Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Kathryn Stripling Byer, poet, a friend to many, an activist and advocate

In honor of Kathryn Stripling Byer, first woman Poet Laureate of North Carolina, 2005 - 2009, who passed away today from cancer

I met Kathryn in 1998 at the John C. Campbell Folk School and bought her poetry book, In the Midst of the Harvest, one of my very favorites.

We had a connection even before we met. She and I grew up about 30 miles from each other in SW Georgia. Her memories of the farm where she lived often find their way into her early poems. They take me right back to  my childhood.

I was fortunate enough to take a few classes with Kathryn, who became a friend, and she was generous to help me with my poetry. She wrote a nice blurb for my chapbook, Now Might as Well be Then. She featured me on her blog where she posted several of my poems.

In 2014 she and I worked on a writing conference held in Sylva, NC at the Jackson County Library. She would never take any payment for what she did for NCWN-West which she was instrumental in bringing to fruition. 
On May 6, 2017, she taught a two hour workshop for our one day conference, A Day for Writers. She  was frail from the chemo treatments, but she insisted she could do it and she did. Her evaluations were outstanding with most just wishing it had been longer.

She said she was glad she did it and even talked about the  next time she taught this class. I was concerned about her health, but she seemed to  feel she was going to be fine. Doctors often hide the hard truths, I think.

I admired her for her forthrightness and down to earth personality. She never let ego interfere with her relationships with writers and was quick to compliment others. She offered a helping hand to any poet who was serious about their work. Although family was of utmost importance to her, she attended writing events all over the country and in other countries as well. 

Her poems have been put to music in a number of ways. You can see them on YouTube. 

She was not afraid to speak out about injustice and had definite opinions about government and those in power. She was an advocate for our environment, civil rights for all, and for peace. She was an influencer who was respected by writers and non-writers. She wrote letters to those in congress and made her voice heard on issues about which she was passionate. She did her research and I, like many who followed her, knew we could count on her when she spoke or posted online.

I am in awe when I realize I was friends with such an important and good person,  one who has  touched so many lives in one way or another, and I just took it for granted. If I sent her an email, she would answer promptly. I knew Kay was one who would do all she could for our writers and even for a stranger who was in need. 

We will never know what all she did for NCWN-West as she helped members and the organization stay afloat in the early days. If she had a friend who needed help getting a book published, and a book that Kay felt was worthy, she would not rest until that book was accepted by a publisher. 

I believe the poetry of Kathryn Stripling Byer will be lasting, and she will be known by generations to come. Hers was a voice stilled too soon. I am sad for myself and for her family and I am sad for those who will never have the opportunity to know her. 

The Still Here and Now
For Ruth
Wesleyan College, 11/6/04

This fragrance I’ve never been able to name,
floating past on the skin of an eighteen year old,
still invites me to stand on the loggia again,
afternoon ticking down into dark,
asking What am I doing here?
lost among strangers with hair more
bouffant than mine, clothing more stylish.
Soon I’d learn the words for what I couldn’t find
in my closet: Bass weejuns, madras, and Villager.
As for the name of that scent mingling
now with aroma of barbecue served on the porch,
it would have to be French, I imagined,
Ma Griffe, L’air du Temps, Insouciance,
not my mother’s stale Emeraude clinging to me
from our goodbye embraces. Now dusk would be
shrouding my father’s farm, doves mourning
out in the empty fields. I knew my way back
to all that. Don’t think for a moment I didn’t
wish I had the courage to set out for home.
But just then the sun set. The lamps bloomed
like story book tulips. The campus unfolded
around me its labyrinth that like a medieval pilgrim
I’d walk until I reached the center where I’d find
no Rose Window as I saw later at Chartres
sifting light down upon us, but tall classroom windows
that shook when the Rivoli train passed. I still walk
those pathways at night, dreaming arias spiraling
forth from the practice rooms, each dorm a beehive
of desk lamps and phones ringing endlessly.
Time, say some physicists, does not exist.
Sheer Illusion. Each moment a still frame,
as though in a movie reel unspooling out to the edge
of the universe. Each now forever.
So let my first afternoon darken to first night.
Inside a small room overlooking a golf course
and woodland, a small bed waits,
heaped with my unpacked belongings.
I slowly walk toward it, my nostrils still seeking
a fragrance I now name Siempre because
the next day I sit down to learn Spanish,
not French. In my best cursive
I write my name on each blank sheet I’m given.
The ginkgo trees flutter their luminous handkerchiefs:
Buenos Dias, Bonjour, Wilkommen.

Again and again I come back
to the start of this journey. I stand looking down
at the fountain, as if to say Here I am.
There you are, water sings to our gathering voices.
The loggia is filling with girls wanting supper,
and now she whose fragrance awakened my senses
so many years back brushes by and the wake
of her passage still trembles around me.









2 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

Poignant and beautiful.
It sounds as if the world is diminished by her loss, and simultaneously richer for her stay.

Glenda Council Beall said...

You said it so beautifully, EC. Diminished by her loss and richer for her stay. She was so loved and respected. Thanks for your comment.