I knew of Kathryn Stripling Byer long before I ever had a conversation with her. Back in 2001, when I was a freshman at WCU, Kay was something of a superstar to baby English majors and aspiring writers like me. Long before I ever spoke to Kay, I fantasized about impressing her, winning her approval. I had never met a “real” writer before I came to Western, let alone a woman who had been published and honored for writing about the mountains. To me, Appalachia was not a fitting subject for poetry–it was simply the backwards part of the country where my ancestors had settled after the Revolution, that my parents and aunts and uncles had fled in search of better jobs, greater prosperity.
At Western, naturally, those particular cobwebs got swept from my brain quickly enough. I was exposed to a wider world of literature there, and for the first time my ears were unstopped to the music of my grandmother’s dialect and my father’s accent. And I drew new life and strength from the mountains that surrounded WCU’s campus, connecting for the first time to the natural world that had sheltered my ancestors since they first came to the New World. Alongside all of this, at WCU, I was supported for the first time in my life by people who understood and encouraged my determination to be a writer. When it came time for me to return to my parents’ home in Raleigh at the end of my freshman year, I was sick with dread at leaving it all behind.
To brace my courage for the journey home, my advisor in the English department, Elizabeth Addison, loaded me up with Appalachian literature to take back to Raleigh with me. Among the books she loaned me were volumes of Kay Byer’s poetry. I carried those books back with me back to my parents’ house and devoured them in between working long hours chasing after screaming children in a daycare center. My lunch hours were spent at a bench under a tree, absorbing the familiar setting, the delicate images, and cutting truths in Kay Byer’s verses. They grounded me, there in that broiling suburban wasteland, connecting me to a natural setting that was nowhere to be found in my surroundings.
Kay’s poetry reminded me that I wasn’t stuck there, at least not forever—that I wasn’t stuck anywhere I didn’t want to be, so long as I was willing to work my way back to the place I had claimed as my home. I clung, limpet-like, to Kay’s words, because they gave me comfort, gave me a taste of my mountain home, and because they filled up that gaping need in my heart, her words sank deep into my own toolbox of writers’ words, phrases, similes, metaphors, images and all. I had been writing novels since I was twelve years old, but that summer was the first time I ever wrote a story about a girl born in the 20th century, whose parents talked like my parents, whose day to day life was more similar to mine than I normally enjoyed writing about. Kay’s poetry was all that was holding me tethered to the mountains. And it was all that was fueling my tentative belief that my own voice—not the voice I had cultivated ever since I carefully shed my accent as a child, nor the authorial voice I had developed in careful mimicry of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte—had its own right to be heard.
It was two years later before I came face to face with Kay Byer for the first time. I was 21, a junior in college, standing in line at the liquor store and counting my quarters to reassure myself that I could pay for my pint of Maker’s Mark when I looked up and saw her—the very vision of a poet, in her flowery, gauzy black dress and tumbled gold and silver hair. Western is a small community—smaller then than it is now—and it wasn’t unusual, when I was a student, to run into professors and faculty members when running errands in Sylva. But though I had taken several classes with Kay’s husband, Jim, and though Dr. Byer was by far one of my favorite teachers, running into Kay wasn’t like running into a teacher’s spouse. It was more like running into…well, Jane Austen, or Charlotte Bronte. So you can imagine my flustered delight when I smiled at her, and she turned straight to me, calling me by name, and asking me if I had received my invitation to attend the poetry masterclass she was teaching the next week with visiting poet Maxine Kumin.
I can’t remember now, fourteen years on, if Kay and I had ever been introduced before that afternoon. But I do remember being astonished that she knew who I was. I was even more astonished—elated, rather—that she remembered the poetry I had submitted when I applied for a spot in that masterclass. The truth is, I’ve never thought much of myself as a poet. I started writing novels when I was 12, and though I dabbled in poetry, as all teenage writers must, there was something frustratingly elusive about poems—I knew the good stuff when I read it and I could analyze it with the best of my fellow students, but I didn’t know how to reproduce that ephemeral quality that made a poem a poem. But I was desperate to win a place in the masterclass that Kay and Maxine would be teaching as part of Western’s first literary festival. So I had spent weeks, hiding downstairs in the basement of my dormitory, where the laundry machines churned and hummed and filled the air with the pleasant scent of detergent, scribbling in my notebook while my dorm-mates popped in from time to time to practice the piano or smoke a cigarette. The sum of my ambition, then, was to write poems that would at least hint that I had some kind of potential. Truthfully, I didn’t care if they were complete disasters, so long as they got me a seat in that room, with Kay.
When I saw Kay that day in the liquor store, I hadn’t yet heard back from the organizers of the festival, so I didn’t yet know if I was in or out of that room. Kay was the one who gave me that news as she told me how much she had enjoyed my writing. To my utter stupefaction, she even told me that she had a present for me, and for my friend James Hogan, one of my best friends and co-aspiring poets. (James later demanded to know what Kay had been buying at the liquor store, as if the secret to literary greatness lay in imbibing the same liquor she and Dr. Byer drank with dinner, but I’d been too flustered to notice.) Suddenly, I dared to entertain the hope that all those weeks in the basement, inhaling Gain and bleach, had yielded something worthwhile—something I hadn’t even known I was capable of.
When you’re a young writer, especially a young writer who grew up amongst people who don’t read much, there is nothing as important, nothing as validating, as that first moment when a “real” writer—whoever it is you have crowned as such in your own imagination—looks at the words and you’ve produced and calls them “good”. That kind of validation was all the more important to me that spring of 2003. America was going to war, my roommate despised me, my grades were crumbling under the weight of undiagnosed mental health disorders, and there simply wasn’t anything about myself or the world I was living in that I liked very much. Only the fierce hope that I had a true vocation, a future in the world of letters, was keeping me afloat back then. I didn’t sleep for the next two days, until the morning of the masterclass arrived.
I arrived early at the faculty meeting room where the class was being held—my eyes puffy with exhaustion, the tips of my hair dyed pink, because that’s how I broadcasted my disgust with the world when I was 21. I sat quietly in a corner while Kay and Maxine went through the stack of poetry that had been submitted to them, three poems each by some 12 or 13 of us student writers. I listened carefully as Kay gently deconstructed one student’s offering, a block paragraph of prose, and explained that the difference between poetry and prose was laying down a careful foundation of precise and evocative images. One poem after another came out of the stack, and Kay and Maxine praised what was praiseworthy, and diagnosed, kindly but unsparingly, the elements of the poems that did not work. The longer they spoke, the more attention I paid to the clock. I was miserably certain that the time allotted for the class would run out before my own poem was withdrawn from the stack.
The time did run out, as it happened—the hour at which the class was meant to conclude came and went—but still Kay and Maxine stayed in that room, talking to us about our poems. And then the moment came when I realized that there was only person left in the room whose poem they hadn’t read yet, and that person was me. I had no idea if it was a good thing or a bad thing or only a coincidence that they had left me for last. I only knew that every cell in my body was vibrating with terror and joy as Kay took up my modest little sheaf of papers and began reading.
Two of my poems fell to ribbons under Kay’s exacting knife. I saw the justice in her verdicts, and I wasn’t ashamed; it was a privilege to be taken to pieces by someone who spoke so lucidly and precisely about the function of language. But my third poem…my third poem was good. I know it was good, because Kay said so. I’ve written other poems since then that I liked, scribbles that might or might not truly deserve the name of poetry, but I will never have as much confidence in any of them as I have in this one. It’s short, so I’ll copy it here, because Kay is gone, and her affection for this poem was the first and most important gift she ever gave me.
Emmaus is a country road
where strangers are rarely met.
Anyone who travels there is suspect
especially a man
(thirty-three years old)
with brand new skin
and shiny eyes.
Those of us who waited for him
in the furnace
whom the flames had eaten
as the air stretched and heated
as the soul grew darker
were not ready for a sign.
Especially one like this:
a presumptuous guest who
blessed the bread we gave him.
And just before the moment
When recognition pierced us
like a jab in the ribs
was there a flash of foreboding
that the freedom and the ecstasy
of our grief was at an end?
I listened, raptly, as Kay pointed out the lines she liked best (she was particularly fond of the one about “recognition” feeling like “a jab in the ribs”.) All I wanted to do was listen to her, but if I had spoken up, I might well have told her that she was the reason I had written this particular poem. After all, it was her poetry that finally persuaded me to stop trying to mimic Lord Byron and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and instead to turn inwards, to draw on my own conflicted relationship with God and spirituality when I was writing poetry, instead of trying to evoke some imaginary copse in an English wood somewhere.
I was not in the habit of showing my own poetry to my family, but I did show them Kay Byer’s. Because she wrote so much about places and personalities that were familiar to them, I thought her poems might show them that literature could be something more than the unremunerative middle class indulgence they considered it to be when I was writing it. I gave my grandmother a copy of Wildwood Flower for Christmas that year, and I gave my mother a copy of “Weep-Willow” to read, thinking that the last lines, especially, would touch her:
“Fill my cup,”
she’d say, and sip May moonshine
till her voice came back as strong as bullfrogs
in the sally grass. You whippoorwills
keep silent, and you lonesome owls go haunt
another woman’s darkest hours. Clear,
clear back I hear her singing me to sleep.
“Come down,” she trolls,
“Come down among the willow
shade and weep, you fair
and tender ladies left to lie alone,
the sheets so cold,
the nights so long.”
I remember my mother handing the book back to me, bafflement on her face. “That sounds like something I could have written,” she said plaintively, though she’d never written a poem in her life. And I remember thinking, that was the whole point. The poet who gives your own words back to you, selected and arranged so that you might hear the music in your own commonplaces, that’s the poet who’s really listening to you. My family would never hear their familiar speech coming from the marble lips of Percy Shelley, draped over his plinth at Oxford College. Kay Byer was their poet, and if I hadn’t been 21 and full of vinegar, maybe I could have explained that better.
After the masterclass with Kay was over, I stumbled on watery knees out of the faculty common room and into the elevator, holding the sheaf of poems to my chest, my heart beating with a new promise. Yes, this world was crumbling down around me; yes my heart was full of self-loathing garbage; yes the girls in my dorm despised me and laughed at me behind my back. But this, no one could take away from me. All I had ever wanted since I was twelve years old was for someone who knew what they were talking about to look at a few words I had written and call me a writer. Kay had done that for me, and I had never needed it more. I was 19 when the Twin Towers collapsed, and by 21 I’d given up much hope of making my mark on the world, since God only knew how much world would be left by the time I was ready for it. But if I was really a poet, really a writer, then there would always be a place for me, it seemed, even in the darkness that follows apocalypse.
Every time I saw Kay after the 2003 literary festival, she greeted me like a long-lost friend, and I never saw her smile at me without feeling that I had been warmed, inside and out, by some grace that was greater than mere friendliness. I know she wasn’t a saint, only a good and gifted woman with family and friends who loved her dearly, and I never knew her the way that they did. But she was a hero to me. Though she probably never knew it, she had given me something more than confidence—she had charged me with a calling I could live for, strive for. Kay also gave me a book—both me and my friend James—Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. When she gave it to me, she underlined that famous passage that elder poets have been passing along to their protégés ever since Rilke first wrote them:
“I would like to beg you…as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day in the far future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
I did not know that Kay was sick until she was already in her last hours, and the blow of her illness was compounded almost immediately by the news that she had died. It is hard to write a memorial for a person whose loss is being felt so much more keenly and painfully by so many people who knew her better than I did. I don’t want to presume on, or distract from, anyone else’s grief. But death has been heavy on my mind since my own grandmother died this past October, and when I learned that Kay had died, the thought that came to me was, I wasn’t ready to lose anyone else.
My friendship with Kay has been confined to Facebook and email since I left Cullowhee five years ago, but she was still one of the brightest luminaries in my own small sphere, a literary mother, like Madeleine L’Engle. Except Kay held even more sway over my heart, because I was given the rare gift of seeing her smiles and receiving her hugs, as well as reading her writing. For so many years after that day when she first smiled at me and called me by my name in the liquor store, I cherished fantasies of accomplishing my own great feats of writing, and someday calling her up to share my good news with her. I would have told her what I have just told you, what I should have said to her when I had the chance—that her cheerful kindliness and encouragement came at the precise moment in my life when a little cheerful encouragement made all the difference to the person and the writer I was growing to be. I loved Kay as well as I have loved anyone, and I hope her that her death as easy as ever death may be.