and astrophysicist Janna Levin to host The Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn — an evening of poetry celebrating great scientists and scientific discoveries, with all proceeds benefiting the Academy of American Poets and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Readings by: Amanda Palmer, Rosanne Cash, Janna Levin, Elizabeth Alexander, Diane Ackerman, Billy Hayes, Sarah Jones, Tracy K. Smith, Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, and Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York.
Poems about: Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Caroline Herschel, Oliver Sacks, Jane Goodall, Euclid, black holes, the Hubble Space Telescope, the number pi, and more.
Poems by: Adrienne Rich, Wisława Szymborska, Elizabeth Alexander, Tracy K. Smith, Campbell McGrath, Diane Ackerman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Updike.
Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:
- “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, read by Janna Levin
- “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith, read by the poet herself
- “Power” by Adrienne Rich, read by Rosanne Cash
- “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
- “Cosmic Gall” by John Updike from, read by Brandon Stanton
- “We Are Listening” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
- “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Emily Levine
- “For Oliver’s Birthday, 1997” by Steven Jay Gould, read by Billy Hayes
- “Euclid Alone Has Looked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Sam Beam
- “Jane Goodall (1961)” by Campbell McGrath, performed by Sarah Jones
- “The Habits of Light” by Anna Leahy, read by Ann Hamilton
- “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers, read by Jad Abumrad
- “Pi” by Wisława Szymborska, read by Maria Popova
- “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer