Interview with Featured Poet
Kathryn Stripling Byer
[Town Creek Poetry] We’ve noticed you imbue much of your work with flora and fauna. Can you speak to the way you view non-human world in your work?
[Kathryn Stripling Byer] I like to think of it as a web, one that continually vibrates--sings, if you will. I remember Eavan Boland describing an experience in her garden, aware “that I stood at the center of the lyric moment itself, in a mesh of colors, sensualities and emotions...” The lyric moment is where all these non-human voices vibrate most intensely. When I was in college, I found a Boris Pasternak poem that stayed with me, its last line being, “Life is not a walk across a field,” the last line, indeed the whole poem, I copied out in longhand. In some barely articulate way, I felt that a poem, for me, is like a walk across a field, a real, literal field, and yet one in the context of current scientific meanings of that word. The first poem I ever wrote that I felt was mine described the field I loved to look at nearly every day, usually after school, when I roamed the farm, looking, looking. Light and shadow, leaf, scent of cow dung and hog wallow. There I stood at the edge of the field, but how the heck to get out of that beginning place? A poem has to move! So I opened the gate and walked through, into the field. I'm still walking through it, looking and waiting to see what's around me and on the other side. I can't write in any other way but to be inside that field where everything has its voices and spirits. The non-human is always waiting to speak.
[TCP] Landscape plays a huge role in your work. How do you feel landscape is tied to memory, and how are the myriad landscapes you integrate in your work enfolded into your psychological landscape?
[KSB] Yusef Komunyakaa once referred to the landscape that one carries within one's imagination throughout one’s life as necessary to the artist’s vision. I would say that it’s necessary to anyone’s “vision.” It derives from that first landscape to which we awaken, but of course it changes as one moves through one's life. The ways in which it changes fascinate me, and I continue to try to understand how that happens. I like Barry Lopez’s take on landscape, how the interior and exterior landscapes interact, dance, dialog with each other, and when the two come into harmony, then the eye/I of the seer and the writer expands and enfolds what she sees into her own creative center. That lyrical moment that Boland talks about. I have tried to bring the S. Georgia coastal plain and the Blue Ridge into some sort of creative relationship, plundering, I guess you could say, what I need from each. My paternal grandmother was born in the N. Georgia Mountains so they have come to represent the spirit of this place to which I moved after graduate school. My maternal grandmother was another spirit entirely rooted in her S. Georgia landscape. The two women have had a long, fruitful relationship in my imagination.
[TCP] How is it that you’ve seen your work move from The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest to Descent?
[KSB] Well, I'm nearly 30 years older! That's bound to make a difference in how I view my past and personal history and how I navigate the currents of language and poetic structure. There's an energy in The Girl that I wish I still had, that surge of running through cornfields, building toward the celebratory cry at the end of “Cornwalking.” I recall reading from this first manuscript at Callandwolde Arts Center in Atlanta, and being confronted afterward by an intense young man telling me that the South was not like that; the South was cruel and bigoted and I was not telling the truth about it. From his perspective I was not to celebrate my rural landscape, where crosses were still being burned, and the history of racial intolerance was still being played out. I am not writing journalism I told him; and yet, I knew there were stories I had not told; I knew I did not feel ready artistically or any otherwise to take them on. In Descent, I am trying to confront some of those earlier experiences, all the while holding to the honesty of inheritance. The Tomas Transtromer quotes reveal more than I could explain here about how I see that conflict. There’s a dark wood of inheritance in which one can walk, but there’s also a light one.
[TCP] One of the aspects of your personality we admire most is your bold assessments of contemporary poetry—good and bad. Can you talk about whether you feel poetry has taken a wrong turn, a right one? Perhaps it’s best to couch the question this way: Since there’s always been “bad” and “good” poetry, how do you assess contemporary poetry and whether it works or not?
[KSB] I'm not sure this part of my personality is all that admirable. Poetry is always turning and turning, often on itself; it’s a dance that we are caught up in as poets ourselves and as readers. I find the inaccessible, the clever, the obscure poetry that too often makes its way into the pages of the New Yorker and the review pages of the New York Times and other establishment publications hardly worth my time. I often feel that too many poets throw whatever comes to mind at the wall and whatever sticks, well, that’s a poem! I know that much fine regional poetry is being written and too often ignored by the so-called literary establishment, but I doubt this is much different from earlier times. Part of the issue may be the explosion of MFA programs; their graduates then become editors themselves, seeking poems like the ones turned out through clever “springboards,” their sights aimed at grants, fellowships, and awards. I came through the UNCG MFA program in the late 60s. Such an innocent time! Or so it now seems to me. There were only a handful of MFA programs then. The proliferation of MFA programs had not become the tsunami that they have now are. There's also the sea-change of the internet. Everybody is writing these days, and publishing it online, promoting themselves, their work, creating an internet “platform,” as their publishers expect them to do. Every little activity goes up on Facebook. I feel overwhelmed by it. So many voices. It's wearying.
[TCP] Can you respond a bit about what you’re working on now and what you anticipate for your future work?
[KSB]I work in fits and starts. A lot is stewing in my head right now, and I burn a lot of supper dishes, break a lot of glasses. I have boxes of drafts in god knows how many cracks, crevices, and boxes. Not to mention computer files. I've a manuscript pulling together short fiction and poems set in the mountains, an interweaving of imagery and theme, women's voices, the landscapes in which those voices live, speaking along with them, I hope. I've a manuscript of more deeply Southern poems that needs gathering, titled at the moment Black Work. My grandmother worked for awhile as an undertaker with her workspace upstairs in the house where I grew up. By the time I was born, she had stopped that particular, shall we say, undertaking, but the sense of mortality lay over that house, believe me, and it was only later that I came to understand why it did, in a palpable way. I've a collection of essays I want to pull together, many of them quite a few years old. I've just put together a chapbook titled The Vishnu Bird. I'm fascinated by women's work, the stitcher of their lives. The underside of that stitchery and what it reveals. And in terms of form, I want to experiment with the operatic forms of recitative and aria in creating narrative, specifically narrative drawn from Appalachian lore and history. And I’m fascinated by re-doing the old ballads in a different sort of voice. I’m sure I’ll scorch many more pots of beans as I try to make my way through these journeys!
Return to Fall 2013 Table of Contents