An Interview with Kathryn Stripling Byer

by Terry Kennedy

Kathryn Stripling Byer was raised on a farm in Southwest Georgia, where the material for much of her first poetry originated. She graduated from Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia, with a degree in English literature, and afterward, received her MFA degree from UNC Greensboro, where she studied with Fred Chappell and Robert Watson, as well as forming enduring friendships with James Applewhite and Gibbons Ruark. After graduation she worked at Western Carolina University, becoming Poet-in-Residence in 1990. Her poetry, prose, and fiction have appeared widely, including Hudson Review, Poetry, The Atlantic, Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Poetry Review.

Often anthologized, her work has also been featured online, where she maintains the blogs “Here, Where I Am,” and “The Mountain Woman.” Her body of work was discussed along with that of Charles Wright, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Jim Wayne Miller in Six Poets from the Mountain South, by John Lang, published by LSU Press. Her first book of poetry, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was published in the AWP Award Series in 1986, followed by the Lamont (now Laughlin) prize-winning Wildwood Flower, from LSU Press. Her subsequent collections have been published in the LSU Press Poetry Series, receiving various awards, including the Hanes Poetry Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Poetry Award, and the Roanoke-Chowan Award. She served for five years as North Carolina’s first woman poet laureate. She lives in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband and three dogs.

TERRY KENNEDY: I’d like to start by asking you where a poem begins. Often when I’m reading a poem I find especially engaging, I wonder what allowed for the poem’s beginning. What sparked it’s creation. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KATHRYN STRIPLING BYER: Each poem has its own origin story, but when it comes to the sonnet sequence, Southern Fictions had a long journey. It didn’t really start with breaking my ankle while hiking in the Smokies, but being laid up in a cast for 6 weeks helped bring this work to its final (more or less) expression. I’d tried for years to write about the racial discord during my youth, particularly the protests and marches in neighboring Baker County, where Shirley Sherrod grew up. As you recall, she was the USDA employee misquoted by a right-wing pundit and forced to resign. Her father was killed by a white man, and his murder triggered protests by what we called “outsiders.” My earlier attempts to write about these events were self-indulgent and, frankly, embarrassing. While trapped at home in a cast, I came back to these events and began rendering my reaction to them in sonnet form, keeping the regular iambic pentameter and rhyme intact. A sonnet is a sonnet, by god, and I was going to make sure these poems adhered to the classical model. Otherwise I might veer off again into the flaccid verse that had embarrassed me earlier. “What I See Now” came years later, on a drive home from Texas, passing through Alabama, seeing the markers about MLK’s Montgomery march. I keep a notebook while I’m on the road, and I began the poem on that drive. Finishing it took well over a year and many revisions. The conclusion was especially difficult to reach. I’m still trying to reach it, if indeed it is ever reachable for me, given my background. As for “Beginning at the Bottom,” what pleasure it was to begin that poem, at the request of Frannie Ashburn, head of the NC Library Association while I was NC Laureate. Well, I had a false start, trying to work in Borges’s statement about envisioning paradise as a library, but once I remembered the quote from the Atlanta Journal Constitution about my home county, “the bottom of the backwoods,” I was on solid ground. Calling up the details of my childhood library led me through the poem to its conclusion.

TK: In all of your collections, it seems that you’ve paid special attention to the book’s final construction. How do you feel about going from the chaos of a first draft to a poem? How about going from a poem or a sequence of poems to a collection?

KSB: Well, I feel abject terror a lot of the time. Chaos is the proper word, but it’s an excited and energetic chaos. Language leads the way, it has to, and I find so often that in composing a poem I have leftovers, rhythms, images, themes, that will play into other poems. Putting a book together is a lot like putting a poem together, letting the threads work themselves into structure and trying to enable the book itself to move in a poetic, even a musical, structure. I felt this strongly with Descent. Fred Chappell remarked on the musical structure of the book, which pleased me very much.

TK: Your latest collection, Descent, is in three parts and each parts has an epigraph: How did you about choosing the Mahmoud Darwish and Tomas Transtromer quotes that open each section?

KSB: I had read the Darwish poem in the New Yorker, was taken with the phrase “the widow’s descent,” no doubt because much of the first section centers around my grandmother’s persona, her widowhood, her losses. As I was putting the ms. together, I had set about reading Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Transtromer, and there, as if by great good fortune, was “Madrigal.” “I inherited a dark wood..”stuck in my mind. I had been trying to enter that dark wood of inheritance and here was a poem that gave me a way of introducing this theme for my second section. Continuing the Transtromer line in the third section came naturally. One inherits a dark wood but one doesn’t have to stay there. There is another wood–the light one.

TK: What things do you think play the largest roles in terms of what you choose to write about and who you feel you’re writing for?

KSB: I don’t know how much choice really plays into it; I’ve “chosen” to write about any number of things I thought I should try to write about only to have them fizzle. On the other hand, being NC Laureate required me to write poems to subjects I did not choose, and I had to learn how to kindle a poetic response using details that I knew had energized my “voice” in the past. The audience for those poems was not quite the same as that I write toward as I’m plumbing my individual poetic hardcore. The poems in Descent, for example, are not ones that my family and community will find easy to read, I’m sure. I was pulled by the subject, I couldn’t keep ignoring it, and finally that tension burst into expression. A lot of everyday Southern history has been pushed into the background, forgotten, and gladly forgotten.

TK: Would you call your poems nostalgic?

KSB: I’d call many of them elegiac, but others I’d call confrontational, in that I’m confronting myself, my heritage, my lineage.

TK: Your poems often have a strong narrative impulse, like the sonnet sequence in “Southern Fictions,” that accumulate value and momentum as you move through them all together. Why not fiction? What does poetry add to the concerns of your work?

KSB: I began as a fiction writer. I took Fred Chappell’s fiction workshop my first semester at UNCG. I soon realized my deficits, believe me, but I’ve never given up my desire to write fiction, and I’ve published a couple of short stories that I like. I began a novel a few years back, and I’m working on a ms. weaving together poetry and short fiction, set in the mountains, women’s voices keening and remembering. Poetry adds the quality of music to my work. Our first poets sang their work. I want my poems to come as close to singing as possible.

TK: You taught for many years at Western Carolina University. I’m curious about the ways that your teaching has informed your writing. What have you learned about your own writing and about writing in general from teaching?

KSB: I found teaching enormously energizing. I always did the assignments I gave my students, and quite a few of those prompts turned into poems that wound up in a manuscript. I found talking about poetry almost as gratifying as writing it, and I miss that energy. I learned how important working from another poet’s work came, and I often had my students imitate or model a poem from one of the poems we were examining. They resisted, of course, wanting to be their own original poetic selves, but when they gave in and really entered, say, a Li-Young Lee poem, or a Seamus Heaney piece, they were surprised by how their own poetic voice was transformed into one that sounded more alive than in earlier attempts.

TERRY KENNEDY is the editor of storySouth. He is the Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at UNC Greensboro and Founding Editor of Spring Garden Press. His work appears in variety of journals and magazines including Cave Wall, from the Fishouse, Waccamw, and The Southern Review.