Monday, June 28, 2010

Monday Muse: North Carolina's Poet Laureate

You do not have to be a prophet to write poems.
You do not have to have several degrees in literature. . .
You can enrich your life by writing poems.
~ Cathy Smith Bowers

Cathy Smith Bowers became North Carolina's Poet Laureate on February 10 of this year. She succeeded Kathryn Stripling Byer, who served two two-year terms, from 2005 to 2009.

The position of state poet was established by legislative resolution, without guidelines, in 1935. Originally, the office was a life-time appointment; later, it was reduced to five years and then reduced again, to two years. According to the North Carolina Arts Council (NCAC), changes in the position were never codified. Between 2002 and 2005, the Poet Laureate program was placed on hold, pending a review of its functions and needs, including administrative and financial support. Currently, the Poet Laureate is appointed by the governor on the advice of a committee representative of the state's geographic, racial, and literary diversity; reappointment is at the governor's discretion. Selection is based on the poet's "deep connections" to the state's cultural life; demonstrated "literary excellence"; willingness and ability to participate in public events; influence on other writers; demonstrated appreciation for the state's literature; and state, national, or international reputation.

The Poet Laureate, who receives an annual $10,000 stipend from the NCAC, is expected to travel the state advocating on behalf of writing and reading; communicate with schools, libraries, community groups, and the press; and write commemorative poems for historical or culturally important events or occasions. Kathryn Byer is credited as the first Poet Laureate to use the Internet to promote North Carolina writers; among her contributions are the Writers & Books section of the NCAC's Website and her own blog, My Laureate's Lasso, which covers the state's literary scene. Bowers currently broadcasts once a month on an Ashville, North Carolina, radio station. As the state's poetry "ambassador", she says she wants to "shine a light on the writers of  North Carolina" and be "a link between writers and communities."

Arthur Abernethy, appointed in 1948, was North Carolina's first Poet Laureate. He was followed by James Larkin Pearson (1953-1981), Sam Ragan (1982-1996), and Fred Chappell (1997-2002). 

* * * * *
I want to bring order out of chaos.
I feel the subjects I write about are very painful.
I work through that pain when I'm working on a poem.
It gives me power over it.*

South Carolina native Cathy Smith Bowers, age 60 at the time of her installation as Poet Laureate, is well-acquainted with emotional pain: Her father, from whom she was estranged for 20 years, was an alcoholic; a younger brother died of AIDS, an older brother of drug and alcohol abuse. Her second husband committed suicide. What Bowers has experienced, some might say, is too personal, too private, not the stuff of poetry. Bowers would disagree: she's crafted four poetry collections out of her autobiography of loss, and it is because she has experienced so much tragedy that Bowers understands that you can take away its power by writing yourself through it. She owns her loss and grief, which through her words become universal.

Poetry does something to the human body. 
It changes the body physically, it changes the brain.*

Bowers' collections are The Candle I Hold Up To See You (Iris Press, 2009), A Book of Minutes** (Iris Press, 2004), Traveling in Time of Danger (Iris Press, 2004), and The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas (Texas Tech University Press, 1992). The latter was the first to be awarded the TTUP First-Book Prize in Poetry (now known as the Walt McDonald Prize).

Family life, illness, deep personal loss, death and grief, the influences of the South, travel abroad, place, humor—all are found in Bowers' narrative poetry. She writes, she told an interviewer, "the poems that need to be written". Imagery — the inspiration of the Lascaux caves, for example, or parents arguing — is a hallmark of her writing, as is sound, whether it's in Bowers' rhymes or the way she repeats words or uses figures of speech or remembers a voice singing a ballad. Bowers has both a marvelous way with metaphor and simile, and a very good "ear". She can be in turns witty, vulnerable, lyrical.

Some excerpts:

You joked it was devil's shoestring
that you sowed,
not oats,
but poppy, larkspur, clover,
your pollen floating everywhere
to towns so far away they had no names,
to a war where you died
though they sent you back alive,
the brilliant map of your body
the work of skilled cartographers
whose faces you never even saw. . . .

It was the only act of intimacy
I ever witnessed between them—that joke
my father told her, his opening
line... I hope it snows so deep... and then
how, for the punch, he reached out
and pulled her to him, to whisper words
that sent her red and slapping 
at his khaki shirt and then her hand
lifting to his chin to remove
the little ghosts of cotton
that fluttered there. . . .
~ from "Snow" (Listen to this poem read in the video below.)

. . . She shakes her finger
in my face and scolds me good:
"Girl, don't you forget who it was
learned you to talk."
Amazing she would want
to lay claim to these syllables
piling up like railroad salvage
when I speak, to these words slow as hooves
dredging from the wet of just-plowed fields. . . .
~ from "A Southern Rhetoric"

When the heaviness of dog days
has had its way
with us, they bloom
to stay the doom

of summer's end. Such popsicles,
these crepe myrtles,
to cool the day's 
parched tongue!. . . 
~ from "Crepe Myrtle"

Each morning in my mailbox
or tucked into a quiet cove
of my front porch, another
burden of solace
reminding me again
my husband is dead.

Last week, an oval cardboard box
decoupaged in stars, inside, its nested
offering—a cache of still-warm eggs
gleaned from my neighbor's henhouse.

Yesterday, a Peruvian prayer shawl,
the warp and weft of its holy weave
climbing, like girders of a bridge,
its sturdy warmth.

And today this handmade flute
turned and hollowed and carved
by Laughing Crow, enigmatic
shaman of some distant plain.

See its little row of holes
lined up like perfect planets,
as if having not yet learned
the universe had collapsed.

See my lips pressed to the tiny
breathless gape of its own mouth.
As if my lungs could conjure anything.
As if it were the one needing to be saved.
~ "Solace" in The Candle I Hold Up To See You

Bowers has published poems in The Georgia Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, The Main Street RagThe Southern Poetry Review, PloughsharesThe Gettysburg Review, and other national poetry and literary magazines and journals. She also has work in such anthologies as After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events and The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry. Among other honors, Bowers has received the J.B. Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award, the North Carolina Poetry Society's Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Award, a South Carolina Poetry Fellowship, and the General Electric Award for Younger Writers (1990).

Bowers teaches creative writing to MFA students at Queens University in Charlotte, where she is Poet-in-Residence, and is on the faculty of Wofford College, in Spartanburg, and the University of North Carolina at Asheville.


Poetry quotations © Cathy Smith Bowers. All Rights Reserved.

* Quoted in "Words Do Heal: A Profile of Cathy Smith Bowers", February 15, 2010, North Carolina Arts Council Press Release

** The poems in A Book of Minutes are variations on the poetic form of a "minute": 60 syllables in syllabic line counts of 8,4,4,4- 8,4,4,4,- 8,4,4,4, and rhyming couplets. According to the book's description, the structure "is a physical but secular metaphor of the Book of Hours, the medieval prayer book" arranged according to the eight canonical hours of the day.

Story South Interview with Cathy Smith Bowers [This very good interview gives many insights into how Bowers regards poetry, what she sees as poetry's function, and what some influences on her poetry are.]

"Getting to Know the New Poet Laureate, Cathy Smith Bowers", The Read on WNC

"Cathy Smith Bowers Offers Her Talents to the Community", Jazz and Poetry, December 19, 2008, and "Cathy Smith Bowers Discusses Publishing and Judging Poetry", December 24, 2008

Portfolio of Poems at Iris Books

Bowers' Poems in The Georgia Review

Six Bowers Poems at storySouth

Bowers' "A Little Herbal Primer" at The Atlantic online, July 2000 [Recordings of Bowers reading these wonderful poems also is available here.]

Bowers' "For My Dog, Who Listens to All My Poems", in The Atlantic, July/August 2002

Poem (with audio), "Groceries" at The Writer's Almanac, November 10, 2005

Jess McCuan, "Poetic Justice" in Verve, September 23, 2008

North Carolina Poetry Society

North Carolina Arts Council

North Carolina Poet Laureate Program


M.L. Gallagher said...

Her accent is poetry to my Northern ears -- and her words a powerful reminder of what it means to live this human condition.

katdish said...

True poets find beauty in chaos. Thank you for introducing yet another such poet.

Ami Mattison said...

Wow! Bowers is amazing! I love her poetry. And it's wonderful for this Southerner to hear her accent. A little bit of home. Thanks so much for sharing, Maureen!