BROOKINGS – One of the things Christine Stewart wanted to do while she was poet laureate of South Dakota was put together an anthology of poems about South Dakota by South Dakota writers.
“The point of doing this book at the beginning of the four years rather than at the end, was so that I could use the book as a tool to promote poetry,” Stewart said.
That book, called “South Dakota in Poems,” is set to be released Thursday. Stewart was in the midst of proofreading the pages in late September.
“We’re getting it out on the time I thought, but COVID definitely slowed everything down,” Stewart said.
She credited donors, the South Dakota Humanities Council, and South Dakota State University for making sure the book became a reality “because there’s no budget for the Poet Laureate, so I’m really grateful to the people who donated money or supported the project. … This was definitely the work of many hands.”
Stewart is a professor in SDSU’s department of English. She has been writing poetry since she was a child and has written four full-length books of poetry and three chap books. (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.)
Stewart’s four-year run as state poet laureate started July 1, 2019, when she succeeded Lee Ann Roripaugh.
She said her first year has gone well, even though COVID-19 has forced her to adjust. Instead of doing poetry readings in person – many of which were cancelled or postponed – she’s learned how to video tape herself or read on Zoom.
“That’s a learning curve there,” Stewart said. “It’s great to kind of be pushed into this new way of getting poetry into the hands and ears and eyes of people.”
She plans to keep using technology to spread poetry.
“We’re a rural state, and so not everyone can always get out,” Stewart said.
She was glad to have the anthology to work on when reading engagements fell through, because it allowed her to fulfill her job as poet laureate, which is to be an ambassador for poetry across the state.
From the start, Stewart planned to solicit poems from South Dakotans and compile them into an anthology.
“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 at the time.
South Dakota in Poems
The anthology is called “South Dakota in Poems” and the publication date is Thursday, Stewart said.
There are virtual launch dates set to coincide with the South Dakota Festival of Books: 7-9 p.m. Thursday, and noon-2 p.m. Oct. 20.
Those who wish to listen to these readings should register for free general admission to the festival at http://sdhumanities.org/festival-of-books/tickets/. Following registration, they will receive further instructions.
A final poetry reading will be 7-9 p.m. Nov. 19. More details about this session will be shared as the event gets closer.
Stewart plans to have the book available online at the South Dakota State Poetry Society’s website sdpoetry.org, and other places, too.
“I’m in the midst of finding places that will sell it in Brookings,” Stewart said.
There are about 100 poems from around 90 poets, “because a few people have two poems in there,” Stewart said.
She wrote the introduction for the book, where she tries to explain the wide range of topics: farm life, ranch life, driving down the interstate, growing up and coming of age.
She tried to group them loosely into “thematic conversations.”
There were quite a few contemporary life poems: loving and dying, living in South Dakota, grappling with history in South Dakota, heritage and our past, she said.
“Some poems celebrate South Dakota, … some poems are outright critical of South Dakota, especially the historical ones that examine, you know, colonization and stuff like that,” Stewart said.
“It’s usually a balance,” she said.
Making a book
Finding that balance was tough.
Last fall, she put a call out for poetry, issuing press releases and contacting individuals and writers groups, as well as anyone else she could think of.
“I wanted people to feel … anybody could submit,” Stewart said.
She was also working against a spring 2020 deadline.
“I was kind of scared nobody would submit anything,” Stewart said with a laugh.
So, she had her student assistants at SDSU go through recent books of poetry by South Dakotans and Pasque Petals, the official literary magazine of the South Dakota Poetry Society, to find poems she could consider in case none were submitted.
She needn’t have worried.
“I got hundreds,” Stewart admitted.
She said there’s “a balance of emerging and established poets in the book.”
“I wanted it be representative of a lot of people,” Stewart said.
To choose the ones that appear in the anthology, Stewart read through them all, thought about what they meant. She said she was looking for quality: good craft, good imagery, good sound, if they told a crisp story.
“I had a concept of what I wanted the book to do holistically,” Stewart said, adding she turned down poems “that I absolutely loved.”
Once she got it narrowed down a bit, she looked at what the poems said about South Dakota – she wanted a variety of topics.
“We can only read so many poems about snowstorms,” Stewart said. “I just tried to balance it … I tried to choose the best one that would go also with the book as a whole. Because I wanted the poems to speak to the culture and the state.”
Not only the poems inside, but the outside of the book has a South Dakota theme.
“I think that it’s a beautifully designed book,” Stewart said.
Taylor Livingston of Brookings designed the book.
“I selected a painting by Keith BraveHeart, who’s a Lakota artist,” Stewart said. “I really admire his work, and then he graciously allowed us to use one of his pieces as cover art.”
“From the design of the book to the quality of the poems in the book, I just think it’s a great project,” she said.
“I think anybody could pick up the book and open it up to a poem and start to see the people they know, people they grew up with, their families … they’ll see them in this book,” Stewart said.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]