Ashley T. Evans photo
Not one to rest on her laurels, Kay Byer shares her love of books and words as a poetry ambassador for North Carolina.
When Kay Byer took on the position of poet laureate for her state, she was “crowned” with a laurel wreath at a huge and festive gathering in Raleigh. Such a wreath comes from a long tradition of honoring heroes from athletic to political to literary venues, hence the term “laureate.”
Kings and emperors traditionally had court appointed “versifiers” who joined the minstrels and court musicians in entertaining royalty and in celebrating important events with their compositions. The first person to be officially named “poet laureate” in England was John Dryden, and the position has continued to the present.
North Carolina created the post of poet laureate in 1935, and Arthur Talmage Abernathy was the first poet named. It was a lifetime position until quite recently. James Larkin Pearson held the post from 1953 until his death in 1981 at the age of 101. Sam Ragan held the post from 1982 until his death in 1996. Fred Chappell accepted a five-year term in 1997, though he served for a slightly longer time.
Byer was named poet laureate by Gov. Mike Easley in 2005 for what was to have been a two-year term. She has been asked to continue in the post until the next laureate is named.
As poetry has seemed to be less a part of mainstream education in this country and in some ways less a given in the lives of people on a daily basis, the task of poet laureate has grown greater. Of course, the poet may still write poems commissioned for special occasions, but a far more crucial task is to find ways of making poetry come alive for people, especially for children. To that end, the poet laureate travels to schools, libraries and universities reading and teaching about poetry. To watch Kay Byer in action in a group of people is to understand completely what all the fuss is about and why a poet laureate has a vital role to play in our public life as well as in our everyday lives.
When Byer is surrounded by a group of people, especially children, the room comes alive. She is dynamic and vivid and invites everyone in the room to come alive with her. She relishes words, and she loves poems and poets and wants everyone else to love them as she does. Recently at City Lights, an independent bookstore in Sylva, N.C., Byer hosted a reading for her friend, Judith Harway, who has a new book of poems. In the audience were poet friends, an older professor who uses poetry to reach Alzheimer’s patients, two student teachers from a nearby university, and a little girl of about 11.
After introducing her friend and asking her to read some poems, Byer opened the conversation to the audience. A lively discussion followed, and she made sure the young girl was invited to participate, which she did with enthusiasm. It was a brief sample of Byer’s style. She is the consummate teacher who believes in every student (no matter their age) and is determined that each person can grow and learn as a writer. She does not write anyone off unless they themselves are determined not to be open.
Byer herself is a skilled and knowledgeable poet and the author of many books. Although she grew up in North Georgia, she has lived in the mountains of Western North Carolina most of her adult life. During her time as laureate, she has worked to encourage and promote poets both new and established. She has maintained an active website through the North Carolina Arts Council www.ncarts.org/poet_laureate with the tireless assistance of former director Debby McGill. On that site Byer featured a poet of the week, frequently a poet who is not well known or even much published. She continues to showcase poets and poems on her blog, which you can reach via the website for the NC Arts Council. On her blog she often posts assignments that school teachers can access when teaching poetry to their students. She created Student Laureate Awards and travels continually to hold readings, workshops, and speaking engagements. She has taken strong political stands about such vital concerns as peace in the Middle East, knowing that speaking truth regardless of risk has long been the calling of the authentic poet.
Easter Morning on the Hairpin Curve Smoky Mountains
Is it water or
phacelia that tumbles
down the banks,
overflowing its rocky
merging this morning
in one brimful flagrant
yes, She lives,
does the Earth,
by dipper the day
for us out of
her dark womb?
— K.S. Byer (first published in Kakalak)
The tests I need to pass are prescribed by the spirits
of place who understand travel but not amnesia.
— from “This Is My Third and Last Address to You,” Adrienne Rich
Almost the age when memory falters,
I fear being made to count backward
by seven’s, to answer to date, year, and
Presidents, as if those numbers and names
matter more in the end than this place
where I stand at the same kitchen window,
observing the same pines set swaying by wind,
reaching upward as I’ll reach, come morning,
my arms to the ceiling, breathing the dark out
of body and spirit, exhaling that old dream
of nothingness: laying my head down to sleep.
Now Rocky Face Ridge catches fire
in the last light and, though I can’t hear it
from where I stand, Cullowhee Creek tumbles into
the Tuckaseegee, always unscrolling beneath me
the names I already know. Snowbird.
Buzzards Roost. Weyahutta. Oconaluftee.
I don’t know how long names can last
if there’s no one to care where they live.
What I saw on the hairpin curve down from
the Chimney Tops, white as snow, I’ve not forgotten.
Phacelia. And how, on the trail leading
up to the summit of Suncota Ridge,
I saw sauntering toward me a young woman
I could have sworn was the reincarnation of
every spring wildflower ever named anywhere.
Closer she comes to me each April,
as if she means more than I have a lifetime
to know. Roundabout her, her white Easter dress
whispers every thing I want to keep living
here in this valley that cups the last swallow of light,
every name I must reach to remember or else
lose them, hillside by hillside, to darkness.
— K.S. Byer