Literary Hook: ‘Once at a Party Long Ago’ explores why I wrote poetry

By Christine Swanberg
Author and Poet

Once at a Party Long Ago

Once at a party long ago before computers, someone asked me why I write poetry. The question took me by surprise as I stood there dumbfounded. I wanted to say, “Let me get back to you on that.” I don’t remember what I actually said, but the next morning, this poem appeared in my consciousness, then handwritten on legal pad, then revised and typed:

A Friend Asks

why I write poetry

and though I’ve dreamed of this moment

for years, it still stops me like a siren:

Because Mayan women do not weave

desert sunset threads

because it is no longer useful.

Because the snowy egret leaves the marsh


Because the people closest to me


Because words are bread.

Because writing is as mapless

as driving down back roads.

Because without it

my life is measured in paychecks.

Because I love you

and can’t tell you.

Because there are so many questions

nobody asks.

Because someone wants to know. (1)

If someone asked me the same question today, I might say, “Oh, I wrote a poem about that once,” but more likely, “because I just can’t help myself.” Poetry is a calling that eventually you heed if you’re meant to do it, no matter how small the monetary reward or social prestige.

Poetry moves through you, and you have to get out of the way, or your poetry will be clunky and willful. I did not set out to be a poet, but one year, I took a sabbatical from teaching because I had a burning desire to write and wanted to find out where this burning desire would lead. I took all sorts of writing classes, and although I enjoyed all of them, I got hooked on poetry. Writing it tapped into something soulful within me, and I used a variety of skills that had been under the surface for years.

When I first began writing poetry seriously, I discovered a deep well of experiences and sensibilities from which to draw. I noticed I could not control the creativity, that something else happened on the page, and for me, that was magic. I have written ever since then, at least 30 years now, and there is nothing I won’t write about if I am moved, fascinated, or even angered by it. It comes from someplace inside, someplace deep and wide. It is connected to nature, to relationships, and to the world at large, and partly to being a teacher.

For nearly 20 years, I taught creative writing, English and literature at a tough high school. Maybe that’s where I got the thick skin needed to send out poems and accept rejection.

Slowly, I moved from being a teacher who writes to a writer who teaches. I continued to teach in smaller doses, for residencies, nature centers, women’s centers, folk schools and colleges. I sought local opportunities for writing and editing, and was on the editorial board of Womanspace Center for Women’s Korone: Women’s Voices. I did notice that the sensibilities for Korone were attuned of “writing like a woman.” We created 10 anthologies over about 20 years, bringing me right into menopause.

I wrote a number of “body” poems at that time. One of them begins with “A pyromanic sleeps beneath your pillow,”(2) which always seemed to garner a few laughs or nods from other hot flashers in the crowd. At that time, Papier-Mache Press, best known for publishing the book When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple, was publishing “sequels.” I ran into the publisher, Sandra Martz, at the Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago. That began a fortuitous relationship with a great women’s press. I sent my work to magazines such as Creative Woman, Tradeswoman and Sing Heavenly Muse, and found writing like a woman was a plus for publishing in these journals.

Though unintentionally, I took advantage of writing like a woman. Eventually, Plainview Press, “the oldest feminist press in the Southwest,” created by the visionary late Susan Bright, published one of my collections. I miss those days and the feminist fervor of that time in publishing. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly sure what it means to write like a woman. It’s like good art: You know it when you see it. Let me get back to you on that.

I do know that the more I wrote and the more I learned about poetry, the more the multi-faceted, shape-shifting, dynamic power of poetry became clear. Some workshops I attended seemed to stick to the “Honey, I shrunk the poems” technique—working reductively until (it seemed to me) the poems were like a tree without leaves.

Perhaps writing like a woman means writing the leaves as well as the tree. After working with the late Lynda Hull in the Vermont Writing Program, I began to discern all that poetry could do simultaneously: create an intimate narrative, delight with lyricism, challenge with honesty, invite through shape and form, spice it up with quirky candor, or jolt with social consciousness. I sometimes think my poetry reveals cultural/historical moments in the life of a regular person, a kind of bohemian female Forrest Gump. It is a supreme act of freedom to say whatever you want to in whatever form you choose.

Perhaps women tell it like it is rather than cloak it in impersonal epics. Perhaps we feel a stronger need to use our personal and sometimes raw authentic voices. Ironically, we women don’t tend to pretty things up.

My own process begins with something that catches my attention and starts playing pool in my mind. When I sit down to write, it appears raw and magical. Eventually, it starts telling me what it wants to be and what form it wants to take, which varies depending on the poem’s content and tone.

Being candid, I have wondered if my inability to create a consistent style may have been an impediment to whatever defines “career” as a poet. The form I use rises organically out of the poem itself. The poem tells me what to do: long lines, short lines, formal stanzas, sonnet, fancy language, idiomatic and even religious language can be part of the process. What energizes me most is silence and time to focus on the writing.

The idea of silence versus distraction was playing pool in my mind and morphed into this poem:

Lament for the Silent Sister

Suppose computers jumped over the moon

and cell phones floated unencumbered

around Venus, or that Call Waiting suffered

a heart attack, and the third television lost

its will to live. Suppose then all the people

returned from their great distraction

to welcome unsplintered silence

as though she was a prodigal daughter.

Would we say: Oh, how we have missed you.

Come. It is the mother’s pleasure to prepare

a feast for you. O’ Silent Sister, welcome home?(3)

Since that first party, I have continued writing and publishing poetry, sometimes with fervor and discipline, sometimes just when the spirit moves me. My standards for publishing are eclectic. I once wrote an article for a workshop called “Dancing with the Editors.” Here’s the process: Let’s say I’m doing a residency at Centrum Center for the Art (Port Townsend, Wash.). I go to a coffee shop and just happen to find a local literary journal like Minotaur. Or, I really like the food co-op there and end up writing a poem about it. When I get home, I send a few poems to Minotaur, and lo, one is accepted. This begins the dance with that editor, and we go on that way until the dance is done. I keep submitting there until either the editor changes, or the editor hasn’t taken my work on the third try.

I also discover that the food co-op has a pretty snazzy newsletter, so I personally deliver co-op poem after drinking a carrot-ginger zinger, and lo, they like it and publish it.

Say what you will about newsletters, but they actually get read by non-writers and often have a circulation of thousands.

Sometimes the process is more academic, and I will use a source such as Poet’s Market, and sending for sample copies of journals that seem like good fits. I gravitate to women’s journals and regional journals, though sometimes I will try for the more prestigious academic journals. Do that for 30 years, and it adds up.

Once a little tiara was given to me, an interview in 2008 Poet’s Market, which dealt with being a community poet, both secular and spiritual. It concludes with: “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 somewhere more exciting than you ever dreamed.” (4)

Poetry opened a world beyond teaching, classrooms, bells and paychecks. It introduced me to a higher self that was there all along. I met many interesting literary folks along the way. When poetry invites you to the party, you’d do well to accept.

(1) “A Friend Asks” was published first in Bread Upon the Waters, Windfall Prophets, Whitewater, Wis, 1990.

(2) “The Change” was published first in Korone, Womanspace, Rockford, 1998.

(3) “Lament for the Silent Sister” was published first in Minotaur, Port Townsend, Wash., 2009.

(4) From an interview in Poet’s Market, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2008.

Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet.

From the July 20-26, 2011 issue

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