Literary Hook: Writing can take you somewhere more exciting than you ever dreamed

By Christine Swanberg

Author and Poet

Happy New Year!

This time of year leads us to reflect on what has brought us to this point in our lives. Last week at a holiday party, someone engaged me in a lengthy conversation about writing. Since this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, I tried to savor the moment. Yet, upon reflection, I realized (as I often do) that there was much more I could have said when asked how I became a poet and what it is like to be a writer, whether I worked at it daily or through inspiration, how I decide what form a poem will take, and other considerations of the writing life.

So, here are my reflections on these questions for any of you who might have wondered how anyone chooses the path of writing. Of course, every person is different. Here’s my take on it.

Doing homework: Teaching and poetry

I became a poet as a result of being a teacher. For many years, I taught creative writing, English and literature at East High School. As I completed the homework assignments along with my students, a burning desire to write emerged. I already had a good background in literature, writing and teaching, from both undergraduate and graduate work. Like all good teachers, I “did my homework,” which took the form of sabbaticals that answered the call of writing. I worked with Robert Bly, Lucien Stryk, Lisel Mueller and Lynda Hull during this gathering period. I sought local opportunities for editing and became involved with groups, literary magazines and readings. I was a teacher who wrote. The National Council of Teachers of English used “An English Teacher’s Sonnet” for their promotional postcard. Still, this was not enough.

Slowly, I became a poet who taught—through disciplined writing most mornings before going to teach full time. Though I shifted to teaching positions that used less of my creative time, I never lost my love of teaching; it has been a passion that has traveled with me for three decades. Fervor for poetry further honed my enthusiasm for inspirational, nurturing, yet insightful, incisive teaching. Along with editing experience, my poetics encompass both the big picture and the smaller details of poems.

The multifaceted, shape-shifting, dynamic power of poetry became increasingly clear. Some workshops I attended used the “Honey, I shrunk the poems” technique—working reductively until the poem is like a tree without leaves. After working with Lynda Hull at the Vermont Writing Program, I began to discern all that poetry can accomplish simultaneously: create an intimate narrative; delight with lyricism; challenge with honesty; invite through shape and form; spice it up with quirkiness, candor, and humor; and sometimes jolt with social consciousness. As my poetics expanded into a larger view of what a poem can do, I found that I could teach poetry in a more expansive way as well. Many of my students have benefitted from this approach and have published widely in journals that represent a more expansive approach to poetry.

Speech and drama training has come in handy, too. I never realized how much use I would get out of an undergraduate course in oral interpretation until giving readings throughout the country. Poetics also includes the oral interpretation of the words, bringing out their meanings and sounds. Singing in community chorales has strengthened sensitivity to the breath and musicality of a line—something I often share with my students. I believe strongly in reading poetry out loud with gusto. I have coached many poets in elocution and presentation, giving the meaning and tone of the poem all it deserves, as well as giving context without self-consciousness or apology. Poetry is ultimately a shared experience, as is any fine art. It needs to be received to be complete, either through public reading, publication or collaboration.

After three decades of work and perseverance, the 2008 Poet’s Market featured an interview with me, which concluded: “At some point you have to ask yourself the question: What kind of poet are you going to be? What gifts do you bring to the table? What would happen if you explored them? Then, you have to follow the answers wherever they lead. Who knows? They might lead you somewhere more interesting and exciting than you ever dreamed.” And as Robert Frost wrote: “And that has made all the difference.”

Christine Swanberg has published about 300 poems in 70 journals and anthologies. An interview with her appears in the 2008 Poet’s Market. She is available for mentoring through Jane’s Stories Foundation. Part of her mentoring is suggesting possible journals. Her books include, among others, Who Walks Among the Trees with Charity (Wind Publishing, Kentucky), The Red Lacquer Room (Chiron Publishing, Kansas) and The Tenderness of Memory (Plainview Press, Texas).

From the Dec. 30, 2009 – Jan. 5, 2010 issue

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