Samyak Shertok, PhD student in Creative Writing, Department of English, College of Humanities

The Fellowship in Collections Engagement in part of “Landscape, Land Art and the American West,” a joint initiative between the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the J. Willard Marriott Library sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This award fosters innovative, collections-based scholarship and creativity while highlighting the strengths of the UMFA’s and Marriott’s collections.

If “a word is elegy to what it signifies,” is every representation also an erasure? Is all writing then elegiac? Robert Hass certainly seems to think so: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In that it resembles all the old thinking.” The Great Salt Lake: Myths, Birds, and Salt is driven by an effort to represent Great Salt Lake while erasing it as little as possible, even though the effort seemed destined to fail from the beginning. I mean, how could I present the “lakeness” of the lake without using any physical objects from the lake?

So, I began by trying to figure what this “lakeness” meant to me. The first step was to read about the history of the lake. Some of the books that were particularly helpful included Great Salt Lake: Past and Present, Guide Book to the Geology of Utah: The Great Salt Lake, Barrier of Salt: The Story of Great Salt Lake, and The Great Salt Lake Wildlife System. As I was reading, I realized that the Kathmandu Valley—where I come from—was once submerged in a lake, just as the Salt Lake Valley was once buried in Lake Bonneville. I drew another parallel between the two, noting that Great Salt Lake has no outlet and that Nepal is landlocked. These two geological and geographical analogies helped me to connect with the lake in a very personal way. Once I felt like I knew enough about the history of the lake through the books, it was time to visit the lake itself.

The first two visits, I didn’t take anything with me—not even my journal. I just wanted to be present in the lake—feel its smells, wind, sounds, texture, waves, mountains, birds sailing over its blue leathery skin. If there ever was a moment of the spiritual in the project, it was during these two visits. I wanted to be as available to the lake as possible so that I could really get a feel for the consciousness of the lake. For the next two visits, I took everything that was at my disposal: a video camera, a photo camera, my journal. I took pictures and recorded videos—fully aware that I’d only use the sound. I tried to find spots where sounds felt different enough along the shore. Then I sat down and wrote down everything I saw and felt as I took the lake in. This  was inspired by Alice Oswald’s book-long poem, Dart, about the titular river and Spencer Finch’s Great Salt Lake and Vicinity.


I tried to make no distinction between the sounds of the lake and the sounds of other people around me.


Then I started revisiting the artworks from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections I had selected for my proposal. I visited the UMFA a couple of times to view Finch’s installation and took notes of the objects he lists. I’m still in the process of deciding on the final artworks for my project, but I’m going with the works that I feel like capture the consciousness of Great Salt Lake and that speak to me on an aesthetic level—so far most of them seem haunted in some way. Inspired by Diana Nguyen’s Ghost Of, I wanted to work with the positive and negative spaces of the lake by maintaining both shapes through words.

At some point during the project, I felt like the sounds would have to be an integral part of the lake’s representation. During one of my visits, I saw two men swim in the lake while a woman only dipped her toes. Some children were splashing water onto the oncoming waves while a boy kept throwing stones into the lake and a woman tried, unsuccessfully, to skip a stone. I want the soundscapes to be available to the reader in the way they want to listen to them. They may listen to any or all tracks at once or in any order. This is an attempt to make the work present to the reader like the nature.


The poet is, Wordsworth believed, “affected…by absent things as if they were present.”


This project works both with and against this idea. Here, I’m trying to be influenced by the things as I’m observing them, in real time—taking meticulous notes of what I’m seeing and what I’m feeling as I sit on a rock on the edge of Great Salt Lake. The gaze is not only outward onto the lake but also inward into my own feelings and thoughts. The project is also preoccupied with loss, an absence that is dual-faced: both historical and proleptic while also trying to capture the lake in the present—and not just retrospectively.