The poet Cathy Smith Bowers and I were next-door neighbors during the mid-1990s. At the time, I knew that she served as the poet-in-residence at Queens University, and she occasionally mentioned news about her latest publications. She regularly published poems in literary journals and reviews, but she aimed higher. In 1998, she submitted a poem titled “Crepe Myrtles” to The Atlantic Monthly, and they accepted it. This exciting news swept through the neighborhood, and we all felt a sense of pride in her success. Not long thereafter, Cathy moved out of my neighborhood, but I continued to follow her career. I still remember feeling impressed and pleased when I learned that Governor Bev Perdue named Cathy as the sixth North Carolina Poet Laureate, a position that Cathy held from 2010 to 2012. In keeping with Cathy’s status as one of North Carolina’s most celebrated poets, the North Carolina publisher Press 53 brought out The Collected Poems of Cathy Smith Bowers in 2013. This book brings together in one volume all of Cathy’s previously published collections along with an introduction by Fred Chappell.
Back when Cathy and I were neighbors, we sometimes talked about teaching. During these conversations, I came to realize the she took a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in helping her students write their own poems. I remember her talking about sharing a favorite poem with her students in an effort to inspire them to write a poem about a particular image or emotion. After one of these conversations, I thought to myself how lucky her students were to have Cathy there to guide them as they tried their hands at writing poetry. Well, now everyone can benefit from Cathy’s gifts as a teacher thanks to the publication of her newest book, The Abiding Image: Inspiration and Guidance for Beginning Writers, Readers, and Teachers of Poetry, which Press 53 released in September 2020. I recently contacted Cathy and asked her about how she came to write this book. Here is what she sent to me:
This book has been in the making for fifty years. My work at Queens in both undergraduate and graduate programs has been crucial in the making of this book. It was also in Charlotte where I first became connected with the Haden Institute, where I still teach in both Spiritual Direction and Dream Leadership Programs.
The book began with an attempt to finally gather in one place all the lectures, seminars, and workshops I have done through the years. I just got tired of hunting down all those folders. When I did realize I might have a book in the making, I decided it must be the book I wish I had had when I was a beginning reader, writer, and teacher of poetry.
I believe there has always been and continues to be great misunderstandings of what a poem is, how poems come to be written, and how one might experience a poem after it has come into being. Each poem included in this book illustrates a significant point about a poetic element such as sound and syllabics, tension and metaphor, needed to explore and illuminate the power of what I call an abiding image. These are the images that might register with us through sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste—images that hook us and refuse to let go. I believe these images are asking something of us—Look closer. Here is where the poem begins—not with some profound idea, but with a single abiding image that contains, at some deeper level, much more than what has registered with us on the surface level.
I wanted to let people know you do not have to be a prophet, have advanced (or un-advanced) degrees in literature, or be some kind of prodigy upon whom brilliant ideas and knowledge have been bestowed. I, myself, could have been the poster child for the one least likely to succeed at anything, much less the art and craft of poetry. Writing and reading and teaching poetry saved and continues to save my life. I wanted to share with others the miracle-making gift of poetry–in understandable, readable, inspiring, and applicable prose.
My vision for this book is part handbook, part memoir, part stand-up-comedy routine for any writer, reader, and teacher of poetry. From those who have no idea where to begin to those in need of practical and innovative ways to reboot, revive, and begin again.
Here’s to the language that saves us.
Cathy no longer lives in Charlotte. She now calls Tryon, North Carolina, home. However, she still teaches in the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Queens University, and she still participates in Charlotte’s poetry community. Through her ongoing work with creative writing students at Queens University and through the publication of The Abiding Image and her various poetry collections, Cathy continues to play a role in the development of Storied Charlotte.