Field Museum Poet Sparks Guests’ Creativity

Eric Elshtain
Eric Elshtain, poet-in-residence at the Field Museum, greets visitors in front of a diorama. John Weinstein / Field Museum
Eric Elshtain
Eric Elshtain, poet-in-residence at the Field Museum, greets visitors in front of a diorama. John Weinstein / Field Museum

Field Museum Poet Sparks Guests’ Creativity

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The Field Museum is full of inspiring things. Have you ever wondered what mummies were like when they were alive? Has SUE the T-Rex skeleton made you quake with fear?

For Eric Elshtain, those feelings provide great fodder for poems. As the first ever poet-in-residence at the Field Museum, Elshtain writes about objects on display, as well as some behind-the-scenes.

He also hosts a Poetry Pop-Up series. Every Wednesday, he with his typewriter in a different exhibit, and encourages visitors to write about what they’re seeing.

Eric Elshtain joins the Morning Shift to talk about how the poetry pop-ups have gone so far.

Eric Elshtain Field Museum
Eric Elshtain, poet-in-residence at the Field Museum, types up a poem with the help of some museum guests in Stanley Field Hall. John Weinstein / Field Museum

A favorite poem by a visitor

Eric Elshtain: A father and son approached me in the Hall of Dinosaurs. I was set up in front of the Triceratops, and right by the entrance to the new SUE [the T. Rex] exhibit. They approached me; they were intrigued by what I was doing, asked questions, you know, “Why poetry at a natural history museum?” And the five-year-old, Wade, had already written some poetry of his own — haiku is his favorite form, he told me. And he announced to me that he wanted to go to the SUE exhibit, but he would be sure to think about haiku as he was looking at SUE.  

He came out about 40 minutes later, and, indeed, he had composed two haiku….I don’t have it memorized, but he ruminates in one of those haiku about what [SUE’s] heart must have looked like. And then he says in the last line, “but there’s just open space now.” And so for me, that’s paradigmatic of what poetry can supply to people in order to help them find the language for an experience that they’re having. I don’t know that he would have ruminated on SUE’s heart if he hadn’t thought about writing haiku at that moment.

An inspiring item not on display

Elshtain: One of my first experiences behind the scenes, amongst the 40 million objects, artifacts, and specimens that the Field holds was with the geologist James Holstein. He took me straight to the meteors and asteroids….At one point he pulls down this special case, asks me to put on gloves, opens this case up, and puts a rock into my hand, and starts to explain its composition and its age. And at the end of that explanation, he says, off-hand, “And, by the way, that’s a piece of the moon.” A look must have come over my face, and he pointed at me, and he says, “That’s it. That’s the look when someone connects with the moon.”

Poet Eric Elshtain at WBEZ
Eric Elshtain is the Field Museum’s poet-in-residence. He visited the Morning Shift in 2019 to offer listeners some writing prompts. Char Daston / WBEZ

Eric’s writing prompt for you

Elshtain: I’ll go back to my experience with the piece of the moon. I think…it’d be interesting for people to contemplate what it would feel like for them, or what thoughts might occur to them, if they themselves are holding a piece of the moon. Or they can go even further — maybe it’s a piece of Mars. Or maybe they’re holding some cloudy substance from Neptune, or are able to walk around Ultima Thule, the new object found recently many, many, many billions of miles away. And just to explore that moment — what they think might occur to them, and just to formalize those thoughts in a few lines of poetry.

Has Eric’s prompt inspired you? Write a few lines, and then read them to us on our hotline: 888-915-9945. We may play your poem on a future show!

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Click play to hear the full conversation.

GUEST: Eric Elshtain, poet in residence, Field Museum

LEARN MORE: Poetry Pop-Up event at the Field Museum

More about poet Eric Elshtain