Poet pulls her words from the well Recognition: Goucher College senior has received a $15,000 grant from the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship.

October 06, 1998|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

It is there, sunk deep into fermenting emotions, memories and words, that poet Christine Stewart is happiest.

It is another chance to encounter the "roaring of the mind's stream, a hot spring where stories darted like ghost fish."

And it's an opportunity to gather fresh images that she can shape, refine and use to discover if what feels so good to her is of worth to anyone else.

The Goucher College senior has just received one of the best responses she could hope for: a $15,000 grant from the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, one of the largest such awards offered to aspiring writers in the United States. Administered by the Modern Poetry Association in Chicago since 1989, the annual competition attracts about 100 entries from student writers whose work is screened by academic advisers.

Most winners have been graduate students; Stewart's co-winner Robin Cooper-Stone, who is in a master's program at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

Stewart submitted 10 poems that explored the complexities of life through such topics as a neighbor's garden, a trip to Ocean City and a swampy grove of cypress trees.

"She is wonderful at creating themes, at re-creating atmosphere and place and at delineating character," says Jay Parisi, editor of Poetry magazine and chairman of the Lilly fellowship committee. "Her work is not only readable but very affecting -- and unusually accomplished for this stage of her education.

Stewart, 32, calls herself a late bloomer who feels "like I've been in school my whole life." After graduating from Severna Park Senior High School -- her father was in sales and marketing for Lipton, her mother worked part-time in retail -- she took courses at Anne Arundel Community College and attended the University of Maryland for a year and a half, studying with poet Michael Collier. Then she moved to California's San Fernando Valley, where she worked as a secretary for six years, taking writing courses at night.

After she returned to Baltimore in 1995, Stewart entered Goucher and immersed herself in the classes of novelist Madison Smartt Bell and his wife, poet Elizabeth Spires, writers who jointly hold Goucher's Chair for Distinguished Achievement.

"The caliber of the students and their writing made me realize I had to write better than I'd been writing," Stewart says. "I realized I just had to give everything I could give and hope it was good enough."

The no-strings-attached poetry award will allow her to quit her full-time job as an administrative assistant to concentrate on writing and applying to graduate schools. Since coming to Goucher, Stewart has worked for Miller Corporate Real Estate in Baltimore, scrambling to squeeze in classes and homework with her office responsibilities. Last winter, she also struggled with a generalized anxiety disorder, which threatened to halt her Goucher studies.

"I was light-headed, dizzy," she says. "There was a constant feeling of muscle tension, not being able to relax, not being able to concentrate. I was anxious, fluttery and out of breath, I thought I was losing my mind. I felt like there was this giant black buzzing hole over my head constantly."

Although therapy and accupuncture relieved her condition, Stewart expects to face it again because she believes her heightened sensitivities make her more prone to it.

"If you're a writer or musician or artist you can be so focused on how to process the world around you that you just saturate yourself and can't take any more," she says. "Anxiety helps you ** to close yourself off somehow."

But as debilitating as her condition was, she believes it also produced good work.

"Writing gave me a place to put everything I was feeling, images and descriptions of things," she says.

One of her poems, "The Well," concerns her relationship to her reflection in the water. At first, the writer perceives the shadow as a drowned person waiting to embrace and drag the living into the well. As the poem develops, however, the writer realizes she needs to rescue the image in the water, to "seize the hands whose touch/is damp and desperate; then I pull against the drag, pull her free/of the suction, the water running clear from her mouth,/until the well is emptied of shadow, until she breathes again."

Eventually, Stewart says, she understood that she was writing about her own experience with anxiety.

"Beth Spires once said in one of our classes that you can never really write good poetry when you're happy," Stewart says. "I'd never actually thought of that, but she's right. It's so boring when you're happy. There's just nothing to write about, except being happy. And unless you're [William] Blake, it just comes off being strangely perky."

Stewart shares an apartment in Charles Village with Keegan, her West Highland terrier. A modest, self-effacing woman who calls herself something of a hermit, she is creatively aggressive.

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