Byer, Kathryn Stripling 1944-
BYER, Kathryn Stripling 1944-
PERSONAL: Born November 25, 1944, in Camilla, GA; daughter of C. M. Stripling (a farmer) and Bernice Stripling (a homemaker; maiden name, Campbell); married James Edwin Byer (a professor), March 22, 1970; children: Corinna Lynette. Education: Wesleyan College (Macon, GA), B.A., 1966; University of North Carolina—Greensboro, M.F.A., 1968. Politics: Liberal Democrat. Religion: "Lapsed Presbyterian."
ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 489, Cullowhee, NC 28723.
CAREER: Writer, poet, and essayist. Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC, instructor in English, beginning in 1968; Converse College, Spartanburg, SC, Sara Lura Mathews Self Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, 2004. Has been a poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University and Lenoir Rhyne College. Has been on the faculty of the University of North Carolina—Greensboro's M.F.A. Writing Program.
MEMBER: North Carolina Writers Network.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts fellow; Associated Writing Programs Award Series citation, 1986, for The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest; North Carolina Arts Council fellow, 1986; Anne Sexton Poetry Award, Boston University's AGNI magazine; Lamont Poetry Selection Award, Academy of American Poets, 1992, for Wildwood Flower; Thomas Wolfe Literary Award, North Carolina Historical Association; Roanoke-Chowan Award, North Carolina Literary and Historical Association, 1998, and Brockman-Campbell Book Award for best poetry book by a North Carolinian, North Carolina Poetry Society, 1999, both for Black Shawl; North Carolina Award in Literature, 2001; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 2002, and Southeastern Booksellers Book of the Year Award in poetry, 2003, both for Catching Light.
Search Party: Poem, drawings by Joyce Sills, Amicae Press (Brooklyn, NY), 1979.
Alma: Poems, drawings by Sharyn Jayne Hyatt, Phoenix Press (Fort Lauderdale, FL), 1983.
The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, Texas Tech Press (Lubbock, TX), 1986.
Wildwood Flower: Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1992.
Black Shawl: Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1998.
(Author of introduction) Stephen M. Holt, Late Mowing: Poems and Essays, Jesse Stuart Foundation (Ashland, KY), 2000.
Catching Light: Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2002.
Wake (chapbook), Spring Street Editions (Sylva, NC), 2003.
Contributor to anthologies, including The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets, edited by Michael McFee, University of North Carolina Press, 1994; Dream Garden: The Poetic Vision of Fred Chappell, edited by Patrick Bizzaro, Louisiana State University Press, 1997; Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, edited by Joyce Dyer, University Press of Kentucky, 1998; Gatherings: A Collection of North Carolina Poetry, Spring Street Editions, 2001; and Elixir #3, Elixir Press, 2003. Contributor of poetry and essays to publications such as Arts Journal, Boston Globe, Hudson Review, Iowa Review, Nimrod, Southern Review, Georgia Review, Greensboro Review, SPR, Shenandoah, Carolina Quarterly, and the Asheville Poetry Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Kathryn Stripling Byer once told CA: "When I was growing up in southwest Georgia, I used to go walking in the wide fields near sunset. There I could sing as loud as I wanted and no one was likely to hear but the cows. I could look way beyond the border of oak trees and imagine that the blue massing clouds were mountains, the Blue Ridge, the place my grandmother had wanted to be when she died. She had been born there and had spent most of her girlhood in another mountain range, the Black Hills, growing up as the daughter of an Irish miner and a German painter and schoolmarm turned Presbyterian preacher. The mountains were where she belonged, though she lived most of her adult life in the hot, mosquito-ridden flatlands of tropical Georgia.
"Mountains were where I too belonged, I decided during my sunset ramblings. Because my husband, a Tennessee native, grew up hiking the Great Smoky Mountains and expected me to accompany him on his treks, I soon found my imagination stirred by those trails, the very leaf mold and dirt of them, their shifting light, their windy sounds, their atmosphere of mystery and solitude. The old ballads and lyrics of the region also began to work on my imagination. And the sound of women's voices. Voices that ranged from Emma Bell Miles, whose Spirit of the Mountains was the first mountain woman's voice to catch me up in its world, to my friends Willa Mae Pressley and Linda Mathis, both Cullowhee valley natives whose sensitivity to the ambiguities of this region helped draw me into the human reality of the place. And then there was Lee Smith, whose character of Granny Younger in Oral History became a guide to the twists and turns of a story-telling that was beginning to fascinate me. These women told me stories, stories of loss, cruelty, disappointments, bitter loves, and 'blood on the moon.' They taught me to sing 'Black Jack Davies' and 'Shady Grove,' to love the names of quilt patterns like 'Heart's Seal' and 'Winding Way,' to relish the saying of particular flowers when I came upon them in the woods—bloodroot, gaywings, trillium.
"Most of my poetry is rooted in the earth of two poetic landscapes, each with its own particular voice and rhythm. One is the flatlands of south Georgia, where I was born and grew up. The other is the mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee. As far back as I can remember, I heard stories of rugged kinsmen who tilled the land and adventurous kinswomen who took to the Black Hills or the Blue Ridge to find their destiny, to strike it rich digging for the mother lode. I began to see the southern mountains as my destination, and throughout the years I have lived in them, they have provided haven and solitude in which to write about both the southernmost reaches of my memory and the windy places of a solitary woman's imagination. If the Deep South is a dusty plain haunted by childhood, these mountains are a crazy quilt of trails haunted by women's voices. One of those voices, that of a persona I have come to call Alma, has been able to say for me what it must have been like to walk particular traces, stand in particular shadows, singing the old ballads and waiting for something to happen. Not only does she embody for me the spirit of the mountains where I now live, she also seems, in some ancestral way, to be speaking as kinswoman, harking me back to those grandmothers and great-grandmothers whose stories I grew up hearing."
Byer's Alma, who first appeared in her 1983 collection Alma: Poems, returns in Wildwood Flower, a collection that captures and pays tribute to the voices and ballads of the mountain women of whom the author speaks. Black Shawl, the author's next collection, continues in this tone, focusing on the traditions and strength of the women of the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Catching Light, Byer's 2002 poetry collection, is an exploration of the fears of women in their later stages of life, including concerns about aging, death, growing unattractive, and leaving things behind. The first part of the book is a ten-part poem titled "In the Photograph Gallery." In it, Byer presents the character Evelyn, who is based on the subject of a series of photographs that the author saw in City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, North Carolina. The photographs, taken by Louanne Watley, featured an aging artist's model—Betty Bell, or "Evelyn"—and were titled "The Evelyn Series." In Catching Light, Evelyn lingers in the gallery where she overhears a frightened little girl who is clutching her mother's skirt ask, "Who is she?," to which her mother replies, "Just a little old lady. That is all she is." Evelyn, however, is revealed to be much more as readers follow her through memories and the circumstances of her life unroll toward death. "I want her to be able to look at what's ahead and spit in its eye," Byer told the Sylva Herald's Lynn Hotaling. "Of course she's afraid, but I didn't want her to be spooked."
In an interview with Smoky Mountain News contributor Gary Carden, Byer revealed that she "stood there in front of each image, trying to see if a voice would come out of the photos. And it did." She combined this voice with her "own memories and fears, so that in a sense the voices merged or coalesced as the poems took shape." The second part of the book captures the tone of both voices as they explore memory and how an individual is shaped by his or her family. "Poetry is the loss of what you love—of trying to recall the essence of a person or memory," Byer told Lynn Hotaling. The book's third and last part highlights the last moments of Evelyn's life as she waits for death, peering through the open door filled with light, unsure of whether she will walk through it and come out on the other side or disappear altogether. She accepts—and ultimately embraces—death as she makes the conscious decision to rise and walk through the door. "Lightly,/lightly, I sing to myself,/shutting the door/ever after behind me."
Ron Houchin, a reviewer on the Appalachian Center of Berea College Web site, wrote "Catching Light is a treatise on self-seeing (self-knowledge), catching and holding in the mind those things of being and growing old, about being and aging.... Catching Light is not death anxiety, letting go of the tight grip on life, or whining about losing one's youthful look in the mirror alone; it is the universal in the individual." Rob Neufeld, in North Carolina's Asheville Citizen-Times, praised Catching Light and Byer herself, stating, "There is a building vision in Byer's growing body of poetry, which . . . achieves clarity and the otherworldly resonance of old age. And yet she's not near the end. We want to keep following her into the visions."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Byer, Kathryn Stripling, Catching Light: Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2002.
Publishers Weekly, October 5, 1992, review of Wildwood Flower, p. 65; October 31, 1994, review of The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets, p. 55.
Southern Humanities Review, winter, 1994, David Scott Ward, review of Wildwood Flower, pp. 105-108.
Women's Review of Books, November, 2002, Doris Davenport, "Light Reading," review of Catching Light, pp. 13-14.
Academy of American Poets Web site,http://www.poets.org/ (February 6, 2003), "Kathryn Stripling Byer."
Appalachian Center of Berea College Web site, www.berea.edu/publications/appalachianheritage (April 10, 2003), Ron Houchin, review of Catching Light.
Asheville Citizen-Times Web site, http://cgi.citizentimes.com/ (April 19, 2002), Rob Neufeld, "Byer's Poems Enter the Mystery of Old Age."
Cortland Review Web site,http://www.cortlandreview.com/ (August, 2002), "Kathryn Stripling Byer."
Smoky Mountain News Web site,http://www.smokymountainnews.com/ (April 24, 2002), Gary Carden, "Shutting the Door Forever After: Byer's Character Experiences Thoughts on a Life Well Lived."
Sylva Herald Web site,http://www.thesylvaherald.com/ (April 18, 2002), Lynn Hotaling, "Byer's Catching Light Searches for Language of Aging."*