Interview with a Poet: Christine Stewart-Nunez

When South Dakota poet laureate David Allan Evans retired at South Dakota State University a few years back, Christine Stewart-Nunez stepped into his considerable shoes. Apparently, she they are proving to be a good fit. Her poem “Convergence” was featured in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column a few weeks ago. (Read it here.) Stewart-Nunez agreed to talk about how “Convergence” came to be and how it was selected for American Life in Poetry, which appears in newspapers nationwide, as well as on this blog, weekly. Her most recent collection is Postcards on Parchment, winner of the 2007 ABZ Poetry Contest (ABZ Press, 2008). She is also the author of The Love of Unreal Things (Finishing Line Press 2005) and Unbound & Branded (Finishing Line Press 2006), which focuses on supermodel Kate Moss as a fashion icon. Stewart-Nunez is an assistant professor of English and women’s studies coordinator at South Dakota State University.

AFTER LONG BUSYNESS: How was “Convergence” selected for American Life in Poetry? “Convergence” has an almost scientific element of child psychology in it. Was it difficult to make that somewhat technical concept work in the poem?

CHRISTINE STEWART-NUNEZ: I’m so glad you asked me these questions. Let me tell you a story that should answer both:

Ted Kooser was a mentor of mine at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Soon after he accepted the position of Poet Laureate, he asked me what I thought about the idea of “poetry in newspapers.” Of course, I thought it was a good idea. When he got this project under way, he asked two graduate students to help him out; I was one. He tasked us with reading poetry journals and books (we did this for about 10 hours per week) to find “short, accessible poems with a certain charm.” This was a fantastic experience for me. I learned a lot about literary journals and found some great contemporary writers that were new to me. I don’t know if Ted found “Convergence” in Briar Cliff Review or if one of his assistants did; when I worked for him, I would give him a stack of 100 possible poems from which he’d choose three or four, so I know he has to believe in a poem to use it for the column. A few months ago, his main assistant, Pat Emile, e-mailed to tell me that Ted had chosen my poem for American Life in Poetry. And I was thrilled!

Besides Ted’s support of my work and education, Ted introduced me to one of my best friends and writing partners, Rochelle Harris, who teaches at Kennesaw State right now. When Rochelle and I were both at UNL, Ted told both of us privately that he thought we’d be great writing partners; I don’t think he knew how good of friends we’d become. After Postcard on Parchment was published, Rochelle asked me to give a reading at Central Michigan University, where she was teaching at the time. I visited one of her creative writing classes, and she assigned the students a writing prompt based on one of my poems. The prompt was to write a pantoum that braided a concrete image and some sort of research. (I often use research in my poetry. The Love of Unreal Things, for example, is based on the life of Catherine of Siena, an Italian mystic and saint.) I decided to participate as well. I had my camera with me, and I’d taken some photos of trees with hoarfrost on them. I began with those images. I was also thinking about my son who was just beginning to form sentences, and how he loves repeating words and phrases he heard me say—sometimes mishearing them. I did some research to learn how children learn to speak and found an article on language acquisition. In early drafts of the poem, this was a pantoum with longer lines, rhyme and repeated refrains. However, after a while this form fell away, and I compressed and distilled the poem until I was pleased with its current incarnation. I think in early drafts the research language was cumbersome; I “landed” on the part of the research that was most poetic—metaphor. Both the formation of children’s language and hoarfrost depend on the convergence of the right environmental elements …

ALB: Who have been the two biggest influences on your poetry?

CS: That is a very difficult question because I can only answer it in layers of time.

As a child: Nursery rhymes and my mother. We were always reading and singing silly songs; she could even recite poems that she’d memorized in high school.

Middle school: My friend Susan and my sister, Theresa. Susan and I had decided that we were going to be writers (she now works for the Des Moines Register) so we “wrote” a lot. Theresa died when I was 11, and one of the main ways I processed my grief was through writing.

High school: My English teachers, primarily Mr. Green and Mr. Benson at Dowling High School in West Des Moines. Mr. Benson really encouraged me to write and posted my work to the bulletin boards in the halls. It helped to have someone believe in me.

Undergraduate years: Dr. Kay Butler-Nalin—again, for her encouragement. And Annie Finch’s book A Formal Feeling Comes, from which I began to explore form.

Graduate school: My two primary poetry professors at UNL were Hilda Raz and Ted Kooser, but I also took a class from Grace Bauer and summer workshops from Stephen Dunn and Dorianne Laux. These were my “teacher-mentor” influences. I read a lot of twentieth-century and contemporary poetry, and I learn so much from each writer, even if my writing is nothing like theirs. If pressed, I’d have to say that Sylvia Plath has been a big influence. I read her prose and writing about her in college, and then later I read and reread Ariel. Her skill is masterful, and I admire the risk she took in the subject matter she took up—especially given the contexts in which she wrote.

ALB: Your 2006 chapbook “Unbound and Branded” uses supermodel Kate Moss as a focal point. How did you arrive at that device?

CS: I was taking a graduate class called “The Psycho-Sociological Aspects of Clothing” as part of my coursework toward my Women’s and Gender Studies Graduate Certificate. Most of my classmates were fashion majors who were always talking about W fashion magazine, so one day I was at Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy. Inside was a 40-page portfolio of artists such as Alex Katz, Lucien Freud and Chuck Close using Kate Moss as a subject of their art. I encountered Moss first in the early ’90s after she was “discovered” and her super-skinny look drew criticism. In high school, I tried crash-dieting to lose weight and look like her. In the pages of W, however, she was trying to “reinvent” herself after turning 30 and having a child—gutsy for a supermodel. This inspired me to write the poems based on the images in that portfolio. They are less of a critique of Moss the person and more of a consideration of her as an icon—the narratives surrounding women’s bodies.

ALB: What’s the state of poetry at SDSU these days?

CS: First let me say that it was intimidating filling the position of someone like Dave Evans. He accomplished so much at SDSU!

In the last three years, the English Department has expanded creative writing course offerings. The Great Plains Writers’ Conference brings writers to campus each spring, but I’ve also tried to bring writers in the fall to visit classes and give evening readings. Many of my students are excited about creative writing. The English Club has sponsored two very successful open mics, and our literary journal, Oakwood, is going strong. Through my work, I hope to make poetry—and creative writing—an even stronger part of the English Department and a point of pride for SDSU.

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