Threading Her Life Into Her Work

Kimberly Simms grew up in the milieu of the NC/SC textile industry. Her book of poetry, Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill, addresses the conditions of early-20th-century millworkers in the area.
Photo by Matt Rose

When Kimberly Simms was writing her book at the Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock, she says she could sense the late poet standing beside her. “I could feel the presence,” she says. “It was amazing.”

Most writers-in-residence work in the estate’s green caretaker’s building during their stay, but because of renovations being done to the cottage, Simms was allowed to have an office in the “Crow’s Nest” section of the historic main house.

Her love of the past led to her debut work, a collection of poems titled Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill, created during her stint on the Sandburg property in April 2016. The book also contains the rarely seen photography of sociologist Lewis Hine and gives a voice to textile mill workers from the early 1900s.

“A Little Spinner in the Mollohan Mills, Newberry, S.C.” Photos by Lewis Hine: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

It’s a legacy of the Carolinas and Georgia that rarely gets decent coverage in history books, says Simms, whose own father worked in textiles. “[There might be] one or two paragraphs,” she says. “For me, I wanted to bring awareness to the way life was for those working in the industry back in the early 1900s.” (Novelist/short-story writer Ron Rash, a distinguished professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University, praised Simms’ collection for focusing on an overlooked, often harrowing era of Southern history.)

“I’ve got a lot of passion for the area,” says Simms, “and I love the rich history we have here in the South.” Her background in theater and history “helps when I’m sharing my poems,” she adds. “I took AP History classes in high school and had great relationships with my teachers because I was always asking a thousand questions.”

Simms, who lives in Marietta, SC, with her husband Jeremy and their daughter Jordan, graduated from Furman University with a degree in English and received her Master’s degree in the same subject from Clemson University. Her poetry has appeared in literary journals such as the South Carolina Review and the Asheville Poetry Review.

Instead of focusing on her own life experiences, the common mode of the confessional poet, “[I’m] really interested in trying to find the context of the poems and stories … gett[ing] into all of this historical research about the time period the story was written in,” Simms reflects. Even while pursuing her English studies, she says, “I was just as interested in the history of the story as I was in the literature itself.”

In January, the Friends of Carl Sandburg will announce the 2018 Writer in Residence. The emerging author usually works at the renovated green caretaker’s building on the Connemara property, although when Simms wrote Lindy Lee, her office was in the Crow’s Nest part of the main house, a space used by Sandburg himself.

The writer-in-residence program was launched in 2010 to help emerging fiction writers and poets and is sponsored by Friends of Carl Sandburg, according to Chief of Visitor Services Sarah Perschall at the Carl Sandburg Home. She and colleagues will announce the 2018 Writer in Residence in January — Sandburg’s birthday is January 6 — beginning a landmark year for the estate, aka Connemara, which celebrate its 50th year as a National Historic Site on October 2018.

The subtext of historical awareness running through Lindy Lee: Songs on Mill Hill makes Simms an ideal alumnus of the program, since Sandburg during his long life was keenly interested in themes of social justice, especially the Civil Rights Movement. Style-wise, though, Simms’ book more closely evokes Edgar Lee Masters’ famous Spoon River Anthology, vernacular free-verse odes that commemorate the long-gone residents of a hardscrabble Midwestern town. (The book was considered revolutionary when it was published in 1915; Sandburg himself reviewed it warmly.)

Simms’ idea for her own book came through a workshop she did on writing family-history poems. “Everyone was supposed to bring a photograph, and we were doing an exercise where I had a picture of a woman sitting at a textile mill with a kind of faraway look on her face. I ended up writing the first draft of the first poem called ‘First Day at the Mill,’ and now it’s one of the last poems in the book,” she says.

The piece was published by Furman University’s Ninety-Six Press in their Millennial Sampler of South Carolina Poetry collection. And so Simms kept going. In her finished work, Lewis Hine’s haunting photos appear about every third page, some offering added resonance and others clearly inspiring specific poems, such as one showing a man’s grim but resilient face not quite hidden behind a screen of fibers.

Daddy’s Silence, 1918

Silence is a pause between shifts,
a Sunday dawn. It ain’t a commodity
but it’s rarer than gold.

Farmers got a sense about snakes
they hear the tremor of the grass,
the slight zither.

But here, the looms are so stretched out
they shriek and jerk like sinners
in a circle of fire.

I know the sound of moth’s wings.
I’ve heard the first cricket of spring,
a lifetime back I held the clarity of silence.

“When I was in third grade, there was a contest sponsored by a local textile company to design a poster that would encourage Americans to buy American-made textiles,” Simms remembers. “My poster said, ‘People sleep cozily with American textiles,’ and my poster won first place in the competition. Looking back, it’s interesting to me that there is this kind of threading in my own life in a way that the textile mills have followed me around.”

The North Carolina Writers’ Network-West Division features Kimberly Simms on Monday, January 15, 2018, at 5:30pm at the Henderson County Library (301 N. Washington St. in downtown Hendersonville). Following Simms’ reading is an open mic for local writers to present their short works between three and five minutes long. For more information, see www.ncwriters-west.org or call 828-697-4725. Simms’ book is available at local independent bookstores and at major online retailers or through her website, kimberlysimms.com.

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