“I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”
It happens at least once a day. A wide-eyed young man or woman stops me as I’m walking to my office, or after class or before a reading and asks me what it was like to have been the first poet on Mars. To have set down the very first lines composed on the surface of another planet.
It’s been ten years and I still don’t know what to tell them. The bright-skinned size two Mission Specialist Gardner you see in the official NASA photographs is now simply Professor Angela Gardner, a mother of two with crow’s feet, laugh lines and a bulge in her stomach that won’t go away, no matter how many crunches she does. I’ve dedicated my life to the abstract, uniquely human beauty of words and language and the magic they can make in the right combination, so it’s embarrassing when I fail so completely to be eloquent. I try to answer these starstruck fans as a poet would, mumbling something about the “majestic desolation” or the “horizon-long grandeur” I saw, but I always feel they go away unsatisfied. The little wrinkle I see in their brow exposes their belief that I’m a fraud. They’re right, but they don’t know the extent of it.
When NASA announced the Orion missions to Mars were at last going from the dream stages to honest-to-goodness planning in 2025, I was an eager 27-year-old associate professor of creative writing at Ledford College in Central New York. Even though I had grown up in the Earth orbit interregnum that consisted of Apollo/Soyuz, Skylab, the Space Shuttle, Mir and the ISS, dreams of reaching space never left me. Having waited longer than most to have children, my father was old enough to remember what it was like to look up at that big, full moon and swear, in spite of the improbability, that you could see the two fellow humans driving around on the surface, playing golf. In high school, my senior year Honors English creative final for Mrs. Iodice was a sequence of poems based upon the experiences of the doomed Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia crews.
From “Interstellar Lemon” (part of the 2022 book A Feeling in Search of its Word)
Humanity’s problems begin with a
Communication breakdown that invites a Larger tragedy. One moment, we are safe, Ensconced in a miracle of divine design and An umbilical lifeline filters the parts of the world We don’t care to taste or touch or see. A few seconds later, the world intrudes, Ending Grissom and White and Chaffee.
My husband, Steve, didn’t deserve to be lied to. When John Lunney from NASA came to a book signing at Intellectual Curiosity, an independent store in Orlando, and invited me, on the strength of what I call my “dreaming of space” poems, to try out for the program, Steve was immediately supportive. He was aware of all of the risks and accepted them as quickly as any other risk he assumed when he’d said “I do.”
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I hadn’t so shrewdly negotiated a couple of terms for myself. First: I wanted to own the copyright to my poems. Even though I was technically under work-for-hire conditions, NASA agreed that my owning my poems was different from, for example, Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt expecting to own the moon rocks he recovered. The book that would one day be published as the first composed on Mars, Selene’s Dreams, would be all mine. (Selene, in case you didn’t know, was the Titan goddess of the moon. I suppose it was brash to cast myself as a goddess.) Second, I wanted NASA to have no creative input into my poems, or to have any oversight of them in the first place. I would fill notebooks no one could see without my consent. NASA was also aware of the risks they assumed when they agreed to these conditions. They could easily have ended up with the mission and program being represented by terrible poems or suffer through having a timid poet in charge of a crucial operational checklist. Hundreds of miles from Earth, of course, all duties are essential.
I had to leave Steve for weeks at a time so I could train at the Cape between semesters and on breaks. NASA doesn’t mess around when it comes to the design of a half-inch screw in the launch assembly. They’re certainly not going to send someone to Mars if she’s not physically or mentally fit to begin with. For a few years, I spent a third of my time on the Cape. If you look at the critiques I gave my students during that period, you’ll notice my handwriting is shakier than usual, as I was reading and scribbling during takeoffs, turbulence and landings.
There were some colleagues amongst the other candidates. A few of them were even far better poets than I, but I knew they wouldn’t be able to handle the psychological solitude. My friend Kate didn’t last five minutes in the sensory deprivation chamber. She definitely wasn’t going to last six-plus weeks trapped in a capsule the size of a mobile home with four other astronauts, the only view out the window the velvet-black, star-studded darkness.
Before the competition was whittled down, there was a nice moment in the commissary at KSC. Sam Tucker (an experimentalist who still refuses to work in meter) told us that he had just assigned his students to write a poem a day while he was away for two weeks. The five other poets at the table, myself included, thought this was excessive. After all, it had taken me two years during my MFA to put together enough material for my first book. None of us believed you could put together any decent work if you’re forcing yourself to squeeze out verse on a daily basis.
…We became poets to get OUT of work, Sam…
…How much of an idea well can an eighteen-year-old have?... …These kids don’t know anything about revision, either…
Sam put his fork down on the tray and folded his arms. “The poet is in charge, not the poetry,” he said. “The point is the evolution of the idea. If it doesn’t come easily, you just have to adjust and let the next line flow. My father was a union automaker who took pride in the transmissions he assembled. He couldn’t sit back, sigh, and talk about assembler’s block. In the end, a true artist figures out a way to fulfill his obligations.” His analysis won me over then, which I guess makes me less of an artist in light of what I will soon confess.
I had no intention of lying to Congress, and I’m afraid I’m partially vindicating them now. The Real American Party and Fox News, you’ll recall, led the charge against what they saw as the double “frivolities” of the Orion Missions: the involvement of an elite East Coast liberal artist who had no previous experience with practical science.
John Lunney and the other administration officials from NASA did a fine job explaining the facts to the mostly hostile panel: the long history of training non-military, non-science personnel for space flight, the advantages of sending “ordinary people,” my excellent work in the simulators and my “exhaustive” knowledge of the history of the American space program, as well as the programs of other nations.
It was my job to argue for the intangibles. If you look up that video, you can see the sincerity in my (much younger) eyes: “The only way to know, to truly change the world, is for one of the human fraternity to be there. Those in the sciences benefitted from Darwin’s being there on the HMS Beagle. What if they had left Darwin in England in favor of another sailor, better trained to trim a sail, or a soldier, better trained to defend the ship? By sending a poet to humanity’s latest frontier, the rest of us will be able to grasp the inhospitable beauty in new ways. I will have other duties, but the benefits to the human imagination will enrich the quality of life for us all. Senators, I guarantee that the American heart that beats inside you will stir when you hear and read the poems composed on the surface of another planet by your countrywoman. A planet named for the Greek god of war will, if for a moment, represent the ultimate in peace: ploughshares turned into fountain pens and quills.”
There was plenty of time to write, particularly in the two-week lockdowns that started a year and a half before launch. I had taken a special leave of absence from Ledford, the first “interplanetary sabbatical.” When I wasn’t with Steve in our Cocoa Beach apartment, I was spending two-week hitches in the live, plugs-out simulators. Reduced crews were sealed up in the same manner we would be for the 45-day trip to Mars. No talking to my husband. I could only eat the food we had in the capsule. Mission Commander Wilson and I breathed the same recycled air and drank recycled—well, that’s not a memory I want to relive.
At least three hours a day, when I wasn’t doing experiments or sleeping or running tests on the craft, it was my duty to create. I had a dozen blue NASA-branded notebooks (11 ounces apiece, combined weight 8.25 pounds), two dozen Bic Rollerball gel pens (1.4 oz. apiece, combined weight 2.1 pounds) and as secluded a place as possible. I would curl up near the aft portal, feeling the diminishing warmth of the artificial sun. For the first time since grad school, I had nothing to do but write. No garage to clean, no student work to comment upon. Just time, time, time.
In a normal month on terra firma, I might turn out five polished poems I don’t immediately hate. If I have a book due, that number increases to ten, at most. During those two-week sessions, I never stopped writing. My imagination was stoked by the anticipation of the whole experience. The takeoff, the sudden loss of gravity, the heart-choking fear and the primal confusion fueled me. I would see the whole Earth at once, something only a couple hundred creatures had ever done. Then, I would join an even more limited fraternity and lose sight of the planet completely as it shrank into the eternity of the universe. Up to that time, I had published four books, each containing perhaps fifty poems. In the space of six plugs-out simulations, I composed three hundred poems. A lifetime supply for many.
The first interplanetary poetry reading was conducted eight hours after the successful landing of Orion 14 on the Martian surface. (It was actually the thirteenth launch, but superstitious types remain, even in the ranks of NASA.) The big crew exchange would not take place for another twenty-four hours, giving the crew the opportunity to perform a walkaround of the capsule (nicknamed Rusty, for the iron oxide that gives the planet’s surface its color). I was exempted from the standard post-landing duties; my job was to slip away, position myself in front of a window and let some flowery words flow.
I obeyed those orders. As far as anyone could tell, I was in the starboard crew compartment, surrounded by the bed and belongings of Commander Alison Watkins. I had been weightless for 45 days; it was strange to see the pictures of her children, her well-thumbed e-book reader, the blanket on her bed remaining stationary without the help of Velcro.
I looked out her window, blue notebook in one hand, pen in the other, and saw the rust-tinged world that was now my temporary home. I thought about how most scientists believed, until the 1970s Viking missions proved them wrong, that the red came from oxidation. Rust. No. This was a landscape scattered with rocks that each had its own dormant stories. The bit of crater ejecta to the left could have been deposited millions of years ago on the bottom of a shallow ocean. The moraine to the right could have been gently weathered by the wisp of atmosphere long since whisked away. I opened the notebook, bent back the fresh cover and wanted to write something legendary, something good enough to rank with Donne or Dickinson or even Sappho, had they this opportunity. I waited for the words to coalesce inside my head as they had done so often before and put everything else out of mind.
Everyone has seen the video. In nearly every country, teachers logged into the official site and saw me read “the first poem composed on another planet.” Ali worked the camera, getting me in a flattering medium shot as I reminded the audience about the dignified eloquence of Armstrong and the palpable relief of Hanley as they made their own historic post-landing statements. I opened the notebook and read from the first page:
From “A Perch for Artists to Ascend” (part of Selene’s Dreams)
Four thousands of years, humanity had no home.
Small bands of men and women spent their days
Meandering in search of food and drink,
Their precious minds distracted from the search
For what would help them live, not just survive.
Until our long-dead family settled down,
Pragmatic thoughts drowned out what dreams may come.
The arts were born: community’s fraternal twin.
With stores of grain and animals awaiting slaughter
The mind and not the legs could wander far
Once more, the brave have built society
On unexpected land. Their hard-worked hands
Ensured a perch for artists to ascend
And spend long hours deciding what life means.
It was long debated what would happen next. It was certainly possible to fade into an HD shot from one of the external station cameras and perform a graceful camera move. I decided we should go low-tech. Ali simply turned her wrist to change the focus from me to the Martian surface, where it should have been, framed by the window, a work of man’s hands, made possible by the peaceful cooperation of millions from that pale blue marble barely visible in the starry Martian sky.
The lunar station was named Hera, the mother of the planet’s namesake. For eight months, I was torn between soaking up every moment of the experience and desperately wanting to be back beside my own husband, in my own bed. I did everything else my crewmates were doing: EVAs to collect samples and geographic data, running experiments in two-fifths gravity and communicating with NASA through that maddening one-second delay.
Ten hours a week, I was assigned to “personnel-specific mission duty,” NASA’s euphemism for “scribbling poetry.” There was much more privacy in my small compartment on Hera than there had been in the Orion craft. I knew, completely without vanity, that the book resulting from my trip would be the best-selling poetry volume for several years to come. This is no testament to my skill, of course. It’s been this way for fifty years: If a poetry collection sells 2,500 copies, it is a runaway success. I never imagined that Selene’s Dreams would sell each of the 2 million copies Random/Doubleday printed for its release. Then another two million copies in the following year. Then another fifty thousand each year as Selene’s Dreams found itself in the canon of contemporary literature. If you look at the syllabus used by any college English professor (or that of a dedicated high school teacher), you will find my book among the best works of the twenty-first century. Yet, there are two differences between their books and mine. First, those books are far better than mine. Second, those books are not the result of the lie I’m working up to confessing.
When I returned from Gangis Chasma and was finally released from quarantine, I told the world I was taking another semester off at Ledford to work on my book and reconnect with Steve. All of that is true. Steve and I took a couple of road trips, woke up together every morning, ate meals together and generally reminded each other what it was like to be around each other. (We reconnected so well, in fact, that Mariana was born a year after my return.) When he was at work, I would open the fireproof safe I had purchased and dig into my blue notebooks.
This part of the process was the same as any other book. Some of my poems were better than others. I loved some of them, hated others. I spent weeks laboring over a single phrase, a single syllable, changing and rechanging it until it finally felt right. Part of my responsibility was to make my work accessible and to prove poetry can be fun, which is why I was pleased to include pieces such as the limerick on page 43 of Dreams:
This Baldwinsville girl grew up dreaming
While in space, she would see the stars gleaming. With the launch underway, Her insides turned to clay; It was clear she’d prefer Star Trek’s beaming.
I thought about coming clean in an introduction to the book. Who would blame me? For most of the populace, poetic integrity is right above animal nudity on their list of concerns. I had dollar signs in my eyes and the fear of exposure kept me quiet. I did just about every television and Web program you can imagine; I even did one of Conan O’Brien’s last Tonight Shows before he retired. I answered the same questions a thousand times with the same degrees of mistruth.
It was an amazing experience and I’m so thankful.
I wrote in my small berth in the Hera Mars base.
My husband was worried but very supportive.
I was so inspired that I could barely keep up with myself.
As the royalty statements kept coming in, thousands of adoring poetry converts flashed their copies of Selene’s Dreams at me as I passed them by, congratulating me on being the first in something, adding a page to the history book of humankind.
This is the first time I’ve confessed: I wrote absolutely nothing while I was on Mars. Not a line, not a sentence, not even a letter. I didn’t even write my name in the notebooks I had or brainstorm fortuitous-sounding words in the manner of a poet hoping for some foothold of inspiration.
Every valuable second of time I was allotted for creation found me staring out the three-inch window, trying to grasp what I was doing. The first three months, I was like an alcoholic with excuses, convincing myself that I had plenty of time to write, that I could simply allow the experience to sink in for a while. I could fill up the creative well, and it would surely produce later on.
The next three months, I stared at those notebooks. Hated them. Hated myself for my inability to do what I was being sent to do. What I had always been able to do without fail, even in Mr. Powell’s AP Physics class or on crowded, baby-filled planes. However, no matter how much I beat myself up, I was still able to procrastinate. I had months left to write poems that would be lauded by most anyone who could read them, no matter their literary worth. Neil Armstrong flubbed his big line, and no one cared. No one should have cared. He is considered an eloquent hero simply for making the attempt, and that is the way it should be.
Those last two months on Mars, I reached acceptance. I rationalized like a champion; I was a Hall of Fame baseball player in a slump at the plate; the only way to work through it was to relax and let instinct take over. In my own way, I had taken a million cuts in the batter’s box, and it was only a matter of time until I was producing. Words drifted through my head; ideas congealed into shadowed shapes on the red horizon, but each time I tried to carve them into my notebook, they seemed too trite. Too insignificant. A piece of writing so bad it was more desirable to lie to my crewmates, particularly Mission Specialist Akiva Alber. She started out leaving me alone, focusing on her experiments in the germination of different plants, but it must have worn her out to watch radishes and switchgrass grow, so she kept asking to hear some of my work.
Until then, I figured I was going home empty-handed. I would put my tail between my legs and tell NASA the bad news. That’s when I realized I had the perfect cover story: I could use all of the work I had done while on terra firma. No one would know the difference if I claimed those poems were written on maris firma.
The last night before I left, I made efforts to cover my tracks. No one would be examining my notebooks; I had made sure of that with my agreement with NASA. But there would still be pictures. Everything that returned on the earthbound leg of Orion 15 would be photographed. Itemized. So that night, I threw aside all pretense. I took each of my dozen unused notebooks and cracked their spines. I rolled their covers and smoothed the points of their corners. To the entire world, it would seem as though the worn-edged books had been lovingly worked in the hands of the first wordwright to slip the surly bonds of the Earth and work under the slightly less surly bonds of the Red Planet. The worst part is that I deceived everyone who took me at my word. If you see the notebook on display in the Smithsonian, you’ll note that the poems are written with a kind of pen I didn’t have on the Orion mission.
Steve has no idea, until he reads this, that his wife committed such a fraud. With my other books, I would show him the in utero drafts and ask for his feedback and, according to his suggestions, reorder the poems and add or remove images or phrases. He has no idea that I was simply repurposing work I had already done.
I have composed dozens of poems since my time on Mars, some about the experience, some about motherhood, some about the thoughts that strike my fancy. I have taught hundreds of students at all levels and made what I believe are concrete contributions to my field. But I can never be what I tricked the world into believing I am: the first poet on Mars.
From “The Gift of an Impartial Universe”
People are the same wherever you go,
And so are sunsets; with their slight, slow fade. The rush of day becomes a whisper
And darkness kisses stars into our view.
On Mars, the stars don’t twinkle,
But their promises remain.
No matter how dire the sins
Committed in plain sight,
The universe doesn’t care
Kenneth Nichols received his MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State. He teaches writing at two colleges in Central New York and maintains the writing craft web site Great Writers Steal, accessible at www.greatwriterssteal.com. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Main Street Rag, Skeptical Inquirer and Lunch Ticket.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: My protagonist and I share a deep fascination with space exploration. The seed of the story emerged from my memory of the 1997 film Contact and the Carl Sagan novel on which it was based. Dr. Ellie Arroway becomes the first human being to bear witness to a particularly beautiful secret of the universe. Ellie, overcome, says, “They should have sent a poet.” So that’s what I decided to do.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did that happen?
A: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember; the desire to tell stories was always a part of me. I’m not sure how I got that way, but I’m sure I’m sure I was influenced by the fact that my father brought home books and magazines of all kinds.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: Ideas and characters are always percolating in my head. When I get a feeling an idea is ready, I tend to compose in furious bursts, sometimes longhand and sometimes at a keyboard.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why?
A: I’m going to cop out and name a group of writers instead. My teachers and colleagues from the Ohio State MFA program are an endless source of support and inspiration. We represent a diverse range of aesthetics and we each have different goals in mind for our writing lives, yet we share a sense of loving community.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: All kinds of things! I write a lot for Great Writers Steal, my writing craft web site. I’m working on a couple of plays and a young adult novel in addition to shorter pieces.