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Airy words

Hood's book of poetry pays homage to aviation in Antarctica

Writer and photographer Charles Hood’s canon of work is small but diverse, ranging over topics as diverse as the Enola Gay and the Los Angeles River, with an obvious love of history and a poetic sensibility that defies easy categorization. His latest work, South x South, celebrates Antarctica’s aviation history and unique culture through a series of poems, from the playful to the meditative.

Hood was the recipient of a 2010 Antarctic Artists and Writers grant from the National Science Foundation. He currently teaches photography and writing at Antelope Valley College, California. He recently responded to an email interview about his new book of poetry, the first of what he hopes will be several projects to grow out from his NSF-sponsored trip to the ice. (Any opinions expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.)

1. Your original project was to write a history on Antarctic aviation. How does a poetry book fit in? Did you start writing these while you were in the ice?

One thing that many people mistakenly assume is that poetry can’t contain accurate history, or that a collection of creative writing can’t assert and defend a thesis as readily as a book on geology. From the Langewiesche epigraph (which comes from Inside the Sky) to the rather sci-fi, flight-gone-wrong ending, this book is simultaneously a history of aviation, a celebration of it, and a meditation on the sheer ecstatic strangeness of moving through Antarctic airspace.

In the end, most books are a compromise between an imagined ideal and a quotidian and commoditized reality. In my case, there was a three-year lapse between my NSF proposal and my fieldwork, and then after that, it took a year to write the book, and then another year before the book came out. In that time the publisher who had initially encouraged me to write a prose book had backed out, and meanwhile I had won a national poetry contest that came with guaranteed publication. This is normal; even at the large trade houses, editors come and go, and projects come and go with them. To me, truth matters more than genre.

A related fact was that it took me a long time to find a voice and pace for this book. It’s such a hard experience to process, don’t you think? While still at McMurdo, one idea I was playing with was an online-only book, one that could alternate between historic photographs (especially from the late 1950s and early 60s) and straight text. That’s on hold for now. While South x South is the first project to have been released based on work facilitated by my NSF grant, I certainly hope it’s not the last. I have about ten other things still cooking.

2. The subtitle of the book says "poems from Antarctica." Where else are these poems from? There are references to your childhood, history, even a fellow Antarctic poet, Kate Coles.

The subtitle came from my publisher, and that’s just simple marketing. They need to let the clerks at a bookstore know which shelf this goes on. For me, the blend of topics makes sense. I can’t imagine a single person who voluntarily works in Antarctica who has not been influenced in some way by the legacy of previous explorers and scientists, and by the romantic notion of the “sublime” in landscape. Indeed, for many workers — scientists, support staff, pilots, and artists, all equally — to be on the Ice is to fulfill a childhood dream. Some of us want to play in the Super Bowl, some of us want to be prom queen, and some of us (who knows why!) need to go south — all the way south.

I do want to give a special shout to [Artists & Writers participant] Kate Coles, who teaches at the University of Utah. She is a very smart writer and a very wise and kind soul, and she was based at Palmer [Station] when I was at McMurdo. Initially, neither of us knew about the other’s proposal; I benefited greatly from being able to work with her before, during, and after my field time. Our collaboration represents the best of Antarctic studies: I’ve never been around such a group of hard-working yet open-hearted people, people at all pay grades who always are willing to lend a hand, no matter what the job is. It’s a very special tribe, one I feel blessed to have gotten to get to know.

3. What attracted you to Antarctica in the first place?

My wife keeps asking me that — she thinks we’re all bonkers to like it there. And for me, it was hardly preordained. I grew up in a working-class household, one without many books. Nobody in my family went abroad unless they had been drafted. Yet one year by accident I was placed into a fast track enrichment program, and once a month we all got bused to a regional science library. In a National Geographic compendium of adventures, I actually read about Adm. Byrd’s flight before I knew about Scott and Amundsen. From then on, I was hooked, or perhaps I should say doomed. That was in fourth grade. In time, I left the barrio, and I’ve never looked back.

4. In addition to your NSF-sponsored trip, you also visited South American research bases in Antarctica. What was that trip about? What contrasts did you see culturally and scientifically?

At McMurdo, when you land, usually first it’s Ivan the Terra Bus and then there’s orientation … On King George (or Rey Jorge, as we called it), first things first: when the plane landed, it was time for grappa and cigarettes.

I’ll also mention that I came from Patagonia by Lear Jet, and it was hotter than heck inside the plane. It must have been about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. You could have raised bananas in the cockpit. And so we landed and tumbled out, and without any coats on at all and dripping with sweat, I stepped out of the plane into a 60 mph wind with vertical pellets of snow, and man, I about went into shock. It felt colder than any freezer I had ever been inside. I remember thinking, What the hell have I gotten myself into?

5. Part of your original thesis was that “without airplanes and helicopters, science wouldn’t happen.” Why do you think that? It all started with ships, after all.

Well, I could just as easily have said, without shotguns and Formaldehyde, or without curiosity and hope. The steady plume that is science today coalesced from many colors of smoke. In my case, I knew that when applying for any kind of grant to NSF, even an arts-based one, the one thing they did NOT want you to say was, “Just send me and I promise to wander around and emote in a vaguely artsy way.” You have to delineate goals and boundaries.

Further, I have a dual background, in that I’ve worked as a survey ornithologist and also taught writing in science programs. In New Guinea, doing translations, I traveled in very remote areas, places that had not seen a white guy before. I know that successful field work has a tremendous amount of infrastructure behind it, the background stuff of getting permits and remembering the extra pee bottles and making sure the right equipment makes it on the right cargo flight. It was a story that deserved to be told, and still does in fact, since I have not done as much with that side of it as I had hoped. That can be part of the next book.

We should note, too, that wooden ships aside, aviation came early to Antarctica, and not just Scott’s balloon experiment, but things like the Fox Moth brought by the British Graham Land Expedition in the 1930s, which carried out flights from ice and water. It was the Depression then, so they were a bit neglected, and then World War II came, so their story didn’t get properly told.

As a private guess, the next stage of aviation will be fewer manned flights and more surveys and perhaps even cargo drops by UAVs. Why haul humans back and forth when we can get so much more done by remote control? … We may some day be as nostalgic for an A-Star chopper as we are now for dog teams or a full crowd of sail.

6. You spent some time with the mechanics and pilots at McMurdo Station. What were your impressions of these men and women?

I think all of the support staff for the whole program, from Air Force crews in New Zealand, to Air National Guard on the Ice, to the contract employees who keep the helicopters safe and reliable — they all deserve some kind of special silver lug wrench or fancy red hat. They do such great work, often in the middle of the night, and yet nobody really thinks about them.

Ever see those bumper stickers, “If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher”? McMurdo store should sell a T-shirt that says, “If you got here alive, thank your mechanic.”

One sort of sub-theme about stories I heard was the “old days versus now,” and what I heard over and over was the general sense that in terms of operational controls, modern-day aviation has too many restrictions. Pointless rules raise my libertarian hackles as much as they do anybody’s, but I have to say, the initial Cold War-era aviation in Antarctica was absurdly hazardous. We lost way more planes than was necessary. There was a lot of buckaroo flying going on, and in terms of bad P.R. back home, that was going to have to stop — restrictions and tighter controls were inevitable. I talk about this a bit in the book, when I mention the numbers of crashes that went on then, or the widely held rumor that helicopter pilots were kidnapping penguins for zoos at home. What matters less than if it ever happened is that everybody is pretty sure it could have happened.

7. Anything you’d like to add?

I’ve been to within about 600 miles of the North Pole, on board the two-masted schooner called the Noorderlicht. If anybody wants to offer me a ride the rest of the way, please email me. I’ll bring the cigarettes and the grappa.

NSF-funded research in this article: Charles Hood, Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, Award No. 0840109.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs