THIS BLOG IS NO LONGER OPERATIONAL. PLEASE ENJOY WHAT IS HERE, AND DO LEAVE A COMMENT IF YOU WISH. NORTH CAROLINA'S NEW POET LAUREATE IS CATHY SMITH BOWERS. SHE WILL SOON HAVE HER OWN WEBSITE THROUGH THE NORTH CAROLINA ARTS COUNCIL SITE. I WILL BE SHIFTING MY ATTENTION TO HERE, WHERE I AM, (SEE SIDEBAR)USING IT TO DRAW ATTENTION TO WRITERS WHOSE WORK DESERVES ATTENTION. I INVITE YOU TO VISIT ME THERE. For a video of the installation ceremony, please go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xAk6fOzaNE.
Jane Wood, as she identified herself, telephoned me from Wilson to arrange visits to fourth grade classes while I was in town last April for a reading at the Wilson County Public Library. She mentioned that she'd been visiting middle school classes there for quite some time, reading poetry to the students and encouraging them to write their own poems and stories. How much she had been doing over the past several years became apparent as soon as I climbed in the car with her a few days later and we began to talk. Jane is a woman whose enthusiasm can't be tamped down. The day we spent together turned out to be brimful with talk, poetry, and even a visit to legendary whirligig artist (though I'd call him a "magician"!) Vollis Simpson, with whom she has been friends for years. Jane writes a regular column for the THE WILSON DAILY NEWS and she will soon have a book published with selections from these columns.
Our first stop that morning was the Wilson County Arts Council headquarters. When we opened the door into the spacious and imaginatively designed building, I didn't know what to expect. Jane had told me about her ArtPark project, a program she'd pioneered using the poems written in classrooms she had visited throughout the years. "Over here," she said, pointing to my right, as we entered through the side door. There in the corner was another world, a world of imagination, a child-sized niche where animals paraded along the window sill and poems bloomed from the centers of flowers.
Art Park is an original volunteer program offered to the 4th Grades of the public, private, parochial, and home schools of Wilson County on a rotating basis. The purpose of this 14 year old program is to encourage young students to develop their talents. Students are taught that nurturing the imagination is as important as rote learning. The core of the program is literary, but, as you can see from the photographs here, other arts find their way into the expressions of the young artists.
Presentation of ArtPark takes place in the classroom. The host school is visited once a week for 6 weeks, 30 minutes per session. Students are led into discussions that emphasize individuality and independent thinking. Their poetry appears in the column, ArtPark, in the Wilson Arts Council's newsletter, The Courier. And their work is displayed in areas designated ArtPark at the Wilson Arts Council, Public Library and the YMCA. The post to follow this one illustrates how ArtPark enlivens the childrens' book section of the Wilson County Public Library.
We all "see" differently, as Jane believes, and therefore we should create according to our own special vision. ArtPark discusses history to show the background of and for artistic expression, whether with paints and brush or words. ArtPark uses classical music to prove that music can "paint" images with sound, just as poetry "paints" pictures with words. ArtPark offers the "Pet's Name Contest" each year to emphasize the importance of responsible pet ownership. The prize is $25 and is donated by local veterinarians.
Although Jane gives so much of her creative energy to her community, she herself is a poet, writing poetry when she finds the time and inspiration, so often from the natural world that she loves. I will close out this post with one of her poems. Stay tuned for the second installment of my visit to Wilson, including my visit to St. Therese's School and the Greenfield School, a drop-in to one of Jim Clark's classes at Barton College, and my reading that night at the Wilson County Public Library, where more of ArtPark's display of student work blossomed in the children's section.
Sun squats on the horizon
A hush descends
Robins on the lawn
Dark drops to earth
They begin – katydids, whip-‘or-will’
the whir of wings
lest it comes again
After being named Poet Laureate, I began writing a monthly column titled "Language Matters." Here is one from last August.
SNOW IN AUGUST
Here it comes, the start of another school year, and August, as always, seems to be hotter than all the other summer months combined. When I was in school, we had no air-conditioning. We sweltered through classes, longing for the first hint of autumn in the air. No wonder, as I think about these first days of classes in our public schools, I want to forget about global warming. I want it to snow!
Imagine it, snow in August! What a sight through the classroom windows, as if the Muse herself were scattering snowflakes over the playground, calling to us. But what to do? There are lesson plans to work through; standardized tests students must be taught to pass; all sorts of schedules to follow. Where is the teacher able to take a class outside into the cascading crystals, letting the children catch them on their tongues like words to be tasted?
Because I’m a poet, I can indulge in such happy fantasies and make them so. I know that the reality is closer to what happened on the day of another snowfall—not in August but December. My daughter, recently graduated from college with a degree in English, was working as a reading tutor for second graders in nearby Fairview Elementary school. A book lover from babyhood, she was doing her best to share her love of reading with the children having difficulty with their reading skills. The work was challenging, all the more so because of the rigid class plans required. There was hardly any room for creativity, for the sheer joy of learning.
One morning snow began falling. The weatherman hadn’t predicted it, but there it was, as if by magic. The children were ecstatic. “Can’t we go play in the snow?” they begged. But there was no way the morning could be altered to let them go outside or even spend time at the windows, watching and wondering about snow and all the ways it makes the landscape change, the ways it calls to the imagination to sing and dance.
My daughter came home depressed, not an unusual occurrence those days. She had begun to find her work in the classroom frustrating. “Just think of what we could have done,” she mused. “How we could have broken free of the grind and gone running out into the snow, just as everybody wanted to do. Then, we could have had so much to talk and write about when we came back inside!”
These days teachers dare not let snow alter their lesson plans. Their careers depend on following the rules, teaching to the numerous tests, dealing with the growing burdens of bureaucratic expectations and demands. And that is why I wish for snow this August, an event so thrilling that no one dare be indifferent to it, casting lesson plans to the wind, letting the joy of learning lead the way outside. So, forgive me if, several months early, I begin to sing, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
UPDATE: Below is a photo of our dog enjoying the snow. How can we encourage our students, not to mention ourselves, to experience the natural world, which feeds the imagination, upon which all future growth depends? How can we do that even as we sit in classrooms or around our dinner tables or stroll through our days, unwired, I hope, from cell phones and ipods? How can we let ourselves become as avid in our focus on the world around us as my silly dog Pooh is below? (Yes, she looked like a Pooh Bear when she was a pup.) Let me know. Send me some ideas, some poems, some images.
My counter top is covered with tomatoes! Last year our crop succumbed to blight, but this year we have a glorious harvest. Two writers come to mind when I gather my tomatoes in the early morning--novelist Vicki Lane, whose recipes for preserving tomatoes--and her photos of them--can be found at vickilanemysteries.blogspot.com, and poet Becky Gould Gibson. I've taped Becky's poem "Tomato" to my fridge and have at this moment a batch of tomatoes in my oven, roasting according to Vicki's specifications. Here is Becky's poem, with left lines not aligned as they should be, thanks to my incompetence as a blogger. The poem should be rounded like a large plump, ripe tomato. My apologies, Becky!
(Becky Gould Gibson)
for my mother
Every July the same story the same rumor runs through the market tomatoes ready and ripening displayed on the tables Early Girls, Better Boys in all their blemished perfection For these, Atalanta would stop, give up her freedom Tomato is text, drama, needs no exaggeration, heightening a myth of the purely obvious, of nothing under the veil A child sprawls in her grandmother’s garden, book in one hand tomato in the other, eats as she reads, skin and all, the flesh with the words. As juice runs down her eating arm onto the spread pages, she knows she’ll never read only for meaning, but always bite into language a shaker of salt at her elbow take it in whole.
This poem is from Becky Gould Gibson's Aphrodite's Daughter, recently published by Texas Review Press and winner of the 2006 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize. Becky has lived in Winston-Salem for many years. Her Needfire recently won the Brockman-Campbell award from the North Carolina Poetry Society.
I just received this call for submissions from Malaika King Albrecht, whom some of you may know. She's a fine poet, originally from New Orleans, now living in Southern Pines. Go to http://ncarts.org/freeform_scrn_template.cfm?ffscrn_id=379 to read some of her work on our ncarts.org website. This online publication sounds like a great idea! I'm going to submit some of my rejects, and I hope you will, too. We have until the end of August to make literary history!
The Redheaded Stepchild. http://redheadedstepchild.freehostia.com
The Redheaded Stepchild only accepts poems that have been rejected by other magazines. We are accepting poetry submissions only during the month of August for our inaugural Fall 2008 issue. For more information, please visit our site at
We accept only email submissions via redheadedstepchildmag(at)gmail.com (replace (at) with @). In the body of your email, please include the following:
I've vowed not to watch the Olympics this year. I am weary of the division of the world into winners and losers, the winners beating their chests and gloating, the losers vanishing into the background as if what they did was never worthy of our attention anyway. In the arts, we know that winners and losers are ephemera. The work they create,however, whether poem, painting, dance, novel, or for that matter a quilt or a delicious meal, is not ephemeral. In the literary world, we have our Pulitzer winners, our Guggenheim winners, our national and state fellowship winners, our New Yorker published winners, and so on. Our MFA programs list the number of "winners" they have produced, like a list of gold medals. Meanwhile, others of us weep over the soup pot, as I did so many years ago, clutching yet another rejection slip. Was I writing mediocre poems then? No. Was I a loser? No. I was a poet, learning my craft, learning how to live my life.
Eight years ago I gave the keynote at a writers conference in Greeneville, TN; the Olympics were being televised that week. An image forever imprinted in my mind is the tail end of a race, the runner determined to cross the finish line, even though he had fallen, injured, and barely able to move. His response to crossing the line was simply, "I've won." Yes, he was a loser, no medal stand for him. But he had done what he came to town to do; he had crossed the finish line and considered himself a winner. (And here I insert a response from Susan Bell about that incident. "(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Redmond). He was in the 1992 Olympics. His hamstring tore during the 400 meters semi-final. His father ran out to him and held him up. Together they made a complete lap of the track to finish the race. He was disqualified of course as you have to complete unaided, but they received a standing ovation as they struggled around the track. And they finished the race together. Doesn't that exemplify winning more than anything?" Thank you Susan.
The thesis of my speech was the importance of "losers. How many "winners" can we have? Better to be losers and lovers of the sport, the art, the cuisine, the calling.... and so on, forever and ever.
Competition is an addiction. You will see it in all its presumed glory over the next few days. If you turn on your t.v., that is. I'd rather not. I'd rather pick tomatoes, read Adam Zagajewski's poetry, make pickles, or sit out under the trees watching the clouds pass by. I would wish the same for our state's writers and readers. Especially our poets. When are you going to write "a real book," someone asked after my first book of poetry, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was published. I didn't know how to answer.
I prefer quoting Richard Hugo, American poet--one we should not forget: "Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance. All art is failure."
"Every poem a poet writes is a slight advance of self and a slight modification of the mask, the one you want to be. Poem after poem, the self grows more worthy of the mask. ... Hope hard to fall always short of success."
To fall always short of success? That is an alien message to the Olympics, the media circus that envelopes it. It is not an alien message to writers and readers.
Photo Assignment: Get some poetic looking shots for use in Verve Magazine's special feature on WNC women poets. Verve was begun back in the spring by spunky editor Jess McCuan, a journalist and pioneer in bringing fashion, literature, art, and anything else really, really interesting to the women of western North Carolina. Those of you beyond the region, you can subscribe, too. And insist that your book sellers carry the magazine.( If you think we walk around in brogans and calico over here in the Blue Ridge, you'll be in for a surprise. Not that I have anything against brogans. Or calico. Especially calico. It's probably my favorite kind of fabric.) Because I couldn't make it to the photo shoot in Hendersonville with Glenis Redmond, Pat Riviere Seal, and Cathy Smith Bowers, Jess asked me to have my daughter make some photos outside amongst garden, trees, and five dogs. So she did, and she did a great job. Here is one of them that also shows off a great stand of black-eyed Susans and monster butternut squash in the background. It's a jungle out there!
When VERVE hits the news stands I'll let you know. Go to vervemag.com to find out more about this exciting magazine.
A week ago, Western Carolina University recognized with an Honorary Doctorate one of its own, a writer who has enlivened the literary scene here in western North Carolina, not to mention the lives of its inhabitants, for over forty years. I say forty years, because I arrived in Cullowhee in 1968 to teach at WCU and shortly thereafter met our new honorary "Doctor." Gary Carden made my acquaintance with his story "Jedro Tolley," the main character racing wildly down the hill on his bike, screaming like a banshee and thus imprinting himself, and Gary, in my imagination forever. This author, I knew for sure, after only the first couple of paragraphs, was the real thing. We became friends, and over the last few decades, I've heard him tell his stories, at which he is a master, and I've watched his plays, goosebumps on my arms and tears, often, in my eyes. "Birdell," "Nance Dude,"and "The Prince of Dark Corners" have joined Jedro in that timeless place of imagination where all our voices come together and live on and on. And when the Prince of Dark Corners himself, Milton Higgins, walked into the dinner hosted by the Chancellor before graduation last Friday night, my skin tingled. My eyes widened. I had to touch the hem of his shirtsleeve! Which I did after dessert was served. And then he gave me a hug. I can't say that was the highlight of my evening, since Gary had earlier given me a hug. Let's just say I was doubly delighted by being in the presence of these two, the actor and the playwright.
(Actor Milton Higgins, in "The Prince of Dark Corners")
Gary has a blog at blogholler.blogspot.com. Here's how he introduced it last year when he began:
THE NEWS FROM BLOG HOLLER
I've been thinking about creating this blog for several years, but each time I typed a sentence I became self-conscious and deleted it. What could I possibly say here that hasn't been said by someone else? Not only that, but it has often been said with grace, beauty and conviction. Well, maybe that is my purpose ... or part of it anyway. I believe I need to pay tribute to all of the folks in Appalachia who have defined this region with integrity and authenticity. I am talking about the novelists, musicians, poets and essayists who create images, characters and sounds that resonate in my heart. Maybe I can render a valuable service by inscribing their names and commenting on their creations. That is one of my objectives, anyway. One other thing. If my language sounds pretentious and/or pompous, bear with me. I think I'll eventually get over it.
Growing up in an isolated cove, I became dependent on radio, comic books and the Ritz Theater. Like most kids of my generation, I sat transfixed in front of the old Silvertone each afternoon, listing to the Lone Ranger, Sargent Preston of the Royal Mounties and Jack Strong, the all-American boy. I collected Captain Marvel Comics, Superman, the Green Lantern and Plastic Man. At night, I listened to Suspense, Inner Sanctum, the Shadow and Escape! Each Saturday, I sat in the front row of the Ritz, watching heroes like "Wild Bill" Elliott, Sunset Carson, Whip Wilson and Lash LaRue.
=============== When I was a little girl, I sat, not in the front row, but in the middle of the Camilla Theater, watching Lash LaRue. And Roy Rogers. Lash was always my favorite. Maybe that's why Gary and I became friends! We both had the same taste in cowboys! And later on, the same taste in writers. Gary has given a great deal of his time to reviewing and promoting other authors, mostly with Appalachian ties, like my friend Isabel Zuber. Here are the three of us at City Lights Bookstore, where Isabel did a reading/signing to celebrate the publication of her first novel, SALT.
(Gary Carden, K. Byer, and Isabel Zuber at City Lights Bookstore)
Gary is taking his memorable "The Raindrop Waltz" to Hendersonville on September 17th. He has a play at SART which may be produced in Bryson City next year, titled "Outlander". "Prince of Dark Corners" is returning to the "real stage" with a performance in Highlands in November. "Nance Dude' will be the centerpiece of the Haywood Bicentennial Celebration in Waynesville this December and "Birdell" will be a fundraiser for NC Writers Network West in September. Gary is a past recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship in drama. His stories and poems have been collected over the years. I encourage you to visit his blog to find out more about his writing, his upbringing, his honors, and his insights.
National Poetry month was as busy this year as ever. On April first, I traveled to Young Harris College, just over the North Carolina state line in Georgia, to meet with students and give a reading in the evening. I always enjoy traveling to the far westernmost part of North Carolina, because some of our state’s best poets live there--Nancy Simpson and Janice Townley Moore, who reside in Hayesville, to name only two. Nancy's work with Netwest can be found in my first blog post.
Other writers who sat in the audience for my reading at Young Harris were Steve Harvey, Bettie Sellers (past Poet Laureate of Georgia), Brenda Kay Ledford, and Mary Ricketson. Although it was April Fool’s day, none of us felt the least bit foolish about celebrating the beginning of National Poetry Month.
(Bettie Sellers delivering a lecture while serving as Georgia Poet Laureate)
The following week I squeezed in a reading at Mitchell Community College. in Statesville, and then headed back home to Cullowhee, where Western Carolina University celebrated its sixth annual literary festival (www.litfestival.org). While I was Poet-in Residence at WCU, our writers series consisted of a half-dozen writers giving presentations throughout the year. Now the university supports a full-fledged festival, bringing in authors with regional and national reputations. When Mary Oliver came to read fifteen years ago, she told me that WCU looked like Shangri-la, tucked away in its valley surrounded by mountains.
On opening night the standing-room only event featured Lee Smith and a performance of Lee's latest novel, ON AGATE HILL, a mesmerizing one-woman show presented by Barbara Bates Smith, with spine-tingling dulcimer music by Jeff Sebens.
(Barbara Bates Smith and Jeff Sebens)
Two days later I hosted a poetry reading, Laureate's Choice, by Carolyn Beard Whitlow, Joseph Bathanti, and Sarah Lindsay, all three of whom have been featured on the ncarts.org web site and whose work you can find in our archives. What a diverse trio of voices! And what a grand time we had visiting with each other at poet Carolyn Elkins' country cottage afterward! Yes, Carolyn, too, is in our ncarts.org archives. Here are the fabulous three who helped me advance the cause of N.C. poetry on the WCU campus!
Closing out the reading was Sara Tramper, first runner-up in this year’s Poetry Out Loud competition. A Cherokee High senior and valedictorian of her class, she arrived late, because she couldn’t find a parking place in the afternoon traffic on campus! She gave us a finale to remember, with the audience cheering after she completed Sherman Alexie’s "Powwow at the End of the World."
Three young writers from the region had their chance to shine the next day when Cathy Smith Bowers, Distinguished Poet for the western region, presented emerging poets Caleb Beissert, Haley Jones, and Tom Lambert as part of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series. This important program supports the mission of the North Carolina Poetry Society to foster the reading, writing, and enjoyment of poetry across the state. Three Distinguished Poets, one each from the east, central, and west of North Carolina, mentor a middle-school, a high-school, and a college or university student. For more information, see the North Carolina Poetry Society web site. Caleb's poetry, by the way, was featured shortly thereafter on our ncarts.org site.
( Cathy Smith Bowers}
Mary Adams, director of the festival, hopes to keep this event alive and well far into the future. Some of Mary’s new poetry can be found on kathrynstriplingbyer.blogspot.com. She will have a chapbook published soon.
(Mary Adams at the Poet Laureate's dinner table, discussing plans for next year's literary festival)
With only three days to catch my breath, I headed to Wilson for a reading sponsored by the Wilson County Public Library on April 16th. What a memorable day that was! I was squired around by Jane Wood, one of the county’s—and I daresay the state’s—most valuable cultural resources. I visited the dynamic space occupied by the Wilson Arts Council and stood in speechless admiration in front of the project Jane keeps going throughout the year--Art Park, featuring poetry by local students, whose classrooms Jane visits throughout the year, bringing poetry and her love for the written word to them on a regular basis. Then I visited fourth-grade classes at St. Therese’s school and Greenfield School, telling about my job as Laureate, reading some poems, and wishing I’d brought several Milky Way cakes to share with these energetic and enthusiastic students. You can find work by the Greenfield students in the North Carolina Writers & Books archive for June.
(Discussing poetry with the students!)
My next post will feature Jane Wood and Art Park in Wilson, North Carolina. I was enchanted by what Jane has done with this project. I left Wilson County feeling encouraged by the energy and creative vision I found there.
I've lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina since 1968, though I'm a native of SW Georgia. My paternal grandmother was born in the Blue Ridge, and I grew up wanting to live here. Where I am.
I've published five collections of poetry, the most recent 4 being with LSU Press, and have published poetry in magazines ranging from The Atlantic Monthly to Appalachian Heritage. But I also hike, bang pots and pans around in my kitchen, and love several dogs who leave fur all over my carpets. I write poetry because it's my way of singing back to the world both within and without.