N.C. poet laureate to visit Catawba College

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 11, 2011

By Jennifer Hubbard
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — As you may or may not know, every year the United States appoints a poet laureate, an official consultant to the Library of Congress whose role it is to serve as an ambassador for poetry and to promote, on a national level, an appreciation for an art as old as language itself.
Philip Levine currently holds this lofty position, and I’d venture to guess that he’s a wonderful human being, as most poets I’ve met are. But praise for Levine cannot be as effusive as what has been said about Cathy Smith Bowers, North Carolina’s own state bard.
“Cathy Smith Bowers is an authentic, compassionate and brilliant human being,” Karon Luddy, a fellow writer and teaching colleague of Bowers, told me. “Her poems are living, breathing entities that can alter the course of your life. Her poetry and her personality inspired me to become a writer. Since we came from the same small town, with similar family situations, I figured if she could do it — maybe I could, too. Her generosity and comic sensibility are the traits I love the most. To know her is a blessing.”
Though Smith Bowers lives in Tryon, she grew up in Lancaster, S.C., where her father was a mill worker who drank and her mother was a housewife who moved her six children out of their home one afternoon while her husband was at work. My parents “hated each other,” she notes, “but they loved language. I thought if I became a writer, they would love me and love each other.”
The losses she has endured over her life — including a younger brother’s death from AIDS, an older brother’s death from drugs and alcohol, and a husband’s suicide — could have made Smith Bowers a bitter, angry person. She isn’t, and she firmly believes that it’s poetry that has spared her.
Not one to confine herself to an ivory tower, feather quill in hand or strut around with garlands of greenery on her head, Smith Bowers is as accessible as your next-door neighbor and uses her honorary position to show others how the power of the word can transform grief into healing.
When I heard her speak a few years ago at a Charlotte Writers’ Club meeting, I thought she was as funny as Jon Stewart or Ellen DeGeneres. And it was clear she had a devoted following. Her students absolutely and universally adore her.
Says awarding-winning poet Lisa Zerkle of Charlotte, “I thought I hated (poetry) before. I was an English major, but always dreaded the poetry section of my classes. I took a creative writing class at Queens with Cathy, and that was it for me. Once I found out that poetry could be relevant, funny and modern, I was hooked.”
Not only does Smith Bowers teach at Queens University in Charlotte in the MFA Creative Writing Program, but she also teaches at Wofford College in South Carolina. She is the author of five books of poetry and has been lauded time and time again for writing poems that are refreshingly accessible and personal but also far-reaching. Interestingly enough, she counts Philip Levine as one of her favorite poets, a “regular soul” who writes about “down-to-earth things.”
Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, Poetry, The Southern Review and The Kenyon Review. She is the author of four books: “The Love that Ended Yesterday in Texas” (inaugural winner of the Texas Tech University Press First Book Competition, 1992); “Traveling in Time of Danger” (Iris Press, 1999), “A Book of Minutes” (Iris Press, 2004), and “The Candle I Hold Up to See You” (Iris Press, 2009). Her book of selected poems, “Like Shining from Shook Foil,” was published in 2010 by Press 53.
Bowers will speak on Monday, Nov. 21, at 7 p.m., at the Tom Smith Auditorium on the campus of Catawba College. The event is free and open to all and is sponsored by the Catawba College English department and the Center for Faith & the Arts.
Jenny Hubbard is writer-in-residence at Center for Faith & the Arts.