CULLOWHEE—In 2013, we held the Squire Summer Writing Residency at Western Carolina University, where Kathryn Stripling Byer taught for so many years, and she led the poetry workshop at the Residency that weekend.
WCU was a welcoming host and venue, with one exception: in the building where we slept and took our classes, the air conditioning was stuck on overdrive, and we were freezing.
And then, after our first lunch together, Kay disappeared.
It’s not unusual for an instructor to isolate themselves before a workshop session, to take some time to review lesson plans or read manuscripts, so I wasn’t concerned. That’s not what Kay was doing, though. Five minutes before the workshop was to resume, Kay pulled up to the building’s back door and asked me and Charles to help unload her car.
She had driven home, collected every blanket and (of course) quilt she could find, filled her car with them, and brought them to share with her students staying in that icebox of a dorm.
Kay Byer, in everything I ever saw her do, was an elegant rebuttal of the idea that great artists have to be selfish and self-absorbed to produce work of excellence. She wrote some of the finest poetry I have ever read, and was one of the finest people I have ever known.
Kay died Monday evening of lymphoma. She was active, vital, and—in NCWN board member Nicki Leone’s phrase—“instinctively generous” almost to the very end. She led a workshop at NCWN-West’s “A Day for Writers” in Sylva only a month before she passed.
That was the last in a long, long list of services she rendered to the cause of poetry, especially in her adopted home state of North Carolina, and most especially in her beloved mountains of western North Carolina. She was instrumental in the founding of NCWN-West, the Network’s program to serve writers in the westernmost reaches of the state, and served for many years as their Jackson County Rep, organizing a monthly poetry series at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. She served on the Network’s board, led workshops for us at several Residencies and conferences, gave keynote readings, and helped organize (and starred in) fundraisers. She won the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2001, and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2012.
Most notably, she was the state’s first female Poet Laureate, a position she held from 2005 to 2009, and in which she was a tireless promoter of the written word, especially in the public schools.
That list is woefully abbreviated and incomplete, but the Internet only has so much room. Besides, if you are reading this, you probably don’t need me to tell you about the impact Kay Byer had. You probably felt it yourself. Her friend Lee Smith once said you can’t spit in North Carolina without hitting a writer; to that I will add that you can’t spit twice in North Carolina without hitting a writer befriended, taught, mentored, and/or inspired by Kathryn Stripling Byer.
She never shied to state her opinion and stand her ground, to use her position and influence as a Poet Laureate to bring attention to causes she found just or unjust, and she did so while being scrupulously fair, even to those she opposed. On several occasions I was happy to have her wise counsel, or just to hear her warm, kind voice in the middle of a challenging time.
I am one of a great many who will miss that voice. I will miss her counsel, and her company. I will miss the poet and teacher, advocate and activist. Mostly, though, I’m going to miss my friend.
North Carolina Writers' Network