Welcome to where I am, where my kitchen's always messy, a pot's (or a poet) always about to boil over, a dog is always begging to be fed. Drafts of poems on the counter. Windows filled with leaves. Wind. Clouds moving over the mountains. If you like poetry, books, and music--especially dog howls when a siren unwinds down the hill-- you'll like it here.




Sunday, August 31, 2008

Labor Day Eulogy

As another hurricane bears down on New Orleans, this poem that appeared in THE RALEIGH NEWS AND OBSERVER shortly after Katrina's devastation seems appropriate.

In the days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I was in near constant email communication with my friend doris davenport, African-American poet and performance artist, who now lives in Albany, Georgia. Her grief over the destruction of New Orleans and my own horror at what I saw unfolding came together in message after urgent message. I wanted to speak to our words shared across the the racial divide that this disaster has so clearly revealed and to draw the horrific images that we beheld together into the closing image of “Hands All Around,” my favorite quilt pattern from the North Carolina Mountains, one that signifies what we must do in the wake of this disaster.


........ This labor to make our words matter
is  what any good quilter teaches.
A stitch in time,  let’s  say.
A  blind stitch,
that grips the edges
of what’s left,  the ripped
scraps and  remnants, whatever
won’t stop taking shape even though the whole
crazy quilt’s falling to pieces.
                   from "Mountain Time" Black Shawl, LSU Press, 1998

for doris davenport

This day we’ve been given
to sit down and catch our breath,
look at the goldenrod flooding
the roadsides, the pumpkin vines

clinging to rusty fence,
coneflowers blooming their last,
I keep thinking of words
from a poem I wrote so many years ago
I can’t remember the woman who wrote it,

the one who believed words do
matter.   And yet our words burned
across cyberspace last week,
our deep-Southern horror and rage
at what we beheld, our people

flailing in  high water,
wandering rubble like ghosts,
while the microphones stalked them,
wanting some raw words to beam

round the country,
the man who wailed over his wife
washed away,"She Gone!"
Old women rocking on porches
the waters spared, muttering

prophecies nobody knew
how to understand.
"Listen," I wanted to say
to the journalists,  President,
all the ones come down to pose
for their photo-ops, "Listen!"

And let the words linger
a long time, for these are the voices
of this place we love,  These are
our people, we said again and again, 

for we know how the old ditch
of race makes us stumble
apart from each other. But not now.
We poets now must labor,
to listen and  make our words
matter enough to stitch
"Hands All Around"  to pull over us
all, saying, Rest awhile here
in the silence from which our best words
grow like coneflowers,
pumpkin vines clinging to fencewire for dear life.

"Hands All Around" is a favorite quilt pattern here in the  NC mountains.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Penelope Scambly Schott

(Penelope Scambly Schott)

❉ I met Penelope Schott in the summer of 1977 at a writers' workshop in Critz, VA, where A.R. Ammons was the workshop leader. We have been friends ever since. Penelope then lived in New Jersey; she now lives in Portland, Oregon. She's an avid hiker, as the photo suggests. Penelope's earlier books include The Pest Maiden, A Is For Anne, and Baiting the Void. May the Generations Die in the Right Order may be ordered from Main Street Rag Books. (mainstreetrag.com)

❉ What’s Inside

When I opened the box
and took out the bag

when I unfolded the top of the bag
and reached in past my wrist

when I unfurled my fingers
and poked toward the bottom of the bag

when I stroked something
that almost felt like fur

it was my dead father’s springy white hair
it was my yellow dog’s silky coat

it was the channeled mink coat of the lady
who used to live downstairs

it was the silk-lined ermine muff
from when I was a princess

it was the damp taste of my yellow pigtail
wound around a puffy red thumb

it was one howl in a chorus
on this treeless hill

it was the tufted and variegated pelt
I am sprouting in my sleep

❉ What the Bed Knows

I am a bed in a busy house of loss,
frost in the yard and inside the house.

Today I am married to the lamp shade:
we cast our hot eye on the damp head

of a solitary woman dreaming of lions,
whiskers purring, fur on the quilt, not

this wide, cold sheet. No silence
ever wider than death, no absence

more complete. The languor of grief
astounds her. Her fingers are weak,

and she holds sadness like a handful
of loose gravel,

not knowing how to set it down.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Looking out

I love looking out these windows in our living room. The sofa I'm sitting on right now faces the window pictured below. This afternoon the wind is moving through the leaves, the limbs of the trees sway, a few leaves fall. It's nearly the first of September, after all, and soon enough, we'll see even more of them coming to rest on the ground.

I am not the only one who likes to look out this window. Our little dog Lord Byron climbs up on the top of my husband's easy chair. But now look! Here's our big dog Bro sitting in the chair, looking out the window. He weighs nearly 80 pounds! His rump is hanging off. (The vet says he needs to lose weight.) I wonder what he sees out there. What he hears. The dogs are constant sources of humor, irritation, and affection. We know we are crazy to have so many of them.

In the meantime, we'll continue to look out the windows, the dogs and I. The leaves will change color and fall to earth, the clouds will keep churning on over the horizon, the students on the road below racing by, their brakes squealing. The first frost will come, leveling our garden and turning the stalks brown, leaving the basil little more than a summer dream. No more morning glories, zinnias, petunias. We'll kindle our first fire in the woodstove. We'll look to the pleasures of autumn and winter.

And we'll hope that our Big Bro will lose the ten pounds the vet has told us he must!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Osondu Booksellers

(Cheri Jones and K. Byer)

Osondu Booksellers presents “Women in Reflection,” an afternoon of readings by Nan Watkins (“East toward Dawn”) at 1:30, Cheri Jones (“Chains”) at 2, Joyce Sheldon (“From Fear to Faith, Seekers & Dreamers”) at 2:30, and N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer at 3 at 184 N. Main St., Waynesville. (828-456-8062.)

Thus the news release in the local papers ran. Such few words can't contain the reality of that afternoon, however. When real, living, breathing writers and their readers come together over quiche, tea, and brownies, something magical happens. And when those writers and readers push back their plates and begin to communicate with each other, something life-sustaining happens. How could those who love words exist without these moments and without people like Margaret Osondu who, against daunting odds, keep independent bookstores alive?

The quiche was good but the talk was better! Thank you, Margaret, and thanks to all the Indie bookstores out there doing their best to keep literacy and the love of reading alive in this country.

Saturday, August 23, 2008



The smell of dirt, always
the smell of dry dirt down in Georgia
where I sweated through summer,
my father complaining about the blue sky
stretching all the way west into Arkansas.
Dry ice they’d tumble
from planes sometimes. Thunder
and strong wind might come

but no rain. The pigs grumbled
from sunup to sundown. The cows stood
immobilized under the oak trees,
their turds turning black as the biscuits I burned
while I daydreamed. Where I played I saw corn dying
year after year, teased by dust devils
leaving their dust in between my toes
and in ring after ring round my neck. I scrubbed
ring after ring of black dirt from the bathtub
at night. I got used to my own sweat

and so much hot weather
the silly petunias collapsed
by mid-afternoon. Without looking I knew what
I’d find, the whole flower bed lazy

as I was. You hold up
your shoulders straight, I heard a thousand times.
Books on my head, I’d be sent out
to water the flowers as if that would help salvage
anything but my good humor, the smell of wet dirt

my reward, for which I knew I ought
to be grateful. I am
grateful, now that I’m thirsty as dry land

I stand upon, stoop-shouldered,
wanting a flash flood to wash away Georgia
while I aim the water hose into a sad patch of pansies
as if nothing’s changed. I can still hear my father complain
while my mother cooks supper and I swear to leave
home tomorrow. In Oregon dams burst
but I don’t believe it. Here water is
only illusion, an old trick
light plays on the high way that runs north
through field after field after field.

from The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, Texas Tech University Press, 1986, AWP Award Series

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


My counter top is covered with tomatoes! Last year our crop succumbed to blight, but this year we have a glorious harvest. Two writers come to mind when I gather my tomatoes in the early morning--novelist Vicki Lane, whose recipes for preserving tomatoes--and her photos of them--can be found at vickilanemysteries.blogspot.com, and poet Becky Gould Gibson. I've taped Becky's poem "Tomato" to my fridge and have at this moment a batch of tomatoes in my oven, roasting according to Vicki's specifications. Here is Becky's poem, with left lines not aligned as they should be, thanks to my incompetence as a blogger. The poem should be rounded like a large plump, ripe tomato. My apologies, Becky!

(Becky Gould Gibson)


for my mother

Every July the same story
the same rumor runs through the market
tomatoes ready and ripening displayed on the tables
Early Girls, Better Boys in all their blemished perfection
For these, Atalanta would stop, give up her freedom
Tomato is text, drama, needs no exaggeration, heightening
a myth of the purely obvious, of nothing under the veil
A child sprawls in her grandmother’s garden, book in one hand
tomato in the other, eats as she reads, skin and all, the flesh
with the words. As juice runs down her eating arm onto
the spread pages, she knows she’ll never read only
for meaning, but always bite into language
a shaker of salt at her elbow
take it in whole.

This poem is from Becky Gould Gibson's Aphrodite's Daughter, recently published by Texas Review Press and winner of the 2006 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize. Becky has lived in Winston-Salem for many years. Her Needfire recently won the Brockman-Campbell award from the North Carolina Poetry Society.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Winners and Losers

I've vowed not to watch the Olympics this year. I am weary of the division of the world into winners and losers, the winners beating their chests and gloating, the losers vanishing into the background as if what they did was never worthy of our attention anyway. In the arts, we know that winners and losers are ephemera. The work they create,however, whether poem, painting, dance, novel, or for that matter a quilt or a delicious meal, is not ephemeral. In the literary world, we have our Pulitzer winners, our Guggenheim winners, our national and state fellowship winners, our New Yorker published winners, and so on. Our MFA programs list the number of "winners" they have produced, like a list of gold medals. Meanwhile, others of us weep over the soup pot, as I did so many years ago, clutching yet another rejection slip. Was I writing mediocre poems then? No. Was I a loser? No. I was a poet, learning my craft, learning how to live my life.

Eight years ago I gave the keynote at a writers conference in Greeneville, TN; the Olympics were being televised that week. An image forever imprinted in my mind is the tail end of a race, the runner determined to cross the finish line, even though he had fallen, injured, and barely able to move. His response to crossing the line was simply, "I've won." Yes, he was a loser, no medal stand for him. But he had done what he came to town to do; he had crossed the finish line and considered himself a winner. The thesis of my speech was the importance of "losers." Aren't we all losers? How many "winners" can we have? Better to be losers and lovers of the sport, the art, the cuisine, the calling.... and so on, forever and ever.

And here I insert a response from Susan about that incident. "(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Redmond). He was in the 1992 Olympics. His hamstring tore during the 400 meters semi-final. His father ran out to him and held him up. Together they made a complete lap of the track to finish the race. He was disqualified of course as you have to complete unaided, but they received a standing ovation as they struggled around the track. And they finished the race together. Doesn't that exemplify winning more than anything?" Thank you Susan!

Competition is an addiction. You will see it in all its presumed glory over the next few days. If you turn on your t.v., that is. I'd rather not. I'd rather pick tomatoes, read Adam Zagajewski's poetry, make pickles, or sit out under the trees watching the clouds pass by. I would wish the same for our state's writers and readers. Especially our poets. When are you going to write "a real book," someone asked after my first book of poetry, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was published.
I didn't know how to answer.

I prefer quoting Richard Hugo, American poet--one we should not forget, ever:
"Writing is a way of saying you and the world have a chance. All art is failure."

"Every poem a poet writes is a slight advance of self and a slight modification of the mask, the one you want to be. Poem after poem, the self grows more worthy of the mask. ... Hope hard to fall always short of success."

To fall always short of success? That is an alien message to the Olympics, the media circus that envelopes it. It is not an alien message to writers and readers.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Amongst Blackeyed Susans

(photo by Corinna Lynette Byer)

Photo Assignment: Get some poetic looking shots for use in Verve Magazine's special feature on WNC women poets. Verve was begun back in the spring by spunky editor Jess McCuan, a journalist and pioneer in bringing fashion, literature, art, and anything else really, really interesting to the women of western North Carolina. Those of you beyond the region, you can subscribe, too. And insist that your book sellers carry the magazine.( If you think we walk around in brogans and calico over here in the Blue Ridge, you'll be in for a surprise. Not that I have anything against brogans. Or calico. Especially calico. It's probably my favorite kind of fabric.)
Because I couldn't make it to the photo shoot in Hendersonville with Glenis Redmond, Pat Riviere Seal, and Cathy Smith Bowers, Jess asked me to have my daughter make some photos outside amongst garden, trees, and five dogs. So she did, and she did a great job. Here is one of them that also shows off a great stand of black-eyed Susans and monster butternut squash in the background. It's a jungle out there!

When VERVE hits the news stands I'll let you know. Go to vervemag.com to find out more about this exciting magazine.

Jess McCuan, Editor
:: VERVE Magazine ::
Office: 828.697.1414
Cell: 917.903.2542

Saturday, August 9, 2008


For over a year I wrote a monthly column I called "Language Matters," which ran in several NC weekly newspapers. This is one of the last ones I wrote. These pieces can be found on the ncarts.org site. I thought of this essay after reading Vicki Lane's post about the adverb on today's vickilanemysteries.blogspot.com.


I like to look at bumper stickers on campus and sometimes talk back to them. One claimed knowledge is not important, imagination is, with the image of Einstein in the corner. “How could Einstein use imagination if he didn’t have knowledge to play with?” I asked the bumper but got no response

Sometimes I leave a note, if the sticker makes nasty political comments. Or if the vehicle sports a macho “If it flies, it dies.” The men in my family hunted quail, but they never went after cardinals, nuthatches, or, for that matter, crop dusters.

Then, there are stickers urging us to save this lake or that river, so when I approached the car proclaiming Save the Adverb, I was, to put it mildly, puzzled. I didn’t know it was endangered, no more so than any other part of speech, in these days of endless “whatever’s,” and “like, you know’s.” The verb “to be” seems to be gobbling up all other forms of predicate, and “Uh” seems to be replacing most nouns. But the adverb?

I started thinking about adverbs, the pleasure of using a good one, not to mention a long adverbial clause or phrase. What a challenge to pull off, especially beginning a sentence, making the listener wait for what comes next!

What a pleasure, for that matter, to diagram sentences! I can hear readers thinking, “What a geek she must have been!” Yes, I was a grammar geek. I loved learning how a sentence works, the parts of it on the blackboard like a trembling spider web or constellation.

My Junior High English teacher, a bulldog of a woman, made us memorize definitions for the parts of speech and sentences, the cases,as well as verb conjugations. We had regular recitations, along with sentences on the blackboard to which we were called to point out every element of its construction.

I never feared these assignments, though I shuddered when called to solve an algebra problem. The truth is I loved those words, and yes, I really loved adverbs. I loved them rapturously, greedily, longingly. When I was a freshman in a beginning psychology class, the subject turned to language. “What, Miss Stripling,” the professor asked, looking down at his lengthy roll , “ is the most important thing about a word?”

“The way it sounds,” I answered. He looked around the large classroom. A girl raised her hand and said proudly, “The meaning.” "That’s right,” he nodded, with more certainty than I thought necessary.

I sat frowning in the back, sure that I would never take another psychology course. I would not stop loving the sound of adverbs, or adjectives, verbs, and nouns. Saucily, perfunctorily, filigree, stubble, and that word I once put in a poem, desolate, and was told in workshop to ditch it because the field did not need a modifier. I decided the field might not, but the poem did. Desolate remained.

So, yes , let’s save the adverb, along with all the other parts of speech and let them roll off our tongues with the pleasure that words can bring.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bill Brown and the Solace of Poetry

Yesterday was the anniversary of Hiroshima's destruction by the atom bomb. Such horror exists beyond our everyday comprehension, as does most of war's realities. Bill Brown, one of our country's finest poets (deserving more recognition than he yet has received), served during Viet Nam. Having known war, he appreciates more than most the tenuous but precious moments of what we call daily life. His poems speak to the beauty and fragility of the natural world and the often complicated fabric of family life, finding in both the healing that enables him to keep living and writing. "The Language of Rain" comes from his new book, LATE WINTER, from Iris Press.

Perhaps the best way to remember Hiroshima is to immerse ourselves in one of Bill's poems.


How luxurious a forest after rain—
soft moss woven in the wreckage
of old wood, a gallery of lichen
on tree bark. It is winter—

beech trees cling to tattered leaves
to translate the language of rain,
to interpret wind. If you live among beech,
you keep something inside that listens

for that sound, that asks, did I hear it
when the fox stood at the mailbox,
or the day news pronounced the first
soldiers dead and flashed their pictures.

One morning I pulled a blanket around
my shoulders and sat on the porch to hear
rain and beech leaves make that sound.
What were they saying—nothing about

machinegun fire, sudden explosions,
burned-out markets, or a shoe
in the street still wearing a foot,
but something about the birth

of my neighbor’s foal and the reflection
of the mare’s eyes in the watering trough,
that between clapping leaves and scattered
rain there is a silence I long for.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sue Scalf

I met Sue Scalf a few years back at the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts in Rabun Gap, Georgia. A resident of Alabama, Sue carried herself with the combination of flair and intelligence that I admire in so many Southern women. She carried her poems pretty well, too, and I've come to admire her work very much. Her new collection, BEARING THE PRINT, is out from Negative Capability Press. I plan to share some of the poems from this book with you over the next few weeks.

Here is "August Morning":

The dark pond ripples with light.
Sunflowers, listening, turn.
The ""om" of morning sun slants
across the fields. Wet grass ignites.
The orchard is brimming with fire

as if night had never been,
except for a shofar moon
left behind with its pale song,
blowing the faithful to wake and live,
dead bones to rise.

This is a poem I will carry far beyond this August morning.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Appalachian Poetry

Marita Garin, the editor of the new SOUTHERN APPALACHIAN POETRY anthology that I introduced on my last post, has just emailed me a good comment about Rob's observation in the ACT yesterday that some of the anthology poems sounded as if coming from the bottom of a TVA lake.

"Another thought about the TVA lake issue (or talking ghosts): one distinctive thing about poetry, to me, is that when it goes deep enough, it becomes universal, and that, to me, means that it can speak to people in many other places as well as having a timeless quality to it. Many of the poems in the collection work on that level. And human nature is pretty much the same everywhere."

So, speaking as if from under a TVA lake is not such a terrible thing for a poet, especially if one can go deep enough into one's subject. I remember a Scottish singer (Archie Fisher?) once saying that the old songs are like ghosts waiting for living voices to fill them. Perhaps poetry is like that, too, and our own living voices, whether internal or spoken aloud, make the poems come alive yet again as we enter them. For anyone drawn to Appalachian culture and lore, the old ballads and stories do seem to be waiting for us to reclaim them. So many of our contemporary mountain writers are bringing those old "voices" back to life, finding them as contemporary as those that speak out of the t.v. screen or from You Tube.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Southern Appalachian Poetry

This is how Rob Neufeld's review of the recently published Southern Appalachian Poetry anthology begins in the Asheville Citizen Times today:

M any of the poets in "Southern Appalachian Poetry," Marita Garin's new anthology, talk like ghosts. Their laments and longings view life as if from under a TVA lake. This is mostly by design; for Garin, poet and Elderhostel instructor, set out to "document and preserve details of a way of life in the Southern Appalachian region that is beginning to disappear."

Marita, herself a splendid poet, explains in her introduction that this book was begun well over a decade ago. Its original title was FROM BLOODROOT TO SUMMIT, a wonderful turn of phrase and imagery. I wish she could have kept it, and I wish now that I had stolen it for one of my own books! The poems of mine in the anthology are from my second collection, Wildwood Flower. I've moved on since then, but I don't really think of the voice of Alma as sounding like a ghost's voice. The reason her voice stirred me when I began to hear it in my head is that it sounded in the here and now and made my own contemporary activities, whether looking out my window at the leaves falling or pulling up the okra in a frost-stricken garden, come alive in a way that plumbed the roots of where I was and still am. These poems do not view life as if from under a TVA lake. They view life as an ongoing dialogue, a conversation, between present and past. And they also reach into the future, if only by insinuation. But that's the subject of another post.

Let Rob know how you feel about this after reading his review at citizen-times.com. He's eager for response both to his columns and on The Read on WNC. (thereadonwnc.ning.com) He would like more reader responses to the issues he raises on this combination of blog, message board, and author website. And by all means, go to your local bookstore and purchase this book. You will be glad you did.

(Louisiana State University Press, 1992)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Rose of Sharon

This morning I looked out the front door and saw climbing up the branches in the front yard a Rose of Sharon, reaching for the sun beginning to show itself over the mountains. I remembered seeing a mountain cabin years ago entangled in blooming Rose of Sharons, deserted no doubt, but still inhabited in my imagination by a young mountain woman dreaming of escape. The poem became "Rose of Sharon" in BLACK SHAWL.

So I went walking the backyard for the other Sharons I knew must be blooming and found this white blossom, the only one on the bush, and above it sky barely visible up the ridge.

Coming back inside, I passed my smiling pig with, yes, more peturnias planted in it. I would have real pigs, if I could. I am immensely fond of swine in nearly all breeds save the human kind, which Horace Kephart called "the two-legged pig."


Friday, August 1, 2008


Summer would not be summer without petunias somewhere in my yard. I'm not as petunia-ambitious as I once was, with large hanging baskets dripping with all hues of petunia, but I do have a few pots of them this summer. They were among my grandmother's favorites, along with coleus and zinnias. She kept many large coffee cans of them on her porch, as well as in her flower beds, where they re-seeded year after year. Her coleus grew to extravagant size, often planted in coffee cans when she ran out of store-bought pots. Nowadays I never see petunias when I go home to S. Georgia. I asked my mother why. The reason? They are considered "cheap" flowers. Most gardeners, particularly those in town, wouldn't consider having them in their yards. They want fancier flowers, I suppose, from nurseries. Petunias belong to their past, when they or their kinfolks lived in the country. I rarely see zinnias, either. Coleus still hangs on, in new-fangled shades and patterns. I love it for being so easily re-cycled, sprouting new roots for new pots throughout the season.

And elephant ears! Mine never winter over, as they do in South Georgia. I didn't plant any this summer. Yes, my grandmother had them, too. My sister-in-law's elephant ears are ever-faithful! They never disappear, having such a long memory for the place where they flourish.

I keep forgetting to dead-head my petunias. That will be on my list of duties for the day, along with washing Lord Byron.

The ceramic flower- woman below was given to me by my friend, novelist and poet Isabel Zuber (see earlier post). It hangs by my back door, near the pots of petunias and coleus. Isabel says it looks like Virginia Woolf!