BROOKINGS – Christine Stewart has been named South Dakota poet laureate by the South Dakota State Poetry Society.
Stewart is a professor in South Dakota State University’s department of English. Her term will begin July 1 and run four years.
As poet laureate, Stewart will be a poetry ambassador.
“One of the great things about this is that you can kind of bring to the table what you want to do to promote poetry,” she said.
She wants to break down the stereotypes about poetry and draw more people to it. Stewart thinks common misconceptions prevent people from trying poetry, and she’d like to change how folks see the art form.
“The best poetry, you can appreciate and enjoy on a first read and then successive readings, if you so choose, will yield additional layers and richness that will enhance the reading experience,” she said.
The same poem can mean something different to each person who reads it.
“That’s what’s great about it. You bring your own experience to the interpretation,” Stewart said.
Stewart grew up in Des Moines and remembers writing was always important to her.
“I always wanted to be a teacher and a writer,” she said.
Poetry came to the forefront due to a devastating event.
“My big sister passed away when I was 11,” Stewart said. “When she died, I started to write in earnest to process those complex emotions.
“I remember writing on receipts … and then stuffing them into the bottom of the coffin so that they would go with her,” she said.
In school, she became known for her writing.
“There was this student, Ryan, was gonna pay me $5 to write a poem so he could turn it in,” Stewart said. Although she didn’t take him up on it, “I just remember that feeling of, ‘Wow, I must be good at this if people are asking me to do this.’”
Another memory wasn’t quite so pleasant.
“In high school, I wrote this long poem and my teacher thought I’d plagiarized it and asked me where I’d found it,” she said. Instead of being offended, “I felt that it was praise because I knew I wrote it. I thought, ‘Wow, if he thinks I plagiarized it, it must be OK.’”
It turned out all right in the end.
“Later, that teacher asked me to blurb his poetry book, so that was fun,” Stewart said.
Those experiences shaped her writing, she thinks.
“Writing is a part of my identity. Writing is a reaction to what I’m seeing and experiencing in the world,” Stewart said.
Education and career
She attended the University of Northern Iowa, majoring in English education. After graduation, she taught at an American school in Turkey for two years.
She got her master’s degree at Arizona State and stayed in Arizona to teach high school for a couple of years.
“Then I decided that I really wanted to teach at the university level. Mostly because I wanted to write and I wanted the writing to be part of my job,” Stewart said.
She earned a doctorate in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
During her college years, she suffered some insecurities about writing.
“I remember one time, I decided I was gonna stop writing because no one was ever going to see it and I felt like I was wasting my time,” she said, adding those feelings didn’t last long.
She realized writing was a part of who she was.
“That’s just how I operate. That’s how I make meaning from the world … For me that was the first time I was like, OK, I’m a writer and I can write for myself and that’s OK even if nobody sees it, this is still something I need to do,” Stewart said.
In her junior year, she participated in National Student Exchange and took a poetry class with Pattiann Rogers, “who’s an amazing poet,” Stewart said. “I got immersed into poetry in that class. Poetry became my first genre; the genre that I preferred to write in most of the time.”
She’s written four full-length books of poetry and three chap books. All are listed on her personal website, christinestewartnunez.com. (She goes by Stewart in everyday life but uses Stewart-Nunez for her byline as there is another Christine Stewart, also a poet, in Baltimore.)
When asked which of the poems she’s written is her favorite, she said, “That’s really hard. I think in each book I have my go-to poem that I read when I go to readings from that book.”
“Unbound & Branded” has a poem “Bad Girl” that gets a lot of reaction.
“I had a lot of fun writing because I just imagined all the things that women are not supposed to do or that aren’t ladylike and I just celebrated them,” she said. “A lot of people, especially young women, really respond to that poem … They’re like, ‘Yes, I felt constrained by rules and here’s this poem, talking about breaking all the rules.’”
One of the poems in “Postcard on Parchment” is about her experience at a Turkish bath.
“My friend and I were different; we weren’t Turkish, so the women at the bath were curious about us,” Stewart said.
“Keeping Them Alive” and “Bluewords Greening” have poems about Stewart’s oldest son, Holden, who has a rare form of epilepsy, and her late sister. The poems that deal with the four miscarriages she went through before the birth of her second son, Xavier, resound with other women.
“Those poems are important to me because a lot of the time women say, ‘When I heard you read that poem, I related it to my own experience and I didn’t realize I was still grieving,’” Stewart said.
Her latest project is inspired by her relationship with her architect husband, Brian Rex, but Stewart said she can find inspiration in the simplest of things, including Xavier’s Legos.
“My theory about creativity has three parts to it,” she said, listing perspective, principles and practice.
“You kind of train yourself to see the world … to look for poems, so if you train yourself to be aware of tensions and opportunities for poetry or those things in the world that spark a poem, then you’re always finding things to write about,” Stewart said.
Stewart will succeed Lee Ann Roripaugh as South Dakota’s poet laureate. She was up for the honor alongside Patrick Hicks and Jim Reese, both of whom she knows and says are “amazing.”
“I had to bring my ‘A’ game because I knew who I was up against,” she said with a laugh.
“It felt really good” to be chosen as poet laureate and have her poetry “recognized by people that I respect,” she said, adding she’s already made a plan to promote poetry.
“In the interview process, I proposed creating an anthology of poetry about South Dakota by South Dakotans and using that as a tool to go into schools and communities to talk about poetry,” Stewart said.
“A lot of people just don’t have a lot of experience reading poetry, so it’s frightening or intimidating. So I hope that the anthology will change that, I hope that the anthology will give me opportunity to talk about poems,” she said.
For her first year, she wants to sort poems, compiling them from those already published and solicit submissions from poets in the state.
“I’ll be looking for poems that are accessible, as well as speak to the diversity of culture and experiences and places we have here in South Dakota,” Stewart said.
Not every poem will make it, due to space limitations, so she will have to make decisions on which poems to include.
Throughout her tenure as poet laureate, Stewart wants to do programs and talk about poetry around the state, as well as help the South Dakota State Poetry Society build an online community, posting some poems online and doing videos for webinars, and archiving information. She also wants to attract more members. There’s a $35 annual membership fee which includes several publications.
She knows the poet laureate doesn’t get paid, so she’ll have to do fundraising for her projects, including the anthology and her travel.
Stewart is willing to put in the time because she thinks poetry is important.
“Poetry has the capacity to say a lot in a short form,” she said.
“The image of an Advent calendar always pops into my head. You open a little door with every line and at the end of the poem you’ve opened all the little doors and a bigger picture emerges,” she said. “I think it’s powerful to be able to communicate with each other that way.”
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]