An Interview with Cathy Smith Bowers

by Julie Funderburk

Cathy Smith Bowers is author of three poetry collections, including The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, which was the first winner of the Texas Tech University Press Poetry Award Series, subsequently named for Walt McDonald. Her other books are Traveling in Time of Danger and her most recent, A Book of Minutes, from Iris Press. A native of South Carolina, she has received a South Carolina Poetry Fellowship and was a winner of the 1990 General Electric Award for Younger Writers. Her poems appear in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and The Gettysburg Review, among other journals. She teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte. I spoke with her in Tryon, North Carolina, her new town of residence, which offers a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Julie Funderburk: I’d like to ask you about narrative structure. In an essay first published in Poetry, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” poet Tony Hoagland describes the current shift away from narrative, noting that “many persons think that ours is simply not a narrative age; that contemporary experience is too multitracked, too visual, too manifold and simultaneous to be confined to the linearity of narrative.” Your first two books show a dedication to story. You have written that “our major task is writing a poem is to shine a light on a moment of intensity.” How does narrative help you do this?

Cathy Smith Bowers: I believe that every moment of intensity is a moment inside some narrative. The essence of our lives is story.

JF: How do you respond, then, to the current trend toward the fragmented, the nonlinear, the disassociative poems that Hoagland is describing?

CSB: Basically, to me [the style] can feel overly intellectual, cerebral, and not from the heart.

JF: When you say “heart,” do you also mean spirit? The theme of spirituality recurs in your poetry, with speakers and characters trying on a variety of religions. Do you think it necessary that poetry speak to the spirit?

CSB: Especially now, we are in a culture deprived of spirituality. We hunger for it and are always looking for ways of having the spirit fed. In the best poetry, the spirit will be fed, and it’s the spirit that should be—not the brain. The mind is also a part of it—but [the mind] is the machine that gets the reader to the spirit of the poem. I like to think of a poem as a river of spirit, and every once in a while there comes a current of intellect. I like smart poems, but I don’t want the smartness of the poem to be the main thing. I want to not even notice the smartness of a poem until many readings later.

JF: Will you name a poet who serves as a model for you in this?

CSB: Who always comes to mind is Gerard Manley Hopkins. I don’t even have to care whether his poems are about anything. They sweep me away, touch me with language and with sound. And then, after being swept away by that, I want to know and am willing to work at it, and realize that yes, indeed, the poems are intelligent—they are brilliant. But what I was first swept away by had to do with the heart and the spirit. I’ve lent out my books and they haven’t been returned yet, but Franz Wright is doing something that is stunning to me in its quietness. You don’t know whether he’s writing a poem or praying.

JF: Do you make a distinction, then, between spirituality and religion?

CSB: Well, if you’ve ever read my poem “Learning How to Pray,” you see what my religion is like! The word “spirituality” is thrown around a lot these days and is almost becoming one of the words you’re scared to use, especially in the presence of academics.

JF: There’s plenty of words I’m afraid to use in the presence of academics.

CSB: Hell yeah, why do you think I fled?

JF: How has writing in the form you use in A Book of Minutes changed your writing? For our readers: the form is a “minute,” a stanzaic and syllabic poem, with each stanza keeping a syllabic count of 8/4/4/4, for a total of 60 syllables. How does this form help you “shine a light”?

CSB: The form is also one of rhymed couplets. My intention was to always adhere to the rhyme scheme. But when it’s a perfect rhyme or an almost-perfect rhyme, that’s the surprise, rather than the off-rhyme being a surprise. The tension occurs when I have finally somehow adhered to the [rhyme] form, rather than the traditional practice of veering away from the form.

JF: You’ve also got lyrics here—celebratory and mock-celebratory, addressed to herbs and to saints. And what happens to the narrative in this form? In poems such as “The Anatomy of a Southern Kiss”?

CSB: It forces you to really reduce the subject to its essence.

JF: A distilled narrative.

CSB: Yes. And the titles in those poems—I used them for all they were worth. Because I had only sixty syllables.

JF: In the preface to this book, you mention issues of control when dealing with such a form, both in poetry and in handling personal material. I wonder whether the decision to include such a preface is also related to this.

CSB: Absolutely. I knew this book was so different from my first two books, that people were going to wonder what the hell happened to me, and I wanted to have some say in how they read that book. I wanted my hand in it.

JF: Let’s discuss the South and its influence on language. You grew up in South Carolina, and your earlier books mention mills, and the mill worker’s life. You’ve written poems about Southern diction—in “A Southern Rhetoric” where the speaker’s Mama uses the phrases “a sight in this world” and “don’t you forget who it was / learned you to talk.” And in A Book of Minutes, “My Mother’s Lexicon.”

CSB: That’s probably been my biggest challenge. I mean, growing up in a world where . . . It was hard for me, for instance, just to get an education. We always hear people say “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Some people don’t even have any bootstraps. And it is hard. So all my life, even after being educated, I have been judged by my accent. It’s not really more difficult for Southern poets until we speak in public, which is why I don’t travel out of the South very often. [Colleagues] used to tease me for saying “I been knowin’ him a long time.” Sounded right to me! The little neighborhood I grew up in . . . my family didn’t have a car, so I lived right by the mill, right by the railroad tracks; I did not go out of my neighborhood until I was bussed to junior high. So you don’t get rid of an accent that you have spent 14 years inadvertently perfecting. So what you do instead is you stay in safe territory, which means anywhere where you can hear this tune: [mimics the sound of a banjo].

JF: But there are so many countries to which you have traveled—France, Italy, but also Indonesia, Korea. All over the world. Has traveling mattered to your writing?

CSB: There’s my poem “Touring the Berliner Dom,” where the moment of grace was seeing a man tie his wife’s shoe . . . Traveling—Though people complain about Americans who are flag-waving patriots . . . whatever I disagree with, with our administration, what’s going on in our country . . . I feel so lucky.

JF: Here, you have the freedom to write. Does it seem that you have a separate language for speaking and a separate language for writing?

CSB: I have many separate languages. The most over-the-top it gets is when I’m with my youngest sister Rosie. It definitely depends on my audience.

JF: In A Book of Minutes, some poems showcase humor. The rhyme can almost serve as a punch-line in poems such as “How I Became an Existentialist.” And in longer narratives, the end is funny, as in “The Ascension,” where the guru-esque lover steals the truck. Other poems begin with a joke and end wistfully or full of the weary world. I’ve heard you read before, and I know you enjoy making the audience laugh. Your subjects, though, are often heavy—grief, bitterness. How do you think humor functions in your verse?

CSB: This is not exactly what you’re asking, but I will say this: I started writing in [the minute] form after my brother died, and I worked in that form for four years. And I noticed that after about three years, I started writing those funny, silly poems. And I thought: hmm, this is interesting because they say that it takes about three years to grieve a tremendous loss. So just on that level, I took it as a sign I had moved to a place where I could feel joy and even silliness again. But that little form really works for humor because jokes are short, and jokes rely on brevity and timing, which are also a big part of that form.

JF: Was writing in this form, and writing lyrics inspired by saints and herbs, was this easier, since you’ve said that the moment of intensity you’re most interested in is the one within a narrative? If you are drawing from personal experience . . .

CSB: Yes, but at the time I didn’t really realize. When I discovered that form I was so deep in my grief, I was just sort of putting one foot in front of the other. I was teaching at a conference in Oklahoma City. And a woman was reading these short poems she called “minutes,” and as she told about the form, I jotted it down. It was just to get to the next minute, the next hour. I had planned on staying out there a few extra days after the conference was over, to see if I could get back to my own writing. And so I woke up Sunday morning, and there I was, confronted with this time, and I remembered writing down that little form, and so I tried to work with some images from my brother’s illness and death. And I know now that the form kept me in both sides of my brain. Before, after I had written my early drafts, for a long time in the writing of a poem, I would make myself stay in that right brain, that intuitive, that emotional, mysterious place. But I think that the subjects of my brother’s illness and death were too heavy for me to be in that place. So this form kept me in the emotional and the rational at the same time. It kept me balanced so that I could go back to those moments of intensity and work with them . . . My idea was just to work in that form in order to get back into my writing. My plan was just to go back to free verse. But I got hooked on the form and started liking some of the little poems that came out of it, and then they started being accepted by really good places like The Atlantic Monthly and The Southern Reviewand Shenandoah.

JF: Maybe I should start writing minutes.

CSB: Since my book came out, people all over are writing in that form, and I have seen at least two books written in that form. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the preface, because people were thinking that I had invented that form. And I wanted to make sure credit went where credit was due. My publisher was the one who did some research and found out who actually invented it.

JF: Your poem “Kingdom” addresses your brother’s death from AIDS. Do you think writing about AIDS is crucial for some reason?—this is related to whether poetry has a direct political or social role.

CSB: I didn’t see it as [political]. I’m sort of too small-minded, and I’m not saying that to be disingenuous or to come across as naïve, but my scope is pretty narrow—it’s just that one of my philosophies is to write the poems that need to be written, and that’s what my family was dealing with. It was the hardest thing we had ever been confronted with, the most painful, and so those were the poems that needed to be written. I didn’t think at all that this is the subject that needs to be out there. Usually when I think, “Here’s something a poem needs to be written about,” I get as far away from pen and paper as I possibly can.

JF: Here’s a related question then. Is it important for white Southern writers, given the horrors of the past, to write about race?

CSB: I wish that people would be more honest about that. It’s hard to write about honest experience without using language which is just a fact of our history . . . this is probably dangerous to say, but I don’t know how anybody brought up in the South could not have those remnants of emotional reaction to racial issues.

JF: This seems very much a matter of generation as well as place.

CSB: I grew up with the mythology that blacks were inferior. I grew up with that mythology from the neighborhood. I always heard mixed things. On the one hand: everybody’s equal. Then I would see and hear things that made me think: well, that doesn’t sound like everybody’s equal. It was like looking at a table and being told you were looking at a chair. And when you grow up with that, it doesn’t go away, on an unconscious level. But then you become aware of it, do a double take and say, “This is not rational, this is old stuff.” You have to be aware of that mythology you grew up in, and realize that it was a false mythology.

JF: Now that you’re teaching in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte, has teaching graduates and being involved in that program changed you? Has it altered the relationship between your teaching work and your writing work?

CSB: I think it has. In the past, and I hate to say this because I had such wonderful students when I taught undergraduates at Queens, but I felt sometimes I was too much of a cheerleader for their writing. And I’m not a cheerleader anymore. Because these students are already serious about it. They are writers, they are not people I have to convince of anything, and I don’t even have to convince them of my theories of poetry and what a poem is. I give it to them as mine, and whether they buy it or not, it’s not any of my business.

JF: There’s so many different faculty in a low-residency program, a lot of different styles.

CSB: That used to worry me about my undergraduate work, because I was the only one, I was the creative writing department, and it bothered me that the students were not presented with other styles. Nobody could be any different from me than, say, Sally Keith in the MFA Program, and it makes me more comfortable with my students because I know they’ll move on from what they’ve experienced with me to other people, and they’ll get this broad experience of styles and philosophies, which is another reason I can just relax and do what I believe in.