North Carolina Literary Trails

Cathy Smith Bowers

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Meet Cathy Smith Bowers

Cathy Smith Bowers started writing out of the need to feel whole as a person. The South Carolina native has suffered deep loss in her lifetime.

Smith Bowers, the state’s poet laureate, hopes to use her platform to demonstrate the power of the spoken word to transform our hurts and pains into healing and to celebrate our triumphs and joys. “Poetry moves us in a profound and positive way. I am hoping serving as poet laureate will be an opportunity for me to keep everyone in touch — poets and word lovers alike.”

As a child, Smith Bowers recalls her mother and siblings moving out of their family home in the small mill town of Lancaster, S.C., while her alcoholic father was at work. Smith Bowers and her father reunited shortly before he died. “We had been estranged for 20 years. It shocked me. I was losing him a second time and this one was irrevocable. Then I realized he would not become the old man who would be kind like I always imagined.”

Years later her younger brother died of AIDS and her older brother died of drug and alcohol related issues. Next, her second husband committed suicide.

“I write to bring order out of chaos,” says Smith Bowers, who lives in Tryon, located in Polk County. “I feel the subjects I write about are very painful. I work through that pain when I’m working on a poem. It gives me power over it.”

Smith Bowers navigated through the pain by writing four poetry collections that focused on family and loss. Many of her poems are autobiographical word snapshots of her life, including Groceries about a family “so grateful for the bags of damaged goods stolen from the stockroom and left on the kitchen table,” or The Boxers, a poem about “the remnants of my father’s life ­— years in the mill spinning and doffing, then drinking into morning.”

“Her work is really grounded in daily experience,” says Chapel Hill poet Michael Chitwood. “It’s personal. It achieves what all literature wants to achieve by being personal. It’s also universal. You especially see that in the poems about her brother. It’s a particular kind of tragedy and grief.”

Smith Bowers credits her parents with giving her passion for words. Her father often read those “pithy little statements” from Reader’s Digest and her mother recited poetry. “They hated each other, but they loved language. I thought if I could become a writer, they would love me and love each other.”

Her love affair with language continued during her college days at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in English. “The modern poetry class blew me away. I didn’t know you could still be alive and be a poet,” she says. She discovered poets writing about everyday occurrences. “Normal human beings talking about these everyday, down-to-earth things, and I thought, ‘I want to do this.’”

Regular souls like Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell and James Dickey became her favorite poets.

While she admired novels, the pace of poetry seemed in line with her inclination as a writer. “The intensity of the language really connected to my energy,” she said.

After graduating from college, Smith Bowers returned to her high school as an English teacher. She taught there for 10 years. “I stayed one lesson ahead of my students. I had to do that to be a writer. It was huge. I learned to teach grammar.” It was during that time period she knew she wanted to make time for her own writing.

Smith Bowers then went on to teach at Queens University where she still works and has garnered the adoration of students and readers for her work. Her poetry collections are: The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, Texas Tech University Press, 1992; Traveling in Time of Danger, Iris Press, 1999; A Book of Minutes, Iris Press, 2004; The Candle I Hold Up To See You, Iris Press, 2009

Former State Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer describes Smith Bowers as an “undiscovered treasure. Many people don’t know her work in North Carolina. For those who do, her work is very accessible but not simplistic. You can be pulled right into any of her poems and have the breath knocked out of you. Her work fuses narrative with exquisite lyricism, as well as wit and vulnerability,” says Byer. “The lyricism comes out of those beautiful, narrated details that she gives us. The power builds and accumulates. It moves so far beyond sheer narrative. The language takes on a quality that is poetry.”

Smith Bowers “likes to shine a light on a moment of intensity,” on the joys and horrors of life. She starts with an abiding image and then she doesn’t let it go until she’s explored it in verse. And then she wants to share those words, those images with others, ordinary men and women like her hard-working parents that were moved by language.

“Poetry does something to the human body. It changes the body physically, it changes the brain,” she says.


North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources
The North Carolina Arts Council is a division of the Department of Cultural Resources.
Susan Kluttz, Secretary; Pat McCrory, Governor