Pulping Dixie: Poet Kay Byer and the complexity of race in the South | Arts

Pulping Dixie: Poet Kay Byer and the complexity of race in the South



Any writing about race relations in the South will have its limitations. One’s experiences are never comprehensive. One’s skin color and background are hardly choices. In an important way, any individual book, essay, article, or poem about racism and the South aspires primarily to contribute to the totality of literature on the subject, rather than to overcome it. They’re part of an interminable conversation upon an unresolvable issue. And only time determines which books and works count more than others.

Former North Carolina Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer’s new collection Southern Fictions, a series of sonnets coming out of black-white relations in the Jim Crow-era Georgia of her youth, is the third book off Richard Krawiec’s Jacar Press. Dave Wofford of Durham’s Horse and Buggy Press and Raleigh-based artist and papermaker Ann Marie Kennedy collaborated on the design of this edition of only 100 books. Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books and Music hosted an event last Sunday afternoon in which Byer read her poems, Wofford and Kennedy talked about their bookmaking process, and a panel of writers led a town-hall meeting on race and the South.

The covers of half of this entirely letterpress-printed edition are coarse, pink paper that appears innocuous enough. But the cover stock is as charged with significance as the poems it encloses. Wofford and Kennedy pulped Confederate flags bought on eBay to make the pinkish stock, a process photo-documented on Horse and Buggy’s blog.

Kennedy displayed a binder full of test sheets, some of which included possibly recognizable chunks of the flag’s fabric. But Wofford and Kennedy chose to use the finely pulped, unmodulated pink paper instead. Its homogeneity is too subtle to be provocative on its own. Only after reading the colophon at the end of the book, which describes the process, would a reader know what he or she had been holding. Wofford expressed excitement in anticipating this moment of delayed encounter, as well as a desire to keep the paper from distracting a reader from Byer’s poems. Still, a reader could feel hoodwinked into handling an artifact that they might not otherwise have chosen to touch, an ambivalence voiced by an audience member in the open talk portion of the program.

In either case, the book thrills with a latent violence—the shredding and beating of the flags into their essential fibers; the collision of type and paper, leaving the impression of the letters of the text—comparable to that beneath the deceptively calm surface of much of contemporary Southern life.

Byer’s poems unpack this calm. She began writing the sonnets while bedridden after breaking an ankle in the Smoky Mountains. Byer told the gathering that the injury gave her pause to internalize the Flannery O’Connor edict, “Our limitations are our gateways to reality.” This key unlocked a way into Byer’s tangle of feelings of racial guilt, anger, frustration and exhaustion, which she expresses in Shakespearean sonnets.

This form surprised her. In her introduction Sunday, Byer explained that the challenge of adherence to the sonnet form slowed her down as a writer, forcing her to consider her choices carefully, a way of thinking analog to the deep rumination that a complex issue like race requires. Although its European origins give the sonnet colonial implications, and Byer’s strict rhythmic obeisance to the form seems as authoritarian as it does lyrical, her voice nonetheless rings with sincerity, and her alternation between narration and reflection is smart and captivating.

While writing this book, Byer was also meditating upon Shirley Sherrod’s July 2010 resignation as Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Byer and Sherrod both come from rural Baker County in Georgia. Right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart posted video excerpts of Sherrod's March 2010 NAACP address onto his website that implied she might have racially discriminated against a white farmer, igniting an uproar after Fox News hyped the story.

Organizations and individuals across the political spectrum leaped to vilify Sherrod, who was forced immediately to resign. But once the entirety of Sherrod’s address reached the media, she was found to have spoken eloquently about the African American experience, particularly how the omnipresent history of Southern race relations can rise in all its complexity in the most mundane situations. Sherrod’s father was fatally shot by a white farmer during an argument over livestock when she was a teenager. She also endured racially motivated harassment while founding a collective farm in Georgia in the 1970s. Sherrod’s defamation suit against Breitbart is pending.

After Byer read, an impressive panel took turns elaborating upon ideas of language and power. Most panelists told of formative moments when the inequity and unfairness of Southern racism startled them into realization that later fueled varieties of expression.

Sally Buckner, longtime Peace College professor and editor of the anthology Word and Witness: 100 Years of NC Poetry (Carolina Academic Press), shared a story of growing up in Albemarle. Her mother told her one day that her father’s plumbing assistant would never become a full plumber, that he could only be an assistant because he was black. Buckner said the moment was “my first step to becoming a liberal.”

Beverly Fields Burnette, poet and president of the N.C. Association of Black Storytellers, described the devastation of coming out of the movie theater after seeing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” with her white date to hear that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

Poet, archivist, and member of the Carolina African American Writers' Collective L. Teresa Church moved everyone in attendance as she described her childhood impressions of white people as ghosts. Explaining the importance of “leaving the South to experience the South, to look back upon it,” she realized years later that white people were warm and corporeal while hugging a fellow student at Brown University.

Jaki Shelton Green, Shelby Stephenson, Cherryl Floyd Miller and Susan Ketchin also spoke before opening discussion with the audience. Interesting issues were batted around, such as the question of whether the cover stock’s origins celebrate or transform the Confederate flag, as well as how regional identity can entrap a writer in both conceptual and commercial ways. The variety of voices proved an apt tribute to Byer’s complex book, which Ketchin referred to as a crucible.

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