On Wednesday, June 15, the “vacancy” light that had been hanging above the office of the North Carolina Poet Laureate for two years officially went out. In a celebration hosted by the North Carolina Arts Council and the Department of Cultural Resources, Kathryn Stripling Byer became the fifth state Poet Laureate and will, as Gov. Mike Easley says, “be an important connection between our writing community and the public.” Byer’s responsibilities include traveling the state to give public readings, working with local writers’ groups, and writing commemorative poems.
Though not originally from North Carolina, Byer has been a resident of the state she calls home for more than 30 years. The author of four collections of poetry, Byer received an MFA from UNC-Greensboro. In addition to her books, Byer’s poems have been published in numerous literary journals, and in 1998 former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins picked Black Shawl as the winner of both the Roanoke-Chowan Award and the Brockman-Campbell Award. Byer has also received writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. She is poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University.
Recently, the Independent had a chance to talk with Byer about her new position.
Independent: How do you envision using your role as Poet Laureate?
Byer: My primary responsibility is to encourage a wide appreciation of poetry generally and North Carolina poetry specifically. N.C. Arts Council Literature Director Debbie McGill and I recently created a Poet Laureate Web site (www.ncarts.org/arts_laureate.cfm) as part of the Arts Council’s site which ran a poem a day for National Poetry Month and has featured a poet a week thereafter. The range of great poets to choose from in this state is well-nigh inexhaustible.
I will also encourage more hands-on teaching of poetry in the schools, emphasizing the pleasure of recitation and memorization of poems. Once some poems get firmly lodged in our heads, we are more likely to come back to poetry throughout our lives.
The essence of good poetry instruction is to focus on the pleasure of language; the less said about what a poem means, the better. Each poem will “mean” something different for each reader, because readers bring their own experience to the experience of the poem.
How fare poets and poetry in North Carolina?
Quite well compared to some other states. We have organizations like the N.C. Writers’ Network, Network West and the N.C. Poetry Society that provide access to a community of writers, a support system, let’s say.
I’m excited about the Distinguished Poet Series that the Poetry Society has initiated and about working with Pat Riviere-Seel, the new N.C.P.S. president, to find ways that the Laureate office and the N.C.P.S. can collaborate. Also, many of the state’s newspapers are including more and more poetry: The News & Observer had a superb special on N.C. poetry recently. Their Sunday Reader is a terrific way to recognize N.C. authors. The Charlotte Observer, thanks to Dannye Romine Powell over the years, has been a major promoter of N.C. writers. The Asheville Citizen-Times‘ book page has also been steadily growing. All of this is happening while other states’ newspapers have nearly eliminated poetry and poetry reviews.
Speaking of eliminating poetry from public spaces, many people dismiss poetry because they say it’s hard to understand or they say that nobody reads poetry anymore. How do you answer those charges?
People that are turned off perhaps don’t realize that poetry should be approached for the sheer pleasure of language, of words, without worrying about giving a snap answer as to whether you “understand” the poem or not. Understanding comes in different ways. Intellectual understanding–what a poem is “about”–is just one small aspect of poems; instead, poetry should be a whole body experience–rhythm, sound, texture. Federico Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish poet executed by Franco’s fascists in Spain, said that the poet is the professor of the five bodily senses. Those who say poetry is too hard to understand might try just listening to some poems like they listen to music, read them aloud for the pleasure of their rhythms, and remember that nobody is going to give you a quiz on your reading experience. And ultimately if you don’t “understand” a poem, so what? You can still enjoy it. There are a lot of poems I don’t “understand” but do still love, Rilke’s Duino Elegies for example.
What sort of social work does poetry do? What is its role within the larger society?
Poetry offers examples of language used well, so poetry is necessary to the health of our democracy. We are suffocating under a cloud of noxious language use; our political life is contaminated by “spin” and doublespeak, as well as downright lies. Constant advertising has filled our heads with jingles and simplistic blather. It’s hard to fight free of that, but poetry can help by giving us language that excites and moves us. Poetry encourages us to look into our own word hoard and reclaim the words and images that live like an underground stream in our imagination. We are always chattering these days, on cell phones, e-mail, radio talk shows. Silence would be a good place in which to begin an appreciation of poetry. Cut off the damn TV, radio, CD player, cell phone and just be quiet. Then you will be in the best place to begin discovering that poetry can speak to you as you never thought it could.
What has been the long-term impact and legacy of North Carolina’s rich poetic history?
Those traditions are largely still alive and thriving. Jeff Davis, for example, is organizing a celebration of Black Mountain College’s contributions to the arts. UNC-Greensboro continues to run a writing program that is focused on creating a real noncompetitive community of writers. It is crucial for a young writer to have that sort of community.
In addition, the Poet Laureate Web site that I have set up will feature regular retrospectives on such poets as Robert Watson, Jonathan Williams and others. It is important for me as Poet Laureate to keep these traditions alive, to keep in mind all of the great writers who have gone before us.
Is there a particular character of North Carolinian poetry?
N.C. poets produce all sorts of excellent poetry these days, from rural pastoral to urban rap-influenced poems. The sources for this strength and richness are this blend of rural and urban, our ethnic diversity, and the tension that results from those juxtapositions. The intersection of those experiences is what makes literature come alive.
What changes do you see in the poetic landscape lately?
More and more poets are coming out and gathering together to read at various festivals around and across the state, which encourages conversation among the various groups of poets–the slammers, those poets in universities, the formalists, the language poets. These connections can create exciting combinations within these poets’ work.
I also see more collaboration between poets and other artists: music, art, dance, photography. I hope to help bring all sorts of artists together to create something really unique to North Carolina.