Former WCU poet-in-residence joins N.C. Literary Hall of Fame
Kathryn Stripling Byer, former poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University, is among three noted writers inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame during a ceremony Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines.
In addition to Byer, former N.C. poet laureate, also inducted into the literary hall of fame were best-selling poet and memoirist Maya Angelou and 18th-century explorer and naturalist John Lawson.
Byer served as state poet laureate – the first woman to hold that role – from 2005 to 2009. She has published six books of poetry, with a seventh due from the Louisiana State University Press this fall. In addition to her time at WCU, she is a previous poet-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Lenoir-Rhyne University.
A native of Georgia, Byer sets most of her poems in the mountains of Western North Carolina. She lives in Cullowhee with her husband, Jim, retired faculty member and former head of the WCU Department of English.
Even after her time as WCU poet-in-residence, Byer has remained active and engaged in literary activities at the university, said Brian Gastle, head of the Department of English.
“It is extremely fitting that Kay receive this recognition, since – more than virtually any poet I know – she gives voice and language to these mountains and this region. Hers is a vision at once regional and global, personal and universal, and she was an exemplary poet laureate for North Carolina. We were extremely fortunate to have had her as a poet-in-residence in the 1990s, and we have continued to benefit from having her as a neighbor and friend of the department for so many years.”
Byer has been instrumental in the university’s annual Spring Literary Festival and other support for the university, including mentorship of emerging authors, he said. “Her weblogs, ‘Here, Where I Am’ and ‘My Laureate’s Lasso,’ have brought attention and exposure to many N.C. authors,” Gastle said. “Kay has earned this honor not only for being ‘the preeminent mountain poet,’ as the N.C. Writers’ Network calls her, but for being a truly superb poet – period.”
Byer’s poetry, prose and fiction have appeared widely, including publication in the Hudson Review, Poetry, The Atlantic, Georgia Review, Shenandoah and Southern Poetry Review. Her first book of poetry, “The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest,” was published in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series in 1986, followed by the Lamont (now Laughlin) prize-winning “Wildwood Flower,” from LSU Press. Her subsequent collections have been published in the LSU Press Poetry Series and receivedng various awards, including the Hanes Poetry Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Poetry Award and the Roanoke-Chowan Award.
She graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., with a degree in English literature and earned her master’s degree from UNC-Greensboro.
Sally Buckner – herself a noted poet, editor and advocate for North Carolina literature – presented Byer for induction. Best-selling novelist and fellow North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame inductee Lee Smith read Byer’s poem “Mountain Time” during the ceremony.
The NCLHOF was founded in 1996 under the leadership of poet laureate Sam Ragan and is a program of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Since 2008, the network and the Weymouth Center collaborate with the North Carolina Center for the Book, the North Carolina Humanities Council and the North Carolina Collection of the Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill to produce the induction ceremony and to promote the NCLHOF and North Carolina’s literary heritage.
Fellow inductee Maya Angelou is the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, whose faculty she joined in 1982. A celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker and civil rights activist, Angelou is perhaps best known for her 1970 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Lincoln Medal, three Grammy Awards and more than 30 honorary degrees.
John Lawson came to the Carolina colony in 1700, appointed by the Lords Proprietors to survey the colony’s interior. Setting out from Charleston in December, Lawson covered about 550 miles in 59 days, ending his journey near Bath on the Pamlico River. His observations on the topography, flora and fauna, and native peoples were published in England in 1709 with the title “A New Voyage to Carolina,” considered the first significant effort to describe the natural history and heritage of North Carolina and North America and a classic of early American literature. Lawson was also one of the founders of New Bern and was the first casualty of the 1711 Tuscarora War.