Lanier Library Poetry Festival

Former NC poet laureate Cathy Smith Bowers hosts a workshop at the Tryon literary event. Photo by Tim Robison.

Cathy Smith Bowers has an unfeasible ambition for poetry.

“My goal in life is to have everybody in the world write at least one poem,” the former poet laureate of North Carolina says with a small laugh. “Don’t ask me how I’m doing on that.”

Bowers will probably never reach her goal, but she’s willing to help a select few improve their verse. And she knows it’s a journey that can have some bumps. She wanted to be a painter as a child. However, “my family was very poor, and we didn’t have any paint,” she remembers. “I had some paper and I had a pencil.”

Although her parents had little schooling, they liked to read aloud, and Bowers knew from an early age that they loved language. She began to write because it was “the most logical thing for me to do instead of being a painter,” she says. “Since I didn’t have any of the [painting] materials, I started playing around with words and I got hooked.”

For the second year in a row, she’s hosting a workshop during the Lanier Library Poetry Festival, the namesake event of the century-plus-year-old private library in Tryon. In time with National Poetry Month’s 20th anniversary, the festival has increased its reach to include several weeks of events instead of the typical one-weekend affair.

Bowers’ workshop, limited to 10 poets, is set for April 8. The state laureate from 2010-2012, she’s lived in Polk County since 2003 and now resides in the Mill Spring community. Last year, her workshop included a wide range of poets, topics, and styles. Participants read their work, and then group feedback is given relating to Bowers’ four aspects of the poem — feeling, story, language, and line.

She’ll tell the class about her favorite bumper sticker, which reads, “We’re all perfect — and we could all use a little improvement,” and she’ll make students see how this fits to their own poems.

Maybe one of those poems will one day be published.

“The state of poetry in North Carolina is flourishing,” Bowers says excitedly. “Not only [here], but all over the world. There are more venues for publishing poetry than ever before.”

She mentions old-school literary journals and newer online versions gaining interest. The state’s current poet laureate, Shelby Stephenson, will also appear, speaking at the monthly Thirsty for Learning Thursday on April 14. 

Stephenson, who’s 77, travels a lot for his laureateship. He appears at libraries, heads out to nursing homes with his guitar, and gives speeches across the state. Fittingly for an N.C. native poet, he puts a lot of music in the mix. The native of Benson, in N.C.’s coastal plain section, is heavily regionalist, imbuing his work with the atmosphere of many generations.

There’s a picture window in his home that looks out to the family’s old burying plot, including the 17 unmarked graves of slaves owned by his great-grandfather. Stephenson’s 2008 work, Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl, won the statewide Bellday Books Prize. Final judge Allen Grossman called the work a “strenuous questioning” of the topic, a “heart-breaking poetic narrative [that] holds affinities to the work of Susan Howe and James Agee.”

About his art, Stephenson muses, “I don’t try to do it. It’s like needing a drink of water.” His talks vary, he says, because he doesn’t want to bore himself. (Two of his chapbooks were written as apologias to the opossum: “I’m trying to give back something we took away by hunting and eating it growing up,” he once remarked.)

“One of the joys of being laureate is to know the joys of being on the road,” says Stephenson. The blank page itself is not a roadblock for him, but the stuff of adventure — a chance to “move words around.”

The Lanier Library Poetry Festival, honoring the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month and the private library’s founding presence — Reconstruction-era Southern poet Sidney Lanier — is held in Tryon. Cathy Smith Bowers’ workshop, “Who Says Tension is a Bad Thing?,” happens April 8. Current N.C. Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson reads on April 14 at 5:30pm. For information on additional workshops and panels, including the April 23 event commemorating student and adult winners of the 8th Annual Sidney Lanier Poetry Competition, see www.lanierlib.org or call 828-859-9535.

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