Even though she didn’t like poetry in her younger years, Rockford-native Christine Swanberg developed a passion for the craft later in life. Step into her journey from novice to award-winning poet.
Christine Swanberg didn’t grow up dreaming about writing poetry, yet hearing her describe the circuitous path that led her to become an award-winning and nationally known poet makes it clear she had little choice in the matter. Poetry chose her.
Born in Rockford, Swanberg’s family moved to Wisconsin and then to Iowa as her father pursued his master’s degree, eventually returning to Rockford where she attended public schools.
“My mom read to me a lot,” Swanberg says. “That was an early influence. And I remember memorizing ‘Hiawatha’ and other poems at an early age, which I think was the seed for poetry.”
Swanberg’s interest in poetry waned as she grew up, replaced in large part by a fondness for reading – novels and biographies were her favorites – and writing.
“In high school we didn’t have creative writing classes, but I found I actually enjoyed writing essays. I liked the physical act of writing – I just liked the feeling of it. This was pre-computers, and it wasn’t typewritten,” she says. “I had a couple of wonderful teachers at Guilford High School who I think saw something in me and believed in my writing. One of them was Bess Munson. She saw something there and nurtured it.”
After graduating from Guilford, Swanberg earned a B.S.Ed. in English, speech and drama from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and later received her Master of Arts in Teaching from Rockford College (now Rockford University).
Shortly after leaving Whitewater in 1972, Swanberg returned to Rockford and started teaching speech and drama at East High School. When a new creative writing teacher was needed, she took over the class. Before long, teaching creative writing had rekindled her love of poetry – modern poetry, to be precise.
“Most of the poetry that I studied in high school, and even undergraduate school, was more academic poetry, and I didn’t gravitate to wanting to write that, or even read it,” she says. “I didn’t really care for the idea that there was only one interpretation of a poem. It was a turnoff to me when an instructor said, ‘This is what the poet meant.’ I thought, ‘How do you know what the poet means? You’re not the poet.’ And now that I am the poet, I’ve come to realize I was right about that,” she says with a knowing laugh. “Once I got past that idea [of strict interpretation], poetry sort of opened up.”
Swanberg still views that creative writing course as a highlight of her teaching career.
“What happened in the creative writing classes is that I started realizing I wanted to write the assignments I was giving my students,” she admits. “If I asked students to write a sonnet, for example, I would try writing a sonnet – and much to my surprise I found I could write one. I actually did the assignments my students were getting, and it was a delightful thing. I did it with the prose assignments, too. It wasn’t just poetry.”
The Teacher Becomes the Pupil
During a sabbatical in 1984, Swanberg’s destiny began to clarify when she studied different types of writing at Northern Illinois University.
“My objective that year was to see what I was meant to write,” she says. “I took poetry with Lucien Stryk, I took fiction writing and I took playwriting. I wrote some pretty good short stories – one of them won an award and a couple got published – but to my complete and utter surprise I realized the skill set needed to write modern poetry was what I had.
“Modern poetry really has a narrative line, so that urge to write a little story is taken care of,” she adds. “The difference is that you do it in a shorter amount of time and you don’t have to keep track of characters. Because I had taught Shakespeare and read the masters – and also had taken piano lessons and was a singer – I had sort of an ear for it, which you really don’t need in fiction. The other thing you need is an intensity and passion to get a lot going in a short amount of space, which poetry requires.”
She soon began refining those skills by writing and submitting her poems.
“During the sabbatical I’d written this poem inspired by a lighthouse – it was a series of metaphors comparing the lighthouse to all these different things,” she says. “I sent it to Midwest Poetry Review and won first prize.”
Swanberg credits beginner’s luck with her success, but her own tenacity played a big part, too.
“I wrote a sonnet called ‘An English Teacher’s Sonnet.’ I sent it to English Journal and they accepted it, and it became their promotional postcard, which I didn’t find out until I got back from the sabbatical,” she remembers.
Around the same time, Swanberg was approached by Frank Schier, a fellow poet and the owner of The Rock River Times. He died in 2017.
“He wanted to start a poetry scene in Rockford and started the Rockford Writers’ Theater,” Swanberg says. “We met in different places around town – the old Storefront Theater, the Old Post Office when they had lofts there – we got around.”
Swanberg noticed Schier passing the hat at each gathering and asked why he was collecting the money; he said he wanted to publish the work of one of the writers.
“He always called me Chrissy, and at the end of the year he said, ‘Well, Chrissy. I’ve decided I want to publish you and we’re going to give you this grant.’ It was $500, which in those days could publish a chapbook.”
Several of Swanberg’s poems had been published that year in Chicago’s Lucky Star magazine, and she knew the publisher, Henry Kranz, occasionally published chapbooks.
“I wrote to him and said, ‘I have a grant to publish a chapbook. Are you interested?’ He said yes. My first chapbook got published that year, too,” Swanberg remembers. “It all started in 1984 on this sabbatical.”
A Career Grows
After leaving East in 1987, Swanberg joined the faculty at Rockford Career College, where she taught until 2000. She believes working full-time while writing poetry helped make her art better because she had to commit much of her free time to writing poems and participating in readings, workshops and residencies across the country.
“I have to admit, I did have literary ambitions. I have a drive,” she says. “The way it worked for me was I’d think, ‘Oh, if only I could get a poem in English Journal, then my life would be complete.’ Then I’d get a poem in English Journal and my life wasn’t complete. Then I’d think, ‘If only I could get a poem in Rhino Magazine, then my life would be complete.’ Then I’d get several poems in Rhino, but my life wasn’t complete. It’s like how some people are with money or cars, or whatever. I was that way with poetry. I always wanted the next better thing.”
Her work has been published in countless literary journals and poetry anthologies, and her latest book of poetry, “Wild Fruition,” is her second book published by Puddin’head Press.
Given her long list of publication credits, it may seem strange that Swanberg doesn’t adhere to any sort of publishing schedule. “I’ve had years where two books have come out, and I’ve gone seven years without a book,” she says.
Her poetry style has matured over time, as well.
“When I first started writing I had so much inside of me that I was inspired all the time,” Swanberg says. “I might write about love, I might write about my students, or I might write about travels abroad – all these things I’d experienced by the time I was 32 – family life, my horse. But as I got older and got interested in gardening, gardening became a metaphor to me from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is the return to the garden. Kind of a return to paradise, a return to a place of peace and serenity. The whole Francis of Assisi thing.”
That respect for nature is evident in “Wild Fruition.”
“A lot of the poems in it are about gardening, or ecology, or the stewardship of the earth. They’re not all that way. Some take off on a different tangent,” Swanberg says. “The garden has also become, to me, a metaphor for where I am in my life, approaching age 70. There’s a lot of fruition. A lot of things have come to fruition, and it’s happening more and more in my life.”
The Poet Teaches
Swanberg still teaches at poetry workshops and residencies throughout the Midwest and beyond, but for many years she’s mentored new poets through salon-style poetry groups that meet in her Rockford home.
“Even though I may have gotten some attention as a poet, I think I probably am a better teacher,” Swanberg says.
“It’s funny. A couple of years ago somebody nominated me for one of the Rockford Area Arts Council’s artists awards, but the Arts Council put me in the category of educator instead,” she adds. “And I won the community impact award, which is so weird since I hadn’t been in the public schools for such a long time. That was one of those wild fruition things – if I did any good at all in the world it was probably when I was teaching.”
Although no longer teaching in public schools or at Rockford Career College, Swanberg still finds ways to teach.
“I’m mentoring a young woman now – she’s only 15 – and last year she won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award in the Youth category,” Swanberg says. “She was just about the only person among the winners who wasn’t from Chicago. That thrills me, seeing my students prosper and knowing it’s kind of passing the baton in some way.”
Poets tend to be reflective, and Swanberg is no different.
“As I get older, I love the sense that poetry has been a beautiful way to witness things,” she says. “I find it extremely satisfying. Given the totality of it, I feel like I’ve said something, and it was a good way to say it. But maybe the ultimate joy is that I did it. I said I was going to do it, and I did it. All these years later I’m glad I did. Poetry was a path I had to walk down. I had to walk down that path. I had to.”
Ask the Gardener: A Sonnet Triptych
If you want to know how the earth changes,
each year bearing one more scarring,
scalding the soil’s surface, then rearranges
the system beneath the soil, marring—
ask the gardener on her knees. She will tell
you how she’s watched and witnessed
day by day, year by year, the darkened spell
of careless winds and tainted rains, the flood
and parching bi-polar seasons, distressed.
She will tell you how sorrow’s in her blood
watching all the life she considers blessed–
today a lone monarch lands on milkweed,
where once a dozen hatched and danced, then sailed,
where once the creatures that she loved prevailed.
If you want to know how the earth is tipping,
with each up-close-and-personal invasion,
ask the gardener with her bucket, dipping,
filled with black beetles not in the equation
that balances the garden: creatures devouring
the native plants provided for safe keeping
of the bees, butterflies, and birds; scouring
each buckthorn, rose, and milkweed, feeding
frenzies, insatiable, in black swarms.
Ask the gardener when the bees disappear
before her eyes, or when dry earth warms
and turns from black to gray, a cracked mirror.
Where once the gardener laughed with easy sighs,
now the gardener stoops too full of goodbyes.
Goodbye monarch, swallowtail, and bees.
Hello white grubs beneath the soil, tiny whales
like the curled bodies of Orca in seas
seen one summer before the gusty gales
of their great diminishing. Too much loss
for a decade or a century to bear.
The gardener sees, feels, and knows the cost.
And yet her green thumb sends its healing, shared
amongst spider lilies and bergamot,
where hummingbirds return from year to year
to this their sanctuary. Were it not
for gardeners on their knees in greening prayer,
only scientists would speak of earth’s demise,
but to the gardener, it comes as no surprise.
This poem was first published in Chiron Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also published in “Wild Fruition: Sonnets, Spells, and Other Incantations.”