On Sunday April 23 at 2:00, Lancaster will hold its first celebration of National Poetry Month with a reading by Lancaster native, Cathy Smith Bowers. In addition to writing five books of poetry, teaching in the Queens University MFA program, and receiving numerous awards for her work, Cathy served two years as North Carolina’s Poets Laureate. Not bad for what she affectionally refers to herself as ‘a mill hill child.’ When my friend and fellow local poet, Richard Band, and I brainstormed ideas about bringing poetry to our town, bringing Cathy back home for a reading was our first thought.
But this was also personal. Everything I’ve accomplished poetically began with Cathy Smith Bowers. In 1993 I was invited to participate in the Creative Women Artists and Writers Network Workshop, a three-day event organized by two professors at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster. The workshop took place the following year, limited to twenty participants, and was my first writing workshop. Less an actual writing event, the sessions by women artists and writers guided us on how to live our creative lives within our regular daily lives. For this stay-at-home mom of three with a life-long dream of writing it was just what I craved. Cathy was one of the presenters and her topic was The Universal Reflected in the Familiar: One of the most important things a struggling artist must be aware of according to Cathy. After almost 30 years I still have the folder from that weekend. What few notes I took were from Cathy’s session. I fell in love with the woman and her work then and have been an admirer and friend since.
Cathy begins her writing with what she calls an abiding image, that image or phrase haunting her until she resurrects the depth and bones of it. She takes familiar images like a brown paper bag of groceries, the sweet taste of plums, the rumble of a train, the wisp of lint caught in her father’s beard stubble after a shift in the textile mill and divines the universal truths of loss, joy, fear, and grace in them. Her poetry is accessible, profound, and poignant but not without a bit of her humor and down-to-earth honesty. As she told her mom when she was very young, ‘I’m going to grow up to be fameless.’ Her mom agreed she probably would.
A few years after that initial workshop, Cathy took a sabbatical from teaching, returned to Lancaster, and settled into a 2-room log cabin on her sister’s property, and offered 2 six-week poetry writing workshops. I signed up for both. By then I was a single mom with a daughter going through chemo. Apparently, those things were fodder for much poetry! What I remember most, besides the fun and connection with other newbie writers, was Cathy’s nurturing. When I brought in work about my daughter and our experiences, her first question was always, ‘Are you okay with our looking at this?’ She was always conscientious of where I was emotionally and emotionally in the poem before allowing critique. But then there was also the time I read a poem about a day at Cedar Point, an amusement park on Lake Erie. She listened attentively and then very gently pointed out, ‘Kim, it’s a bit long because you have at least three poems in there.’ By taking her advice and looking for the abiding images I eventually found those other poems.
At one point in those six weeks, we drove to Charlotte for a field trip, the first Central Piedmont Community College Literary Festival. It was my introduction to such an event and attending became an annual excursion for the week-long festival. The organizer had a gift of finding poets and writers just before they hit it big – Anne Lamott, Sue Monk Kidd, Mark Doty, and others. During that first festival I heard Joseph Bathanti who later also became a mentor and friend.
Toward the end of the cabin workshops, Cathy announced we were ready for a public reading with the poems we’d written. All of us were a bit underwhelmed and nervous with that prospect. Other than the CPCC literary festival, none of us had ever heard of poetry readings – weren’t poems meant to be written and read in the quiet comfort of our rooms? Apparently not as Cathy was very enthusiastic and supportive of this endeavor. She pulled our names out of a bowl for our reading order, none of us relishing the idea of following her – though we knew one of us would have to. That one of us was me. Thanks to her I survived and the evening was more enjoyable than any of us expected. Her confidence and pride in us were overwhelming.
Further along, Cathy did her own reading at Barnes and Noble so I drove up to Charlotte for the evening. There were about ten of us there and that night six of us—not having known each other before then—decided to form a poetry critique group. We poets are a trusting group of kindred spirits. We met monthly for about five years, but the friendships have lasted longer. When my book of poetry was published and I had a reading in Charlotte this original critique group attended. We credit Cathy with the genesis of our friendships.
So, when Cathy answered yes to Richard’s and my invitation to read, it felt like poetry in Lancaster was coming full circle. I’m not sure even Cathy would have suspected the workshop 30 years ago would eventually birth an afternoon of celebrating the art form. In addition to Cathy, three members from the original critique group will be reading. The two professors who organized the Creative Women Artists Network Workshop will be there, both of them involved with the other event for our National Poetry Month celebration. I’ll tell you about that project on Wednesday.
To read more about Cathy and her poetry, here is an article written by local freelance writer Mandy Catoe, National Poetry Month to be celebrated in the Cultural Arts District.