Swamp Skirts

Women of Contemporary Southern Poetry

Kathryn Stripling Byer of Cullowhee, North Carolina

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The coquettish and manipulative nature of Scarlett O’Hara still comes to mind when people reference Southern women. The point of reference has shifted to something closer to The Real Housewives of Atlanta, but of course pop culture thrives on these labels. For those of us women that are immersed in “southerness,” the label of the Southern woman does give a sense of empowerment, maybe because Southern women know the system—use the system as a gauge—master the system and can feel accomplished at knowing their cultural worth. But the containers that define the Southern woman are eroding. In the emerging digital landscape, the sense of empowerment shifts to how women define themselves locally (pertaining to their physical environments) and globally (pertaining to their digital environments). I spoke with Kathryn Stripling Byer this week about her thoughts on the identity of the “Southern woman” from a poetical standpoint.

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Kathryn Stripling Byer serves as poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University. She resides in Cullowhee of the Western North Carolina mountains. Byer grew up on a farm in rural Southwest Georgia and later graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. She received her MFA from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Byer’s poetry has been widely published in various journals, including: Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, and The Atlantic.  Her sixth collection poetry titled Descent and published by Louisiana State University Press further enforces how influential her poetry is to the Southern genre. Byers served as the first poet laureate of North Carolina for five years. Recognition and awards for her work include, but are not limited to: Hanes Award for Poetry from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Southern Independence Booksellers Alliance Poetry Award, and the Roanoke-Chowan Award.

This week I had the pleasure of  interviewing Kathryn Stripling Byer. I hope you all enjoy the interview as much I did. Her insight into embracing “southerness” and the identity of the Southern woman are quite compelling.

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Shanna Dixon, Blogger:

As women, we use our historical culture for social orientation and identity. I find much of our modern identity stems from a sense of loyalty to conserving Southern culture and the social roles that define us as Southern women. Your poetry often merges the modern and the historical Southern identities in a way that makes me question what it means to be a Southern woman today. At times you celebrate the dissemination of these historical identities, as in your poem “Gone With the Wind.” But other poems elicit an affinity to the soil of where we come from. Does your poetry aim to disassemble or bridge the past to the present as it pertains to the genre of Southern poetry?

Kathryn Stripling Byer, Poet:

We live with contradictions, and I sometimes think the Southern woman is cursed with them. Still, those contradictions creat[e] a space in which we can examine our legacy with an honest, compassionate, and at times searing accuracy. I grew up reading and re-reading Gone With the Wind, loving Scarlett’s spirit and rebelliousness. As I matured, I saw the flaws in her and the novel’s approach to reality, and yet, I still loved her dedication to survival—and fashionable dresses! And, of course, I will never forget in the movie—Scarlett’s digging the soil, proclaiming that neither she nor any of her folks will ever go hungry again. Cliched, yes, but still powerful—the soil, from which we Southerns grow, or used to grow before urbanization—and here I’m speaking of black and white Southerners, for we, despite our tragic and often bloody relationships, have the Southern landscape in our blood and our imaginations. I would be grateful beyond words if I thought my poetry even came close to forming a bridge between past and present in the genre of Southern poetry.

Descent | Louisiana State University Press

Descent | Louisiana State University Press

Dixon:

Do you identify yourself as a Southern Writer? And if so, how does this term shape you? If not, why?

Byer:

To identify oneself as a Southern writer risks ghettoization, as I well know, especially if one chooses to remain in the South. I’ve often felt excluded from the national purview simply because of my place and my concern with Southern themes and images. Add to that the gender exclusion that existed for so long and still does to some degree. I am a Southern woman who has chosen to remain in the South, and as a well-known poet born and raised in Virginia once asked me, “Why are you staying down here?” She had fled to New England and established a nationally known literary reputation.

Still, one can’t let such terms totally shape one’s creativity and identity. I like to look at this in terms of landscape. The Southern landscape is imprinted indelibly into my imagination and my entire sense of self. And yet, that landscape and its legacy connects always with what lies beyond. As a writer, I am continually drawn into the world of others who live beyond the realm of “Southern.” This is what education, reading, imagination is supposed to draw you into—lives and landscapes beyond your own.

Flannery O’Connor remarked that our limitations are our gateways to reality, but that reality is ever changing, and the gateways can be other ways of living in the world. Right away my wonderful professors at Wesleyan College showed me the way, and I began reading Rainer R. Rilke, Isak Dineson, Knut Hamsun, Kafka, Proust, to name just a few, in addition to reading Welty, O’Connor, Porter, Faulkner. So you see, all these voices and landscapes are gathered into an enriching and ever changing inner life for the writer, regardless of being Southern, or Yankee, Danish, or whatever else term one uses to place a writer, or a reader, or anyone else alive on this earth. As Lee Smith, one of my heroines, once said, “Reading enables me to live more than one life.” May we all be able to live more than one life!

Dixon:

Do you view the Internet and its utility at providing for niche communities as a threat or a tool for the furthering of the genre of Southern poetry? Also, would you share with my readers three women poets that you find influential to the genre of modern Southern poetry?

Byer:

The Internet is both of these things, of course, and learning how to use it to one’s benefit is crucial. The Internet, with all her toys, is a seductress, and yet she can be put to the use of furthering Southern poetry. I tried to used it that way when I was Poet Laureate of North Carolina, keeping an ongoing website through the North Carolina Arts Council, as well as a blog—My Laureate’s Lasso—featuring North Carolinian poets. This is archived now, and I like to think of it as a resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the scope of North Carolina literature. If you go to my blog, Here, Where I Am… you’ll see what I mean. There is a link to my laureate blog from that blog. I hope your readers will go to these blogs to discover poets, especially women poets, whose work will enrich their sense of the Southern voice and identity.

The Southern women poets who have mattered a great deal to me and the genre of modern Southern poetry are:

Julie Suk, who is now in her late 80’s, a native of Mobile, and whose Southern woman attributes are undeniable. Elegant, funny, fashionable—she writes poems about growing up in the deep South, coming into womanhood, dealing with the erotics of relationship and the losses—she’s simply remarkable. One of the country’s best; she does not have the reputation that she might have had if she lived in the New York City environs.

Cathy Smith Bowers, a native South Carolinian, writes narrative poems of great power and concision. She grew up in a blue-collar, working class family, a family disrupted by alcohol abuse and dysfunction, but she has survived, to say the very least. She took her graduate degree from the University of South Carolina when James Dickey was still there. She served as North Carolina Poet Laureate after my term. She’s published four books (I hope I have that number right) and I encourage your readers to seek her out. I’ve featured her on my blogs.

Third, a Georgia native, born and reared in the black community of Cornelia, Georgia, [in] the North Georgia foothills, she is Doris Davenport. She now teaches at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We have been friends for many years, and she has taught me a great deal about the African-American woman’s experience. She has published numerous books. LSU Press published her Madness Like Morning Glories a few years back, and she has a new book titled Ascent out last year. I have her featured, as well, on my blog.

If I may, a fourth is Diann Blakely, who now lives in Brunswick, Georgia. She served as Seamus Heaney’s assistant at Harvard, has published at least two books of poetry and lots of essays about Southern writers. She is an Alabama native, like Julie. She is one of the most knowledgeable Southern women on the subject of Southern poetry that I’ve ever known, and she maintains a Facebook page called Notes on Southern poetry.

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Kathryn Stripling Byer is schedule to read at the following events in the next few months:

March 20, 2013 at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York.

April 10, 2013 at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro Writers Series

The following poem by Kathryn Stripling Byer comes from Descent published by Louisiana State University Press:

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Drought

7.

To measure the cloth needed,

she’d hold each bolt against our flesh,

 

folding the crisp panels over

by arm’s length till she had her estimate.

 

She could spend hours stroking broadcloth

and dimity, mulling the question of how much

 

of what and for whom while we watched

our identity come down to color and texture.

 

Which of us orange-flowered broadcloth

that shown like her kitchen linoleum,

 

which the cerulean-blue-dotted swiss

(marked to half-price) that tickled her palm

 

or the lavender crepe de Chine

sliding through fingers that soothed it?

 

8.

With feathers she had plucked herself,

she stuffed two pillows

for my marriage bed and crocheted

 

with silver hook a chain of white lace

to stitch round the edges of two pillowcases.

Soon her fingers could not thread

 

a needle, nor hold fork or spoon.

By then her man was gone,

wrapping tight inside a dream of trees

 

that leafed out every spring: time

to plow, time to seed, time to bury

yet again what he had sown.

 

(I wonder, do the trees commiserate

about the leaves they let go,

all the loosenings they must live with?)

 

If I could, I’d stitch a Double Wedding Ring

against the morning when they woke to sun

stuck, days on end, to every window pane.

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