Kathryn Stripling Byer Class of 1966
Former North Carolina Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer ’66 offers powerful advice to aspiring writers. “Begin where you are,” she said. “I would give that advice to writers entering the fifth grade just as I would to adult writers. Set up a dialogue –– a connection –– with your readers. I want writers to bring their own experiences into the art of poetry. Then, it’s fresh. From traditional forms of poetry to rap lyrics, it must be fresh and authentic.”
Kay, along with current North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, returned to her alma mater this fall to advise dozens of students during a weeklong celebration of Southern Poetry. Special events included lectures, writing workshops, public poetry recitations, and individual visits with students. The visit also marked the beginning of Wesleyan’s newly established Campbell-Stripling Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Program, an initiative Kay began several years ago.
“After my father died, I sat down with my mother and brother and we discussed the possibility of directing some money toward a meaningful project to honor my father’s family. As it turns out, the program will honor both my father’s and my mother’s families,” said Kay. “I thought for a number of years that Wesleyan needed a writer-in-residence program, something that could attract really exceptional writers from around the country. I knew that if students could interact with a living, breathing woman writer –– someone who could give advice and inspiration –– it would be something special for everyone involved.” “It has taken about three years to plan, fund, and establish our writer-in-residence program,” she continued, “because I wanted Wesleyan to be able to offer an honorarium that would attract high caliber writers and a wide variety of writers –– poets, fiction writers, and especially writers of all ethnicities to ensure a diversity of voices. Aside from the stipend, Wesleyan’s beautiful setting also is a draw. The campus is a wonderful place to work, reflect, and gain inspiration. During a weeklong residency, writers will have time to work on their own writing and interact with students.”
As an artist-in-residence herself, Kay has taught at several colleges and universities including Converse College and Appalachian State University. She served as the poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University and Lenoir-Rhyne College. She also is a former poetry instructor in the Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has spoken and taught workshops on the Wesleyan campus and also served as the Inaugural Poet in 2004 commemorating President Ruth Knox’s inauguration as the College’s first alumna president with the poem “The Still Here and Now.”
In 2005, Byer was appointed North Carolina’s fifth poet laureate by Governor Mike Easley. She was the first woman to hold the post and served five years as ambassador of the state’s literature. “The Governor was conscious of selecting a woman poet laureate,” said Kay. “He felt a feminine voice was needed at that time in the state. I think a minority voice also is needed and I hope to see the first African American fill the role as North Carolina’s poet laureate.”
During her tenure as poet laureate, Byer fostered the literary community of her home state through the design of long-term programs and projects of special interest using resources from the Arts Council and other partners. She also participated in public events and wrote poems commemorating occasions of historic or cultural importance. “It is a very important role,” she said. “To make the case for poetry, to engage people, you must be committed to literacy, literature, and education. Poets are not isolated. We are always learning from one another.”
The last time Kay returned to Wesleyan she served as the 2006 commencement speaker and captured the attention of nearly 150 graduates with an inspiring call to action. Commemorating the occasion with a poem written for the graduating class, Byer challenged the women of Wesleyan to recognize the authenticity and vitality currently within them and to find the courage, Coraggio, to retain these precious qualities as they leave the safety of Wesleyan sisterhood. “Forty years later I’ve come back to say, simply, always be ready to welcome the green, all that’s verde within you. Have the courage of your corazon, have esperanza…” she instructs through the poem’s fifth stanza.
In the first rank of contemporary poets, Kay has been recognized both regionally and nationally for her work. She has received the Brockman Campbell Book Award, Thomas Wolfe Award, Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets, Hanes Poetry Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, Southern Independent Booksellers Award, and the Ann Sexton Poetry Prize.
In 2001, she received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the highest honor a citizen of that state can receive. Byer also has received fellowships from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. Kay also is the 1993 recipient of Wesleyan’s Alumnae Award for Distinguished Achievement. In October of 2012, Kay was inducted to the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.
After earning a bachelor’s degree with major concentration in English from Wesleyan College in 1966, Kay later earned a Master of Fine Art in Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Byer is the author of several award winning collections of poetry, including Black Shawl, Wildwood Flower, Catching Light, and most recently, Coming to Rest. Her first collection, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was chosen for the Associated Writing Programs Award Series in 1986.
Her poems and essays have appeared in many periodicals and anthologies. Essays have appeared in Shenandoah, Boston Globe, Carolina Quarterly, as well as newspapers across North Carolina. Her poetry has appeared in journals ranging from The Atlantic to Appalachian Heritage and was recently featured in Six Poets from the Mountain South, by John Lang.
Basing much of her work on her heritage as a Southerner and the area in which she lives, Byer brings to life the stories of women and the lives they lead. Her poetry has been set to music by composers Harold Schiffman, Martin Bresnick, and William Bolcom. Falling, based on two of her poems along with one by David Bottoms, premiered at Wesleyan College in 1995. Blood Mountain for soprano and piano premiered in New York in 2008; Alma, a cantata, in Gyor, Hungary in 2007; and Four Piedmont Songs in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, by the Piedmont Chamber Singers last year.
Jacar Press in Durham, North Carolina, published her sonnet sequence Southern Fictions, which appeared originally in Callaloo: Confederate Flag Issue. The poems take on the subject of race relations during the 1960s in her home county of Mitchell and neighboring Baker County.
Kay and her husband, James, live in Cullowhee, North Carolina. He retired as the head of the English Department at Western Carolina University; together, they have one daughter, Corinna. Although Byer has been a resident of Cullowhee, North Carolina, most of her adult life, she is originally from Mitchell County, Georgia, and is the daughter of C.M. and Bernice Stripling of Camilla, Georgia. Kay's sixth book of poetry, Desceat, was published by LSU Press in fall 2012.