Poet Cathy Smith Bowers offers her talents to the community
I first met Tryon resident Cathy Smith Bowers when she appeared at the Melrose Inn Porch Pickin&squo; nights. She appeared regularly to kick back and listen or maybe join in singing a song or two before I even knew her name. When the poetry award committee for Lanier Library was considering who to have judge the entries for the Sidney Lanier Poetry Award I looked up a little more about Cathy based on what little I knew about her writing. A South Carolina Poetry Fellowship recipient and author of three books of poetry, Cathy also served as poet in residence for many years at Queens University where she continues to teach poetry in their low residency MFA in Creative Writing program. She seemed a perfect fit for a poetry competition limited to Carolina writers who have not been published in book form. One night on the porch I asked how much she would charge to judge a local poetry competition. Her response was that she would be honored to donate her time to her community that way. Now that the submissions are open for the award with a deadline of February 15, I contacted Cathy and set up a time to visit and find out more about her. What brought you to Tryon? Well, I&squo;d always wanted to live in the mountains. My spirit was driving me. There were several things that happened. I was poet in residence at Queens, I was the creative writing &dquo;department&dquo; teaching poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Then we instituted our low residency MFA program in Creative Writing, and I took that on, and thought &dquo;Oh, I can do it all.&dquo; I was already teaching at conferences all over. One January morning I woke up blind. Blind? Literally? Yeah. Wow.photo by Chris Bartol It occurred to me that maybe my body was telling me something. That I was doing too much. I had two weeks that I could do pretty much do nothing but wait until they healed, and they did completely heal. My mentor Bob Haden lived in Charlotte at the time and also had a house in Hendersonville. He is an Episcopal priest who now runs the Haden Institute. He came by my house one day and said, &dquo;Guess what Cathy, Mary Ann and I are selling the Charlotte house and moving to Hendersonville full time.&dquo; It just came out of my mouth, &dquo;I am too.&dquo; He laughed. Then the next time he came by my house there was a &dquo;For Sale&dquo; sign. I started looking at Hendersonville. I don&squo;t really like Hendersonville that much. Then I fell in love with Saluda and that didn&squo;t work out, but I found this house. I decided I had to give up something, so I gave up my undergraduate work. Teaching in the low residency program I have to go to Queens only twice a year, a week in January and a week in May. I could live anywhere I wanted. Half of my colleagues live in New York City and the students are from all over in that particular program. I just did it, I gave up my undergraduate job and kept the MFA and all the other conferences and private consultation and moved up here. Did you know anyone in Tryon when you landed here? I realized shortly after I moved here that one of my best friends from High School lived here. My phone rang one day and this voice said, &dquo;Cathy, you&squo;re not going to believe who this is.&dquo; I said, &dquo;Well it sounds like Tommy Liddell.&dquo; &dquo;It is, I live ten miles from you.&dquo; That was a delight to find out that Tommy and Missy lived here. I sang in his band in high school. What was the name of the band? The Cavaliers. What kind of music did you play? This was in the late 60&squo;s. The band played really wonderful musical stuff. My girl group sang things like &dquo;Going Out of My Head,&dquo; &dquo;Jimmy Mack,&dquo; and &dquo;Don&squo;t Mess With Bill;&dquo; those good songs, with a lot of comedy. The band was terrific. One of the band members became pretty famous, Don Dixon. He sort of has a cult following now and lives in Chapel Hill. You know Tommy. He brought the saxophone and guitar to the porch. That was a fun night. He just jumped in and jammed. In high school you spent time singing in a band, but did you know you were going to grow up to make a living as a poet? I knew I was going to be a writer. So when you left high school and the band, where did you head first? I went to Winthrop and majored in English. I actually spent my first two years of college in my little home town. Which is? Lancaster, South Carolina. I did my first two years there and then transferred to Winthrop because my older sister lived there in an apartment, she let me live with her. I majored in English and then came back to Lancaster to teach at the high school from whence I had graduated with Tommy. I did that for ten years and got my masters degree and I got a job at Queens. I started teaching at Queens in the fall of 1983. How did you get your Masters degree? I had started my Masters degree probably the next summer after I started teaching at the high school. I just took one course at a time, and finished that in 1976. I taught there for ten years and I&squo;ve been at Queens ever since in one capacity or another. What would you tell someone who&squo;s in high school now and thinking of entering the contest for the Sidney Lanier Poetry Award and possibly pursuing writing? Read, read, read. Read everything they can. Just do it and if it&squo;s what your spirit is driving you to do if you would like that to be at least part of your career. You can&squo;t really earn a living by being a poet. To me, since that&squo;s what I wanted to be, and the only thing I wanted to do was read books, the most logical thing was to go to college and major in literature. So that&squo;s what I did. So you didn&squo;t have a creative writing major? No, I never took a creative writing class. I don&squo;t think they even had them. If they had, I was so fragile that some teacher could have destroyed me forever. That was just a blessing that I didn&squo;t. Were you just self driven to write? Yeah. Both of my parents loved language. We were very poor and they were uneducated, but they both loved language so it was a big part of my life. My father was always reading something. He would go to the library and get books for us. We really didn&squo;t have a relationship with him, he was an alcoholic, but he would stop me as I was walking through the room and quote something. My mother read every book that we brought into the house even though she had a fourth grade education. She was very embarrassed about that. As my five brothers and sisters and I went to school, every book we brought home, she would read. That continued all the way through my college career. She read Sartre, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy&ellip; With a fourth grade education? Yeah. She just continued her education by reading? Yeah. She absolutely did. She loved books, she loved reading. Did you read together, or did everybody get their book and head to different corners? We&squo;d pass books around. My sister was older by five years and I just idolized her because she was the big high school girl and she&squo;d bring home books like &dquo;Of Human Bondage&dquo; and &dquo;Rosemary&squo;s Baby&dquo; when it first came out. We read Thomas Hardy and we loved that Charles Dickens stuff which was proof that there were people more miserable than we were. We loved that. My parents have passed away now, but my sisters and I and my brother are still big time readers. Last year for my brother&squo;s birthday, his birthday is on New Year&squo;s Eve, I went to spend New Year&squo;s and his birthday with him and his family in Archdale. They had just announced the new Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing. I got him one of my favorite books for his birthday, &dquo;The Fifth Child.&dquo; I made him take a test first before he got it to see if he knew who had just won the Nobel Prize. Did he? No, but I gave it to him anyway. He loved it. He called
me after I got back and would read passages over the phone to me. It&squo;s a chilling book. Beyond the quotes did you have any other connection with your father? photo by Chris Bartol He told me from the time I was &dquo;this tall&dquo; I was going to be a teacher. He just decided. It wasn&squo;t &dquo;I think, I&squo;d like for you, I think you could,&dquo; but &dquo;You&squo;re going to be a teacher.&dquo; It was almost like part of my DNA.Interested in submitting to the Sidney Lanier Poetry Award? Visit Lanier Library on the corner of Melrose and Chestnut next to Tryon Fine Arts Center, call 828-859-9535, or visit the website www.lanierlib.org. Look for a continuation of this article in a future issue of the Tryon Daily Bulletin where Cathy Smith Bowers discusses her first &dquo;big break&dquo; as a poet and how she approaches judging poems.