Photo by Chris English
Kathryn Stripling Byer
( North Carolina )
Interview With Kathryn Stripling Byer
Nicole Cartwright Denison
DENISON: Your poems often define a sense of attachment to place; do you tend to identify yourself as a regional poet, be it Southern, or Appalachian?
BYER: My internal poetic landscape is composed of images and language both from the region in which I was born, SW GA, and in which I now live, Western NC. This landscape is both Southern and Appalachian, and much of my work draws on the “groundwork” of these places. I don’t identify myself in much of any way, since I’ve come to dislike labels intensely, and especially since every new poem is a journey into the mystery of language and imagination, which can take you in all sorts of directions. Poets as wide-ranging as Rilke, Lorca, Wordsworth, Heaney, Borges, and certain S. Asian writers continue to influence my work, as well as artwork and photography from artists both nearby and far-flung. I’ve been lately intrigued by the Native American painter, the late Helen Hardin, finding that her biography and paintings pull me into a world that I would like to know better.
DENISON: What role do you think regionalism plays in poetry? Do you believe it broadens, or narrows, a poet’s or poem’s accessibility?
BYER: As Seamus Heaney has said, the language of a place is the bedrock for the poet, so of course one’s region is crucial to the development of a poet’s voice. That doesn’t mean the voice can’t grow and stretch beyond that region. In other words, regionalism can either broaden or narrow a poem’s accessibility, depending on how it’s used. Some poets may be afraid to stray beyond their regional linguistic/cultural confines, but the best ones do indeed stray as far as they need to in order to keep their poetry vibrant and challenged, not to mention challenging. And of course one can always come back home to where one began and find the place transformed in the way that only time and artistic growth can bring. On a more literal level, one may find one’s “place” transformed in ways disturbing and devastating, and this is what Appalachian/Southern poets must begin to grapple with. How do we raise our voices in defense of our region? I think this question will indeed take us beyond the confines of the safe definition of “regional,” and engage that term in more passionate and even incendiary ways. Our writers must lead the response against the depredation of our landscape and environment by reminding our communities that they must love these places enough to fight for them, to know the names of things, the creeks, the wildflowers, the ridges, and hold to them like a mantra against forgetfulness. When we forget where we are, when we forget the names and stories, then we become victims of the corporate developers who care nothing for our “place,” only for their own profits.
DENISON: You’ve worked tirelessly in your tenure as NC Poet Laureate to promote poetry and writing in general throughout the state. What other projects are you working on? Do you perceive your work will allow expansion by future Laureates?
BYER: Right now I’m thinking about getting back to work on a manuscript of both poetry and short fiction set in the WNC mountains, and I have two other manuscripts of poetry that need to be polished and readied for submission. I would like to be able to gather my Language Matters columns into a book about poetry and the use of language. These are columns I began writing for weekly newspapers a couple of years ago. They are archived on our website, ncarts.org. I hope that my Laureate work will allow for expansion by future Laureates. I’d be dreadfully disappointed if it did not. We build on each other’s work, after all, and I have certainly been helped by Fred Chappell’s devotion to his laureate job. He served as a model for me. I would have felt adrift if not for his work that had gone before.
DENISON: What else would you like to see happen in terms of poetry’s exposure in Appalachia, more particularly the western NC area?
BYER: A lot is already happening. We have a new program for high school students called Poetry Out Loud, a recitation competition that begins on the local level, then moves to the regional, the state and finally the national stage. This year, our very own Sara Tramper, a senior at Cherokee High, was a strong contender, coming in a very close second to the winner. Obviously Sara has been turned on by poetry and has found it transformative. Just listening to her recite Hart Crane’s “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Pow-wow at the End of the World” reminds me just how powerful poetry can be for the speaker and for the audience. I’d like to see more WNC high schools involved in this project, as well as being more involved generally in the arts. Our creative arts are being pushed out of our schools by the various mandates that now burden our teachers, and the bureaucrats are placing enormous pressure on our teachers to cut back on the time they give to writing, literature, and the visual and performing arts. All of us must work harder to make sure that our young people are encouraged to find their voices, to hear their own regional literature, as well as that of the generations that have come before. If we have no story to tell, or believe that we don’t, then we, on a deep, profound level, cease to exist.
DENISON: You’ve mentioned before that mountain music has influenced your writing but are there any Appalachian poets who’ve influenced you?
BYER: Many mountain poets and fiction writers have influenced and instructed me, beginning with Fred Chappell. Fred’s ability to interweave lyricism and narrative has always been a lodestar for me. Lee Smith’s fiction, too. I don’t think I’d be writing this right now if not for these two writers and friends. I’ve much admired Jim Wayne Miller’s poetry and the fiction of James Still, and I continue to be awakened by new work by Bill Brown, George Ella Lyon, Isabel Zuber, Leatha Kendrick, Steve Holt, Ron Rash and the Affrilachian poets doris davenport and Frank X Walker. I’ve just begun reading a manuscript by Laura Hope Gill titled The Soul Tree, based on photographs by John Fletcher of mountain subjects. It’s both verbally and visually stunning. There’s new work coming out all the time, and I hope that it keeps waking me up to what’s possible in poetry.
DENISON: In terms of definition, in literature, what do you consider Appalachian? Does this definition feel limiting or boundless?
BYER: I don’t really worry so much about definitions, the older I become. I think Appalachian has as much to do with the spirit of the land as with the physical and cultural aspects of it. I like to think that Appalachian writers share with Native American writers the realization that finding the relationship among things, as in a story, a song, or a poem, is a way we survive and keep renewing our own relationships to the land and our community. I don’t think we are as cut off—
yet—from the real world around us as other regions are, especially the more urban regions, though more and more I see iPods, cell phones, and non-stop computer use taking over. Not to mention the need to numb ourselves with drugs of various kinds, including consumerism. We have to keep telling our stories to each other and remember the great stories that have come before us, the singers, the weavers, the survivors.
DENISON: Within your own work, do you feel a responsibility to promote heritage or move toward modern society’s concerns?
BYER: I don’t see how we can divorce the two; we have to be able to weave them together, and that’s THE important role for our writers. I don’t mean we have to celebrate modern society any more than we celebrate the good ole days. Both have their dark sides, their brutality, and hardship. And we know that often mountain life was isolating to the point of shriveling the soul, but that is happening today for other reasons than physical isolation. I think mountain writers can understand that more keenly than many others. We must eat, as Alma says in the first poem in Wildwood Flower (LSU Press, 1992), but we also must learn to be grateful for what comes to us, up that dark road or the driveway or in whatever neighborhood or group in which we happen to find ourselves. We must resist the modern seduction of solitary stupor in front of a TV or computer screen.
DENISON: You’ve often spoken of the inner and outer landscapes and voices in poetry. Do you believe the inner voices of the Appalachian South can still resonate with modern audiences?
BYER: I think modern audiences long for those voices, within themselves and beyond themselves. Oh sure, you have your literary big-shots who are concerned more with reputation and so-called sophistication, but I care about the real audiences, the ones out there ready to be shaken out of their everyday lives into the intensity of emotion and language. They may not know yet that they are ready, but it becomes obvious when the magic happens in a poetry reading that they are ready. They will come up afterward with an amazed look in their eyes, saying, “I didn’t know poetry could speak to me like this.”
DENISON: How do you view the transition of Appalachian poetry into the next portion of the 21st century?
BYER: I see it as continuing to explore its roots and heritage all the while pushing toward an edgier engagement with some of the issues we earlier felt we shouldn’t broach. Women will continue to push against the confines that held them so long to home and childbearing and silence, and our Native American poets will grow stronger in their confidence to speak, as I’ve seen happening among some of the students I’ve taught who are now back living in Cherokee. One of these, Debora Kinsland Foerst, blends both traditional English prosody with Cherokee legend and stories. It’s a powerful conversation that she’s begun. We have an influx of Latino voices and that can only enrich our literature, even though the immediate tensions may seem daunting. How the Spanish language will engage our native Appalachian English will be interesting to hear. The Mexican literary conventions will begin to merge with our own. People have always been coming into these mountains, then leaving, then coming back again. All of their songs and stories will both challenge and enrich our literary culture.
Kathryn Stripling Byer, Poet Laureate of North Carolina, recently received the Hanes Award for Poetry from the Fellowship of Southern Writers at its annual conference in Chattanooga in 2007. Byer is the author of several books of poetry, including, most recently, Coming to Rest (LSU Press, 2006), Wake (Spring Street Editions, 2003), Catching Light (LSU Press, 2002), and Black Shawl (LSU Press, 1998).
Byer was interviewed by Nicole Cartwright Denison, a featured poet in this issue of Blue Fifth Review, earlier this year.
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