I don't know. I still can't get it right,
the way those dirt roads cut across the flats
and led to shacks where hounds and muddy shoats
skulked roundabouts. Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What's that? How should I know?
—from Kathryn Stripling Byer's Southern Fictions (Jacar Press, 2011)
When Kathryn Stripling Byer opened the email, she hardly believed it. North Carolina Writers' Network Executive Director Ed Southern was offering her, a girl from Georgia's backwoods, induction into the Old North State's Literary Hall of Fame.
"I was surprised, to say the least," the Cullowhee-based poet says with awe. "I've published six books, and a lot of the people who are in the Hall of Fame have national reputations. They've published best-sellers. So it seemed that my production wasn't quite what you might expect for a hall-of-famer. But they wanted me in, so how could I refuse? That's my roundabout way of saying that I was surprised and very pleased."
Byer's preparing to teach a poetry master class on sound and rhythm at the North Carolina Writers' Network annual fall conference, held this year at the Embassy Suites hotel in Cary. Byer, who served as the state's poet laureate from 2005 to 2009, is more comfortable talking about her craft in a classroom with scribbling students than from behind a podium to a ceremonial audience.
Nonetheless, at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines a few weeks ago, the inductions of Byer and Maya Angelou brought the HOF ranks to 53, about a fifth of whom are still living and writing. Framed photographs of the authors and labeled shelves of their work fill the upstairs study at Weymouth in which James Boyd wrote his historical novels Drums and Marching On.
Byer's publishings don't yet span a shelf like those of Lee Smith, Reynolds Price, Thomas Wolfe or John Hope Franklin, but her taut, considered verse certainly fits in. Her sensibilities also are that of a poet concerned with meaning and form, like such fellow inductees as Jonathan Williams or A.R. Ammons.
So many North Carolina writers have been concerned with place, but Byer stands out for how she treats memory as an inner geography. "What just happened?" is the question that drives Byer's poetics, even if what happened was decades ago. She raises remembering to the level of practice. That little girl from Georgia was inducted right along with the mountain poet from Cullowhee.
Recent poems have covered less-explored or forbidden areas of Byer's inner map. Her sixth full collection, on LSU Press, is entitled Descent. Her sonnet chapbook Southern Fictions, published last year by Jacar Press, trolls childhood memories of racism, some of which are also family memories. It's not easy territory to cover.
"The memories that were extremely fresh and vital for me when I first began writing are somewhat different now," Byer recalls. "Not that they lost vitality so much as that I've already written about them. Now I'm trying to go back to other memories that were darker, things I couldn't write about very well in my younger days."
"It was hard to realize that these memories of growing up in a rather odd backwoods area of Georgia could take me places in my imagination and in my craft that were exciting and instructive for me. Each poem written from those memories was a way forward for me, a way of placing my memories and my life in a mythological sort of framework so that I could keep drawing on it."
Poet and publisher Richard Krawiec was so taken with the sonnets of Southern Fictions that he published it on his Jacar Press. He cites Byer's commitment to craft as what makes her an indispensible North Carolina poet. "We live in a time when people self-publish everything they burp. Kay takes about six years between books, which I think is a testament to how seriously she takes her work as a writer.
"These sonnets deal with stuff that nobody actually deals with, about being a child and having a black girl be killed by a white driver and nobody says anything about it even though there were 20 witnesses," Krawiec continues.
Although Byer would hardly describe herself as an activist poet, her record speaks otherwise. Her work navigates a reader through rough Southern psychic terrain. And she redefined the role of the North Carolina Poet Laureate through tireless blogging that accumulated to a critical archive of contemporary verse across the state.
Byer's understated energy will be part of a wealth of offerings at the NCWN conference, which runs Friday through Sunday. N.C. State professor and novelist Jill McCorkle will teach a master class in fiction, and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Edith Pearlman will deliver the keynote address.
Charles Fiore, Communications Director of the North Carolina Writers Network, says that in addition to Byer, writers appearing at the conference will include Chapel Hill-based Shane Ryan, who writes sharp-witted, hilarious commentary—frequently about ACC basketball—for the Grantland website, and the conference will also have its first-ever music writing class with David Menconi and Peter Holsapple. And did you know that N.C. State's Elaine Neil Orr is teaching a creative nonfiction master class on "lyric scene and evocative voice"?
However, the best part of the conference, to Fiore, is the energy attendees get, regardless of their publication list or lack thereof, from a feeling of belonging to a community of writers.
"We call ourselves one of the most inclusive writing conferences in the country and we work hard to make that happen," Fiore says. "I've certainly been to conferences around the country and seen people afraid to approach the faculty." That won't be the case this weekend, for Byer is about the most approachable, even-keeled poet you'll find.
"I think she should seriously be considered for the national poet laureate position," Krawiec says. "The South has been underrepresented in that. And if you think of all the poets on the horizon, who's better?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "The poet in the hall."