Poet Laureate visits High Country
The first thing people notice when Cathy Smith Bowers reads her poetry is her distinctly Southern sense of humor.
After all, who would imagine that a reading by North Carolina's Poet Laureate would elicit as many laughs as a standup routine from a seasoned comedian?
"I know, people always tell me that," Bowers said. "I gave a reading last week at Isothermal Community College, and afterward a lovely woman came up to me and said, 'My daughter made me come to this poetry reading. I didn't want to come because I don't really like poetry. But I loved every minute of it.' She had tears in her eyes, and it just moved me the way she came up to me like that."
Bowers' poetry has the power to cause both tears of joy and tears of sadness. Many of her poems are about her childhood in the mill town of Lancaster, S.C. About the time that Bowers left the family for college, her mother moved the rest of her family out of the family home while her alcoholic father was at work.
"I didn't see my father for 20 years," Bowers said. "He had literally disappeared from my life and then came back to Lancaster to die. It shocked me. I was losing him for a second time, and this one was irrevocable. Then I realized he would not become the old man who would be kind like I always imagined."
In addition to losing her father twice, her older brother, a Vietnam War veteran, died early due to drug and alcohol abuse, her younger brother died of AIDS, and her second husband committed suicide.
"They say a lot of comedians become comedians as a way of dealing with their grief," Bowers said. "In my family, there was always a lot of joking and poking fun of each other."
Bowers, who received her master's degree in English from Winthrop University in 1976, now lives in Tryon and teaches at Queens College.
"I always wanted to live in the mountains, ever since I was a young girl," she said.
After teaching high school English for 10 years in her native South Carolina, she switched to teaching college students and began to seriously think about her own writing.
She said she struggled with her early attempts with poetry until she concentrated on an abiding image that she wished to convey to her readers. That helped her create a writing style that is both evocative and emotional.
Currently, she is the author of four books: "The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas," "Traveling in Time of Danger," "A Book of Minutes" and "The Candle I Hold Up to See You."
Bowers is North Carolina's seventh poet laureate.
"It used to be a lifetime appointment like being a member of the Supreme Court," Bowers said. "Then, when Fred Chappell was our poet laureate, they changed it to a two-year appointment with the ability to be reappointed at the state's discretion. Now, they have changed it again to a three-year term, which I think is a good term. It gives other poets the chance to be poet laureate."
Bowers appointment to poet laureate came as something of a surprise to her.
"I got a call from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2009 asking if I would serve on a committee to help choose a new state poet laureate," she said. "I told them that I would love to do that. A couple of weeks later I got a call from them saying that I couldn't serve on the committee because I had been nominated. I was so disappointed because I wanted to be on that committee; there were something like 80 nominations for poet laureate.
"So, I put it out of my mind. I didn't think about it again. Nobody contacted me when I became one of 15 finalists. Then on January 7, 2010, I got a call saying that I was to be the next poet laureate. The committee had chosen me and it was up for Gov. Perdue's approval. Then I found out Gov.
Perdue had okayed it, so that's how I became poet laureate. I was appointed on January 29, 2010."
April is National Poetry Month, and Bowers and the North Carolina Arts Council have set up online resources for teachers, students and poets.
"I feel honored to be representing all the poets of North Carolina," Bowers said. "Poetry moves us in a profound and positive way. I am hoping this will be an opportunity for me to keep everyone in touch, poets and word lovers alike."
Bowers gave a poetry reading last Thursday at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute (CCC&TI) in Boone as part of that school's annual Writers Symposium.