“When the official notice came out, the phone was ringing off the hook — it was crazy,” exclaims Cullowhee-based writer Kathryn Stripling Byer. The longtime Western North Carolina resident calls herself a “stay-at-home person,” but all that’s about to change: Byer has just been named North Carolina’s Poet Laureate.
Nice work if you can get it
The post is something akin to being an ambassador of poetry. It involves representing North Carolina’s literary arts, designing a long-term special-interest project and writing commemorative poems for special occasions. Byer’s predecessor, Fred Chappell (also from WNC), gave 250 public readings during his five-year term — an idea Byer found daunting.
In fact, though she’d been named as a possible successor when Chappell stepped down in 2002, she’d decided against it; family and personal endeavors were taking up more of her time then.
“I hadn’t thought any more about it; I’d just gone on my way,” the poet laughs during our phone interview. “But then the Department of Cultural Resources asked me to reconsider.” After being assured that the Poet Laureate can set his or her own level of work, Byer agreed to be counted.
On Feb. 24, Governor Mike Easley chose Byer for the job, after more than two years of narrowing down a candidate pool from 29 names to three — including James Applewhite and Gerald Barrax.
North Carolina’s state office of Poet Laureate (an unpaid position) was created by the General Assembly in 1935 — two years before a national post (a paying job) of the same title was designated. The first N.C. laureate was Arthur Talmadge Abernathy. Prior to Chappell, the post was assigned for life (unlike the national post, on which poets serve for less than a year), but former governor Jim Hunt placed a limit on the length of service. Byer, who is North Carolina’s first female laureate, will serve for two years.
She’s ready: Born in Georgia, Byer got her first real taste of poetry as a sophomore at Wesleyan College — but it was more than 20 years after that when she published her first book, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest (Associated Writing Programs, 1986).
About her struggle to find a publisher, she says: “That was terribly discouraging. I wept many tears. What kept me going were a few editors who liked my work.”
And though the writer insists that publishing her second book, Wildwood Flower (Louisiana State University Press, 1992), was still a challenge, it quickly became apparent that her appeal extended far beyond those few editors. Wildwood won the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets. Then Black Shawl (LSU Press, 1998) was awarded the Roanoke-Chowan Award and the Brockman-Campbell Award. A few years later, Catching the Light (LSU Press, 2002) was nominated for an L.A. Times Book Award, and received the SEBA Best Book of the Year in Poetry award.
No doubt, a lot of shortsighted publishers are eating their rejection letters.
“It’s strange to reach my age — how did I get to be 60? — and look back on all of that,” says the poet. “It’s been a journey, but it was all leading somewhere.”
The obvious answer is that she was heading to laureate-hood, but reading through the poet’s verses offers another take on her journey: Poetry led her to the WNC mountains. Her writing is rife with natural metaphor, hints of folklore, suggestions of seasons, flora and fauna.
In “Mountain Time,” she wrote:
“Up here in the mountains
we know what extinct means. We’ve seen
how our breath on a bitter night
fades like a ghost from the window glass.
We know the wolf’s gone.
The panther. We’ve heard the old stories
run down, stutter out
into silence. Who knows where we’re heading?”
And, during our interview, Byer offers an elucidation of her poem’s inquiry: “We have a longing for the wild, to make contact with the wild. To know that nature is more than what’s beyond the back yard.”
These days, the poet very much considers herself a North Carolina writer, and boasts of the rich heritage of the state she now represents. “The literary arts are a legendary scene in North Carolina, and in the last several decades it’s really exploded.”
Byer is also quick to applaud the availability of the state’s more famous authors. “Look at someone like Lee Smith, who’s one of the most generous people out there, or Fred Chappell — he reads manuscripts all the time.”
In fact, Byer (who has a new book due out next year) is quick to name her predecessor as one of her own favorite poets. “He’s such a mentor to me, because he was able to write so many kinds of poetry,” she says. “Fred was the new era [of Poet Laureate] … he wrote [countless] poems for events. Now it’s up to the rest of us to keep up that standard.”
[In honor of National Poetry Month, Byer is running a hand-selected poem a day on www.ncarts.org through April 30. All works are by North Carolina poets.]