By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets from across the globe. This week, we talk to Kansas City poet Vicki Swanson!
Vicki Swanson has written poems for as long as she can remember. Her childhood poems were about family, nature, or were prompted by books she had read. As an elementary school teacher, she wrote poems for her students to enhance lessons. Now retired, she writes in response to things that grieve, frustrate, or challenge her, including a series of more than 20 poems related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Vicki lives in Kansas City, MO, with her husband Steve, a musician and retired teacher, and their two cats and a dog. They have four grown children and three delightful granddaughters.
We reached out to Vicki to ask her about her work, passions and influences.
Please meet Vicki Swanson!
Annie Newcomer: Welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café, Vicki. Tell us why you think storytelling is so important.
Vicki Swanson: Why do I think storytelling is important? Through storytelling, listeners can learn about the world and life and science and people and be entertained and be engaged at the same time. And by storytelling, I find that I understand myself better.
AN: I noticed that you live in Kansas City. The Missouri Poet Laureate, Maryfrances Wagner, visited us as she started her tenure. She has offered a challenge in Missouri to write haiku as a way to bring communities together and open the door for people to engage with poetry. I was wondering if you would participate and if you might share any haiku that you have written.
VS: I did submit a haiku to the contest:
In the pre-dawn dark
sweet Robin shouts good morning,
shy owl sighs good night
This was an early morning experience this past summer, and I was so charmed to hear a robin and an owl both calling at the same time outside my window.
AN: You mentioned that you started writing poetry as a child. Who introduced you to poetry, and did you save any of these poems?
VS: I don’t remember who introduced me to poetry, but my Swedish grandmother, Rose Gustafson, strongly encouraged me to write, and she made two scrapbooks decorated with cut-outs from greeting cards for me to write my poems in. I still have those scrapbooks.
AN: Do you write poetry longhand in a notebook, or do you use a computer? Our readers enjoy hearing about featured poets' process.
VS: I have written a lot of poetry longhand, on any paper available at the time, but now I mostly use my computer for the ease in editing. I remember one time I was sitting at a very long traffic light and started jotting down on a scrap of paper the colors of the cars that passed me as I was stuck waiting. I later turned that into a list poem.
AN: Is poetry writing a solitary process for you, or are you in a workshop with other poets?
VS: Writing has always been a solitary process for me. I have friends I share my poems with for feedback but haven’t done any workshop writing.
AN: That you were an elementary school teacher caught my attention because I think that teachers of young children have a huge impact on how a child will experience poetry and then walk with poetry in their adult years. What are some of the ways that you nurtured your students in the art of poetry?
VS: I was a classroom teacher for nine years before I became solely an English Language Arts teacher in a foreign-language charter school. My first year I taught 2nd and 3rd graders, and I basically had to create my own curriculum. So I established a poetry unit for both grades to be taught during the month of April every year, and I continued that practice for 14 years.
The students listened to, read, talked about, and wrote poetry in a variety of styles over the course of the month, and through this process I was able to demonstrate and instruct on the characteristics of poetry: rhyme, rhythm, repetition, meter, metaphor and simile, mood and imagery, as well as vocabulary building. At the end of the unit, we would have a celebration and invite parents to come hear the children read their poems. Beside the unit, we had a weekly "poem of the week” that might reflect our unit of study or the season or a holiday. I also found or wrote poems to help understand or memorize grammar concepts.
I always started the unit by announcing that in poetry, one gets to break the rules. Young learners get so locked in to the rules of writing (e.g., capitalization, punctuation, complete sentences) that many times they just freeze, afraid to fail. But every year I had at least one student who had barely written a word all year who found a writer’s voice in poetry.
AN: How did you make time to write when you were teaching? How does writing figure into your schedule now that you are retired?
VS: I don’t write as a discipline. My poems come about sporadically, usually in response to things happening in the world; for example, I wrote 23 COVID poems during the COVID lockdown. Poetry gives me an outlet for emotions, such as the poems I wrote after the explosion of the Challenger, the massacre in Uvalde, and the death of my brother. But some are narratives of events, trips I've taken, even responses to books I’m reading. I rarely wrote during my time as a classroom teacher but wrote a lot as an ELA teacher because of the poetry components in my lessons. (One time I wrote 4 different iterations of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for a test question asking students to identify the styles of each poem.)
AN: Please think of a question that might be important for us to know about your collection of poems before we read your poetry and then answer your own question for us.
VS: The question you might consider is: “How do you feel you have matured as writer over the years? How do your more recent poems compare with earlier poems?”
My earlier poems tended to be more stream-of-consciousness, with fragmented sentences and irregular spacings. It would be up to the reader to try to figure out what I was saying and why. (After all, I, as writer, had done my part!) The poetry I write now is almost always in complete sentences, and line-length is based on context or natural phrasing. My readers don’t have to guess what I am trying to say—I offer it up to them in narrative form, with mood maybe stressed more than image. If I have a story to tell or a feeling to share, I want to be sure it is communicated so the reader understands.
AN: Vicki, thank you so much for visiting us in the Flapper Press Poetry Café and sharing about your poetic life. Now it is time for me to invite you to share your poetry with their backstories for our readers.
This is a poem about an antique cast-iron bank in the shape of a puppy that belonged to my mother. The bank has since been gifted to my daughter, who also has a daughter, and so the story continues.
One hundred years in memories
has taken some toll.
The paint is sadly chipped—it’s a tri-color now—
and the screw has been replaced by one too shiny and too short
But the cast iron pieces are intact,
and the molded features still show clearly the worry in the eyes of the puppy
as he contemplates the bee on his haunch.
Despite the jaunty blue bow at his neck,
his brow is wrinkled,
his ears and his tail are down;
he is not a happy pup.
I was four when I found the doggy bank.
Immediately I was charmed,
my sympathies aroused by his expressive eyes.
My mother said the bank belonged to her.
I could keep it, she said.
I loved the dog.
I could not have known then
that sixty years later I would cherish it as my oldest possession,
that I would still follow the gaze of the doggie’s worried eyes
and look for the bee on his haunch.
Somehow, when every other childhood toy had been lost or forgotten,
the doggie bank stayed a part of my life.
My daughter put pennies in the bank, too.
She didn’t question the chipped paint or shiny screw.
She looked at the puppy’s eyes, as I did,
touched the bee with her fingertips,
and thought her own thoughts.
The bank still rattles with coins as it has for a hundred years.
But more than pennies and dimes,
it holds something that won’t be exchanged on a whim
for toys or ice cream.
The bank connects the childhood of three—
mother, daughter, and daughter again,
each a dreamer,
each remembering something about being a little girl with a special doggie bank.
And good memories,
like good dogs,
The horror of a gunman in a school reminded me of the yearly active shooter drills they would conduct at school. The police officers providing the training encouraged the teachers to arm themselves and their students with whatever they might have at hand.
A Note from the Teacher
Dear Mr. and Mrs.---
It shouldn’t have happened.
It never should happen.
Your daughter was so excited about summer break
and all the fun she would have.
She told me her plans just today,
smiling that big, happy smile.
I locked the door
and told them all to get down.
I was ready to throw a stapler
or shoot wasp spray like they told us to do.
The noise was deafening, the shots and the pounding and children crying—
They didn’t tell us about the noise,
how disorienting that could be.
And none of it worked, nothing.
We couldn’t run,
and there was no place to hide.
I put myself between the shooter and your daughter,
and that didn’t work.
The bullets that ripped her to pieces
tore me apart as well.
The bullets that took your child away from you
took me from my own child.
(and I hope my daughter won’t hate me, won’t blame me
for leaving her motherless, trying to protect some other little girl.)
But I tried.
Don’t say I was brave, don’t call me a hero.
Say it like it really is:
I was murdered, slaughtered, cut down where I stood,
as all of us were,
by someone who went looking for death today.
This poem was written as a celebration of life for my brother, Eric Gustafson, who died from COVID-19 in 2020. Eric was a musician and a composer and also a devout Buddhist.
Concerto for Eric
Like an Orff ensemble,
the songbirds wait for their entrance
first the dear robins, the early birds,
then the cardinals whistling “breakfast now!”
The piping sparrows come next, and the mourning doves (the oboes in the group).
The claxon crow cuts through the sweetness
and the brassy blue jays yell “snake! snake!”
In certain months you may hear geese high overhead
—their cries take my breath away—
Birds shout in call-and-response from tree to tree
and then, gloriously, the full sound, all parts at once,
forte, fortissimo, accelerando.
This is the purest music.
Or, how about this?
The earliest flowers scatter patches and dashes
of yellow and purple and white.
And then we see pinks, reds, oranges
blues and greens—
soon, masses of color in shocking array
Yellow with scarlet? Purple with orange? And why not?
Who made up those other rules?
Water will not stop for a stone in the river,
not one stone nor many stones,
but its energy changes
and the smooth current becomes a roaring, crashing cascade
tumbling rocks one against another
before spilling out into the lake, quiet water again perhaps,
for a time.
Water is not expected to conform to rules.
No more is wind, nor rain nor the stars in the sky,
or tree bark, thistles, sweet-smelling milkweed,
starlings or hornets.
All are the essence of the music,
making their entrance as soloists or ensemble
in a constant cacophony of being, of celebration.
We, rule-followers from our first awareness,
we grow to embrace the lessons of nature,
to learn that discordance is part of the blessed whole
(indeed, the idea of discordance is a human conceit)
and to mix colors, mix textures, to mix life experiences
visually, aurally, tactilely, all senses fired, to celebrate the purest music.
I was the daughter of a chemistry teacher and grew up with a deep respect for science. This poem celebrates Stephen Hawking after his passing in 2018.
Just to be clear—
I do not believe God sends trouble or pain
to test or to punish us.
I do not believe catastrophes are God’s will.
Things happen, and we cope.
Fifty years ago a man named Stephen got his death sentence
—Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS—
and his active mind was trapped in his increasingly failing body.
“Just a few years,” the doctors told him.
Of course, doctors don’t know everything.
And those few years turned into decades.
But over time, Stephen stopped walking, stopped talking,
stopped moving, mostly.
A friend of mine, a Roman Catholic,
Told me once that we die in God’s time,
we die when our work is finished.
So, what if?
What if Stephen was needed here, now,
to ask the questions?
As his body locked up,
he was freed, in a sense, to ask those questions.
What if God, not known for easy fixes,
gave the work to abled persons,
inspiring scientists and engineers to design and create
more and still more adaptations for Stephen,
so his unlimited curiosity and imagination could expand
to contain the universe?
Left to his thoughts and his questions, through those adaptations,
the twitch of his cheek was eloquence.
And what if, somewhere else,
Stephen has joined Galileo and Leonardo,
Johannes, Sir Isaac, Albert and others,
To talk things over?
They have the answers, now.
Annie Klier Newcomer founded a not-for-profit, Kansas City Spirit, that served children in metropolitan Kansas for a decade. Annie volunteers in chess and poetry after-school programs in Kansas City, Missouri. She and her husband, David, and the staff of the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens are working to develop The Emily Dickinson Garden in hopes of bringing art and poetry educational programs to their community. Annie helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to both read and write poetry!
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