North Carolinas new Poet Laureate, Cathy Smith Bowers of Tryon after she recovered from the shock of the phone call kept her vow of secrecy with the N.C. Arts Council.
Bowers learned on Jan. 7 that she would be Gov. Beverly Perdues pick for this prestigious position, and the announcement was not to be public for weeks. So, when she “let it slip” to a few people, she duly swore them to secrecy.
“And all the people they told, they swore to secrecy,” she laughed.
News that the sixth Poet Laureate in the states history was living just around the corner was “slipping” all over the little mountain towns icy streets, just waiting for print to put it on solid ground.
Besty Goree, owner of The Book Shelf in Tryon, is throwing a public reception for Bowers Tuesday evening from 6:30 to 8:30 at the bookstore on Pacolet Street where many congratulations will be freely spoken.
The next afternoon, Bowers will be in Raleigh to officially receive her new title before the Governor and the states leading artists.
The honor is a reward for a lifetime of creatve writing. Bowers says she has always written poetry “about what I have lost or dont understand.”
She uses her poems “to shine a light on a moment of intensity.”
Take for instance the moment over a decade ago, when her stepdaughter oddly announced, while eating a strawberry, that she “hated all adverbs, adjectives too.”
“I could not understand why, suddenly, she would look at me like that,” Bowers recalled. “My stepdaughter has been in my life 14 years. Imagine all the times I have seen, smelled, even tasted that child when I kissed her on the cheek, touched and heard her. Yet that one moment was asking me to pay attention, to look at this. I was haunted by the mystery of that moment.
“I sat down to write and to come to some understanding, and I think I did.”
That was early in their relationship. The young girl “was just starting to fall in love with me,” she says. “She was having too much fun with me, and she felt guilty, the need to be loyal to her mom. (Hating adverbs) was the way in her 14-year-old mind to really get me, to tell me.”
“I was not her blood,” reads a line from the poem
Her step daughter is 28 today, and the moments more happily blended. “I adore her,” Bowers says. “My step children are
Bowers, as a child herself, was chosen for this work of exploring moments, and teaching others to do the same, with words.
She was born in Lancaster, S.C. where her father worked for the Springs Cotton Mill and her mother raised six children. They gave her a love of language. “They hated each other, but they loved language,” Bowers says. “My father lined us up like stair steps and told each of us what we were going to be. I was the one who was going to be the teacher. It was just a fact.”
So, she made it happen. After graduating from Lancaster High School, she began work on her English degree at the University of South Carolina – Lancaster.
She transferred to Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. as a junior and then took her degree and went back to Lancaster High School to teach, by this time married to a Lancaster boy.
“The first day, I taught everything I knew,” she says. “After the students had fled, I put my head down on my desk and saw 30 years looming ahead.”
She learned to teach over the next ten years at Lancaster High, how to organize lessons and manage a classroom, “not only to manage but to inspire.”
Whenever she wonders what she is doing with her life, she says she remembers the look on one young students face when she put one of his poems on the blackboard “this kid who had probably never been affirmed in his life.”
During those years, Bowers carved out writing time, four hours every Saturday morning. Her goal was to get something published in theAll Adverbs, Adjectives Too, “but the oddest of creatures, soft surrogate body designated step, the woman loyalty to her mother required that she hate. How else, in her logic, to remind me of that? I who worshiped at The Church of God of Rhetoric, lone walker through the valley of the shadow of words.”my children.”Atlantic Monthly.
“I spent eight years, sending, sending, sending,” she recalled. “I was going to give them ten years. It took (American poet and novelist) Sylvia Plath ten years to get published in
Actually, her “first biggie” was in the mid-1980s. She had left her teaching position at Lancaster High School in 1983 “I had to or die” and took a parttime teaching position at Queens College in Charlotte. Soon after she was published in
Not long after that,
She went on to publish ten poems in
All the while keeping up her own writing, Bowers was putting bread on the table by teaching as an adjunct professor at Queens, and then a fulltime professor in 1989. She became director of the composition program and taught in a new “liberal learning” curriculum.
By 1995, she was at that point again. She asked for a sabbatical, which her husband opposed. “I was about to die from all the work,” she says. “I decided to be divorced rather than die.”
Eventually, with a job offer from Warren Wilson in her back pocket, she negotiated just the job she wanted to return to Queens.
“No committees. No classes before noon. And how come you call me the unofficial Queens poet in residence? How come Im not the official poet in residence?
“They said yes to everything, provided I would stop saying, “How come?”
Bowers met her second husband, Jerry, in the mid-1990s and they married in 1999. In 2000, Queens College created the low-residency Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program and Bowers was tapped as one of its instructors. Bowers was also teaching at conferences all across the U.S. and Canada.
“One morning in January 2003, I woke up blind,” she says. “I looked like Stevie Wonder going to the doctors office. It turned out to be a surface infection, but I was blind for two weeks. I realized I had to change my life again.”
A mentor was moving to Hendersonville, and she and Jerry decided that was where they would move. Nothing appealed in Hendersonville, but while riding around Tryon one day they saw a decrepit house near the railroad tracks on Godshaw Hill and decided, “Thats it.”
“I had always wanted life to be simple and to live as a writer, not to spend all my energy and time earning money,” she says, and she had always been headed for the mountains. With some savings, she was able to get by, writing mostly, still working for the Queens MFA program and teaching at conferences.
Then, in 2005, her husband Jerry committed suicide, and her life for the next two years boiled down to sleeping and “doing the basics.”
“Family and friends took care of me,” she says. A section of her latest book, “The Candle I Hold Up To See You,” is filled with poems about the “loss and not understanding” of Jerrys death.
Bowers is back to work again, teaching classes at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Wofford and Queens, as well as teaching poetry as a spiritual discipline for the Haden Institute.
Now, she will add the duties of North Carolina Poet Laureate, a two-year appointment, typically a job that involves giving many readings and presentations, and perhaps writing commemorative poems for state occasions.
“I want in my time as Poet Laureate to shine a light on all the marvelous poets throughout the state,” Bowers says, “known and unknown. Perhaps this will inspire others who have the urge or longing but didnt have the courage or know how.”
Of course, first, Bowers was off to a meeting Thursday at Wofford to begin lesson planning for her course there before students arrive.
There will be much to do, and while she doesnt plan on going blind again, she says, “My ear did go kaflooey after the press began calling last week.”The New Yorker. If not ten, then I was going to give them 11. I could be flexible.”The Georgia Review, one of the most highly respected literary journals in the world. Poetry published her as well.The Atlantic Monthly. Her fourth book has just come out.