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Perdue selects Cathy Smith Bowers as poet laureate for North Carolina

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By Greg Summers

It’s been said that Cathy Smith Bowers’ poems read like miniature short stories.

If that’s the case, those stories will be heard a lot in the next 24 months.

The Lancaster native, who now makes her home along the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tryon, N.C., has been named North Carolina’s new state poet laureate.

A prolific poet, writer and college professor, Bowers will be installed during a ceremony Wednesday at the N.C. State Capitol in Raleigh.

“Cathy’s powerful poems open new avenues of thought and are a reflection of the love of words and learning,” said N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue in a statement issued by her office. “She believes poetry inspires and instructs North Carolinians of all ages.” 

As poet laureate, Bowers’ duties will include appearances at schools, communities and at other public events to promote poetry across the Tarheel State.

“I’m still just overwhelmed by the whole thing. There are so many magnificent poets in North Carolina that it is really humbling. This is just the freakiest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life,” Bowers said, laughing. “That’s all I can say.”

Bowers’ ties to Lancaster remain strong. After graduating from Lancaster High School in 1968, Bowers earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Winthrop University.

Bowers returned to her high school alma mater in 1972, where she taught English until 1983. She also served as sponsor and adviser for the LHS paper, “The Spotlight,” and wrote a monthly column for The Lancaster News.

Bowers remains especially close to a core group of retired LHS faculty members, including Charlotte Shaw, Lou Hayes, Debbie Hegler and Marsha Purvis. Bowers said they still get together for pajama parties four times each year. The late Jimmie Mullis was also a member of this group.

“We stay in touch and we are so very proud of her,” Shaw said. “This is just incredible. Cathy has been through some rough times, but all of that has paid off.”

Coming from a broken home and suffering through a self-acknowledged “horrible childhood,” Bowers knows what it’s like to barely get by. She said her brother, Allen, now a high school teacher in Asheboro, N.C., quit high school and went to work just to make ends meet.

Dented cans, food donations and stale bread were part of everyday life for them.

Bowers said poetry became her outlet for dealing with pain.

One of her favorite quotes is from Thomas Moore's book, “Care of the Soul.” Bowers said there is much truth in the realization that the “beast residing at the center of the labyrinth is also an angel.”

She said close examination of painful experiences gives us ownership and power over them, instead of them keeping us trapped in emotional pits.

“We tend to look away from the hard parts of our lives and try to move on. But the healthy thing to do is live with it and look at it from all angles. Looking away from them isn’t very healthy,” Bowers said.

“Cathy has this way of taking tragedy and loss and creating words that are both beautiful and healing,” said Purvis, who is now a family therapist in Columbia.

“This is just fabulous and we are so excited for her. Cathy works hard at what she does and really deserves this,” Purvis said.         

Much of Bowers’ poems are rooted in everyday life and her childhood. She finds inspiration from “abiding images” that might be visual, odors, tastes, touch or sounds. Bowers' topics also include traveling, body organs and the pain of dealing with her husband’s tragic suicide.

“I believe images that hook us in that way are asking something of us,” she said. “They are asking us to look closer into the mystery of it besides what is at the surface.”

A good poem, she said, must go into deep water.

“It should sing as it just happened,” Bowers said. “I like poems that have both head and heart. They begin with a particular detail that, at some moment, rises above itself and opens up into the universal.”

Bowers is more than an award-winning poet and writer. She is also an accomplished teacher. On the staff of the University of North Carolina Asheville and Queens University in Charlotte, she received the J.B. Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award from Queens in 2002.

While writing is her first love, she also finds enjoyment and fulfillment in the classroom. At first, Bowers viewed teaching as a way to pay the bills. But just like her poetry, that notion has evolved into something more universal.

“I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but now, I really enjoy helping another person craft an image into the best poem it can be,” she said. “When I see the satisfaction on their faces, I get as much pleasure from that as I do writing my own stuff, which is a little bit scary.

“I could almost quit writing myself and help others midwife their poems into existence,” she said. “But I hope I never get to the place where I don’t want to write my own poems." 

Bowers acknowledged that she is excited about her new role, but she is apprehensive.

“I’m the world’s No. 1 introvert, so I have to climb out of my little squirrel hole,” she said. “It’s a very different feeling. This is a job that you don’t get home from. Now when I’m home or go to the grocery store, I’ll still be the poet laureate of North Carolina. I don’t feel that way about my teaching or writing.

“Nobody will know that, but I will,” Bowers said, laughing.

About Cathy Smith Bowers

An awarding-winning writer, the poems of  Cathy Smith Bowers have been published widely from The Atlantic Monthly to The Kenyon Review. She also has a monthly show on an Asheville, N.C., radio station.

Smith Bowers has written four collections of poetry: “The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas,” Texas University Press,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.