It can spark a range of opinions. It’s lauded for its elegant simplicity, for its complex brevity and capacity to illuminate profound truths with metaphor, rhythm and prose.
But it’s also lambasted for its obscurity, for its academic high-mindedness and seemingly impenetrable web of vague allegory and bloated simile.
It’s a distinction University of Northern Iowa alumna Christine Stewart, ’95, knows all too well. As a published poet and award-winning writer, she’s solidly in the former camp in regards to poetry. And she’s now on the front lines of the effort to promote poetry and demystify some of its more misunderstood elements that often stop people from even attempting to read it.
In July, Stewart, who is a professor at South Dakota State University, started serving a four-year term as the poet laureate of South Dakota, where she will embark on a mission to spread and advance poetry throughout the state. “I think a lot of people aren’t as open to poetry because they haven’t found the right poem yet,” Stewart, who writes under the name Stewart-Nuñez, said. “Or, when they were taught poetry, it was like a jigsaw puzzle that got them frustrated. But there’s a poem out there for everybody.”
Granted, when your “somebody” is an entire state, finding that right poem can be a bit of challenge. So, Stewart is going to get help.
When she applied to be the state’s poet laureate, which is selected by the South Dakota State Poetry Society, she pitched a project that would be an anthology of poetry about the state written by the poets living in the state. “One of the things I’ve noticed is that when you reach out a little bit and shake the trees across the prairie, poets fall out,” Stewart said. “People are writing poetry, but they’re not telling people. So I’m hoping to emphasize what’s there and bring it out more.”
It’s not an approach all poet laureates pursue. Some focus solely on their work. But, for Stewart, it was important to bring other poets into the fold to delve into the cultural life in South Dakota, be it a critique or a celebration, and to, perhaps, find a talent hidden in the grasslands.
“It’s a very powerful thing to recognize a writer who has talent and skill, but who may not see his or her own potential clearly, and to include them in the conversations,” Stewart said. And she should know. Going into college at UNI, Stewart was that talent.
Stewart was a writer before she started college, but she didn’t know she was good at it. Then, a professor started reading her writing in front of the class. They told her she should pursue a master’s degree. Soon, other teachers started doing the same. “It was an incredibly formative time,” Stewart said. “There are so many professors at UNI that were important to my ideas as a writer, and to what I would become as a professor. I can’t speak highly enough of them.”
After graduating with a degree in English education, Stewart taught in Turkey for two years. She later wrote about that experience for her dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The process led to a key breakthrough in her writing style, a breakthrough that would inform the rest of her career.
“I had internalized the criticism of ‘why write about me?’ I was writing about what happened in Turkey, what I saw, but it wasn’t about me,” Stewart said.
“But I realized you can’t write about a culture unless you do some reflective thinking about how you fit into that culture. That led me to think about writing as things that happen to me more personally.”
In her four published books of poetry, Stewart has mined the emotions of both success and tragedy, bringing to the page her examinations of love, loss and grief. She has written about the death of her older sister, when Stewart was 11, the onset of her oldest son’s epilepsy syndrome that took away his ability to use language, and the four miscarriages she had before the birth of her second son, Xavier. “That’s part of what I’m always doing in my work, reflecting back on my inner life and projecting it out on the world,” Stewart said.
And she said the poems have resonated with people during her readings, particularly the work about her miscarriages. “I’ve had women come to me saying it was so healing for them to hear those poems,” Stewart said.
Now, as an ambassador for poetry for an entire state, Stewart has to be mindful of the poems she chooses to highlight. “It’s about selecting poems you can read on one reading and be satisfying, but will keep being rich on the second reading,” Stewart said. “That’s the key to a successful poem.”