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An interview with Cathy Smith Bowers, N.C. Poet Laureate

by Amy Bagwell

An interview with Cathy Smith Bowers, N.C. Poet Laureate

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Picture by Press 53

April 7, 2011

Cathy Smith Bowers will read and speak at CPCC’s Sensoria: A Celebration of the Arts on Thursday, April 14, at 9:30 am at the Halton Theater on CPCC’s Central Campus. The event is free and open to the public.

Cathy Smith Bowers is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, which means all N.C. poets have to do whatever she says. Her fifth and most recent book, Like Shining from Shook Foil (Press 53), includes both new and selected poems. It is a stunning cross-section of a body of poetic work that is complex and accessible, lovely and haunting, devastating and hopeful. And often funny.

Smith Bowers’ poetry has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, Poetry, The Southern Review,and The Kenyon Review. She is on the faculty for the Queens University of Charlotte’s Low-Residency M.F.A. Program, UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program, and Wofford College.

It was at Queens University’s MFA program that this writer had the pleasure of studying with her. My first impression came on the first day of our first workshop, into which all lean 72 inches of Cathy Smith Bowers walked – in flat shoes. She always wears flats. Though she could, Cathy is not one to lord her stature over others.

We might as well start big. Why does poetry matter?

Cathy Smith Bowers: I heard an Episcopal priest, Susan Sims Smith, once say that we should forget ever finding a secret solution that will help us “fix” our flaws and inadequacies once and for all. Instead, she said, what we should really be doing is trying to find a way to be “semi-whole some of the time.” That was a great comfort to hear. Whew! I believe that poetry – whether we are writing it or reading it – is a way to help us be semi-whole some of the time. Poetry should be a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious.

In the early stages of writing a poem, or reading a poem, we should let ourselves be in that unconscious place where we don’t really know what we are doing. I always begin with what I call an abiding image and then write into the mystery of that abiding image. I first let the unconscious – out of which that image has resurfaced – do its work, making its big mess, letting the image go where it needs to go, without any judgment or editing on my part. When the unconscious has had its time, I bring out the conscious part of the psyche to assess the mess and try to make some sense out of it.

This is the part of the process when I look at the mess and try to find the poem – or poems – in it. Then I begin making the rational decision of cutting, structuring, shaping, and polishing. When I reach the point at which I decide, as Robert Frost once said, to abandon it, I am feeling a little “wholer” than I did before. Of course, that’s semi-whole – meaning I will soon have to turn around and set up that dialogue once again, with a different abiding image this time – another image of sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell that has hooked me, demanding that I look closer, beneath the surface of what the eye, the ear, the tongue, the fingertips, the nose have called my attention to. I dread it already – ha!

e.e. cummings said in his Foreword to Is 5 (and the punctuation is his), “If a poet is anybody, he is somebody to whom made things matter very little--somebody who is obsessed by Making.” You just oversaw the preparation and publication of your new book, Like Shining from Shook Foil (Press 53), which includes new and selected poems. Having looked closely at so much of your own body of work, how do you feel about cummings’ statement?

I agree with cummings. It is the process that should be most important. And yet who can deny the pleasure of looking at a “finished” poem and thinking, “I’m not smart enough to have written that. Wow! Thank you, Jesus, Buddha, Vishnu, Isis – all y’all out there who have put your two cents worth into this little thing I have managed to create. Think how impressed my friends and family are going to be.” (Going for a little irony here, of course). I also won’t deny the satisfaction of seeing our poems, etc., in journals we admire and respect. That kind of affirmation is wonderful – but not the reason we should be making art.

Recently I was talking to a lovely woman who is in the process of writing a novel. At one point she said, “With the novel market the way it is these days, I’m not sure I should even bother. I’m not sure anything will ever come of it if I do finish it.”

“That’s none of your business,” I said. She seemed a little taken aback.

“Your business,” I said, “is to turn energy – the impulse to write this particular story – into matter.”  It took me decades to really get to this place in my own writing. What a pleasure writing became at that point.

You’re speaking and reading at CPCC’s Sensoria on April 14. Your event is called “The Abiding Image: An Invitation to Poetry with Cathy Smith Bowers.” Could you tell us what the abiding image is to you, and, without spoiling any surprises, how you will invite CPCC students and the public to poetry?

I plan to discuss my own writing process with the CPCC students at Sensoria and to guide them through the process that always works for me – beginning with the abiding image, writing into the mystery of that image, and then crafting and polishing the poem that has made its way out of that process.

Could you select from Like Shining from Shook Foil the poem you’d most like to see printed with this interview and tell us why?

I think I would choose the poem “Snow.” I still love to look back at that poem and remember what surfaced – both literally and metaphorically. How could I not love imagining again my father’s mouth buried in the sweet smell of my mother’s hair – an image that bears witness to author Thomas Moore’s famous dictum: “The beast at the center of the labyrinth is also an angel.” 



Arts & Culture Editor: Jeff Jackson

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