SDSU’s Stewart Named State Poet Laureate, to Lead Poetry Track at 2019 Festival of Books

Christine Stewart (middle) speaks at a panel with fellow poets Heid Erdrich (left) and Naomi Shihab Nye at a South Dakota Festival of Books event. Stewart was recently named the new South Dakota Poet Laureate. She'll be featured during four events at the 2019 Festival Oct. 4-6 in Deadwood.  

State's New Top Poet is Longtime Festival Presenter and Humanities Advocate

By South Dakota Magazine & South Dakota Humanities Council
Editor's Note: A version of this feature story will be printed in our 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books guide produced by South Dakota Magazine. Subscribe to our e-newsletter below to receive a free digital copy of the guide as soon as it is released this summer.

The state’s new poet laureate is familiar to fans of both the South Dakota Humanities Council and the annual South Dakota Festival of Books.

Christine Stewart was named South Dakota Poet Laureate in July. A veteran South Dakota Festival of Books presenter, she’ll be formally recognized for her new honor during the 2019 Festival at a special program: “A Celebration of South Dakota’s New Poet Laureate, Christine Stewart, with Outgoing Poet Laureate Lee Ann Roripaugh and finalists Patrick Hicks and Jim Reese” (Oct. 5 at 6:30 p.m., Deadwood Mountain Grand Event Center). Stewart, featured in a total of four events this fall, has been invited often to the annual Festival to teach writing workshops and contribute to panel discussions alongside dignitaries such as former U.S. Poet Laureate (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Ted Kooser.

An English professor at South Dakota State University, Stewart has also led SDHC-funded grant programs and facilitated internship opportunities at the South Dakota Humanities Council for her students while otherwise advancing SDHC’s efforts to promote the importance of the humanities and the written word.

Christine Stewart at the South Dakota Festival of Books.

Helping Advocate for Humanities

The South Dakota Humanities Council (SDHC), founded in 1972 in response to an act of Congress, is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit and the only cultural organization in the state whose sole mission is to deliver humanities programming to the people of South Dakota. SDHC’s vision is to lead statewide advocacy for the humanities, working with partners like Stewart to foster literary and civic engagement among citizens.

“Christine has long been involved in South Dakota Humanities Council and Festival of Books programming, often donating her time and talents to help us promote humanities in South Dakota,” said Center for the Book Director Jennifer Widman. “We’re excited to see her continue that work in her new capacity as the state’s top poet, and we’ll feature her prominently at our literary events in the coming years as we’ve done with others who’ve held this position.”

Stewart is South Dakota’s seventh poet laureate. The position was created in 1937 with the appointment of Charles “Badger” Clark. He served until his death in 1957 and was followed by Adeline Jenny (1958-1973), Mabel Frederick (1973), Audrae Visser (1974-2001), David Allan Evans (2001-2015) and Lee Ann Roripaugh (2015-2019).

The South Dakota Poetry Society recommended Stewart out of a pool of candidates that included Mount Marty College professor Jim Reese and Augustana University professor and writer-in-residence Patrick Hicks as finalists. Stewart, Reese, Hicks and Roripaugh, who’ve all been featured as Festival presenters, are collaborating at the event this fall to commemorate the poet laureate transition.

What are the Poet Laureate's Priorities?

As the new poet laureate, what are Stewart’s priorities?

For one thing, she doesn’t want South Dakotans to be intimidated by poetry.

At the top of her list is a new anthology of poems written about South Dakota by South Dakotans. She hopes to launch reading and writing workshops and to foster discussion, not only about our shared home but also about the genre in general.

“I’m surprised that there’s not more discussion and engagement with poetry at all levels of society because poems are short, and we like short things,” says Stewart, who was appointed by Gov. Kristi Noem in May 2019 and began her four-year term on July 1.

“We like Tweets, and we like sound bites. I think there are two challenges. Usually, poetry is so distilled that it takes some time to ruminate over it. You maybe have to read it a couple of times for it to be fully digested. Some people don’t want to take that time.

“And I think poetry has a bad reputation, in some ways, that it has to be dissected and unpuzzled, that it’s not written for the everyday person, that it’s written for other poets or artists, and it’s not meant to be consumed by the general reader. I’d like to challenge that with the anthology by highlighting accessible poetry that doesn’t confound.”

Christine Stewart at the South Dakota Festival of Books.

Stewart's Style Intersects Experience, Research

Stewart describes her work as writing at the intersection of experience and research.

"I'm always grounded in something that's happened to me, or something I've seen or something that I have sensory knowledge of. And I can write a poem based on just that. But there's always something that takes me outside of the realm of myself that pushes me forward, and that's research," she says.

"It could be travel, reading something, another writer. I use those sources to push my imagination and my experience, and to re-see it, and add some nuance to it."

That approach is particularly evident in the poems of her two most recent books, written under the name Christine Stewart-Nunez (the name she publishes as). In "Untrussed," an exercise in ekphrasis led to the melding of poetry and art as Stewart studied paintings in the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings.

"At some point, whatever thing I'm also ruminating on personally tends to start to commingle in that piece of art, and that piece of art starts to speak to my personal experience."

"Bluewords Greening," perhaps a more personal collection, deals with myriad tragedies: the death of Stewart's sister, her son's loss of language due to a rare seizure disorder called Landau-Kleffner Syndrome and her several miscarriages.

Christine Stewart's 2019 Festival of Books Schedule

  • (Workshop) "Sonic Revolution: Developing Your Poet's Ear" Friday, Oct. 4, 10-11:45 a.m., Franklin Hotel Emerald Room (Ticket Required - $20)
  • (With Steven Wingate) "Writing Place: Let the Land Shape Your Story" Saturday, Oct. 5, 9-9:45 a.m. Deadwood Mountain Grand Hotel Conference Room
  • (With Sara Henning) "Writing about Illness, Loss & Grief" Saturday, Oct. 5, 2-2:45 p.m., Deadwood Mountain Grand Hotel Conference Room
  • "A Celebration of South Dakota's New Poet Laureate, Christine Stewart, with Outgoing Poet Laureate Lee Ann Roripaugh and finalists Patrick Hicks and Jim Reese" Saturday, Oct. 5, 6:30 p.m., Deadwood Mountain Grand Event Center.

More About Stewart 

Stewart is a native of Des Moines, Iowa. She holds a bachelor's degree in English education and writing from the University of Northern Iowa. She taught for two years at Tarsus American College in Turkey, then earned a master's in literature from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Nebraska. Stewart joined the faculty at South Dakota State University in 2007, where she teaches creative writing and directs the university's creative writing program.

More About the Festival of Books

To read more about Christine and other authors at the 2019 Festival of Books and for scheduling information, click below to visit our website listing everything you need to know.