In Cathy Smith Bowers’ sixth book, The Abiding Image: Inspiration and Guidance for Beginning Writers, Readers, and Teachers of Poetry, she gives permission, with her customary wit and relatable language, for the reader to accept and move forward from any background. Her fresh-out-of-college teaching job, and the many she’s had since then, inform her skill of connecting personally to a reader. She gives the reader a place to begin, “the abiding image,” and advice on where and how to go from there. She has honed and refined the craft of teaching, just as she has done with her own poetry writing, into a book that not only teaches what you need to know right out of the gate, but also reinforces it with stories from her own experience. This book journeys through chapters for the needs of a novice, “How to Read a Poem,” all the way to the end, “On Pilgrimage: The Work of the Writer.”
She doesn’t just “talk the talk.” She has most certainly “walked the walk,” and with this book, we travel with her, and we glean how to be better writers, readers and teachers along the way.
Cathy Smith Bowers, a former poet laureate of North Carolina, served for many years as the poet in residence of Queens University of Charlotte and currently serves on the faculty of Queens’ MFA program. In 2002 she received the J.B. Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award. Author of six poetry collections, she was inducted in 2014 into the South Carolina Authors’ Hall of Fame.
I had the delightful opportunity to speak with Cathy about her latest book in early November of 2021.
You have been teaching since you graduated from college. When you look back at that “fresh-out-of-college” teacher, what would you tell her now?
(Laughter) I’d say to myself, “Cathy, don’t wear such short skirts!”
Wow. I think I would tell her to stop trying to think you have to show how smart you are. You are not here to impress the students with that fact. You are here for their humanity, and to make sure that whatever you do in their lives will affirm and honor their humanity. I still love how the students would rush into the room and go straight to the bulletin board to see if they were “published.” It was crucial to them. It was as if it was the biggest thing that had happened in their lives. Now, I would know for a fact that everybody by the end of the week would have something on that board. I don’t care if it was just “Jesus wept.” I wouldn’t even accuse them of plagiarism. I’d say “wonderful, this is so fresh and original.”
Let’s go to your new book, The Abiding Image: Inspiration and Guidance for Beginning
Writers, Readers, and Teachers of Poetry. What compelled you to detour from writing poetry to writing about poetry?
It was a case of “necessity is the mother of invention.” I was teaching all over the place and I got so tired of hunting down my different folders. For instance, if I’m going to teach “reading as a writer,” I have a folder for that. It’s a mess, but it’s all there. I had a folder on the role of tension in poetry, sound, and just about anything you can imagine, I had a folder for it. I got tired of looking for them, so I just said I’m going to get all these folders together, go through and pull out of all the mess and take the true stuff, the gold, and I’m going to get it typed up in clear language.
I started doing that, and it took me about two years. My publisher happened to ask me what I was working on, and I told him. He said, “Cathy, that sounds like a book to me.” I thought, well, it could be. Then I really started thinking about crafting them, instead of just getting one subject organized and typed.
I would rewrite and rewrite, and that took another two years getting the book together. I think what happens in this book is that it really does progress from when I thought of writing as an academic discipline to the more spiritual aspect of it. The final chapter is called “On Pilgrimage: The Work of the Writer” and it focuses a lot on the spiritual element of writing.
Some argued with my putting “Inspiration and Guidance for Beginning Writers, Readers, and Teachers of Poetry” in the title, and I’m glad they did, but I just wanted it to be totally unintimidating for anybody who would pick it up. When I finally came up with that title, I knew it was just what I wanted this book to be, and I’m still really happy with it.
This book certainly seems open to any level of experience. I think that’s because it feels like we’re on a journey with you, and not sitting in front of your lectern. Tell me about the “abiding image” itself. You’ve said that’s your mantra. What has it meant to you?
When I first thought of myself as a poet, or that I wanted to be a poet, it really was all about my thinking that I was somehow smarter than others. I think that goes back to the fact that my father, with the six children, used to tell us what we would each be. This was the rare time when he spoke or acknowledged us. This was also the first communication I remember having with him, when he looked at me and said, “You’re going to go to college and you’re going to be a teacher.”
And I thought, well, I must be smart, so I was very obnoxious. I thought I was smarter than everyone else, since I was going to be a teacher. When I actually did start writing, I thought the job of a poet would be to come up with this deep, profound idea that only I knew about, since I was so special, and that then I was going to choose the most difficult words — hopefully words no one would understand — to articulate that profound idea.
Then, as I say in the book, it didn’t take me too long to realize that not only did I have no profound ideas, I didn’t have any superficial ideas. But what I had was an image that had somehow hooked me and wouldn’t let me go. For example, my father, who worked in the cotton mill, always had a piece of cotton on his Adam’s apple. To me it was like a little ghost fluttering there. It was one of the images I would never lose when I thought about my father.
I came to wonder why that image, no pun intended, came to haunt me. I came to realize it’s because those images that abide with us have more to them than meets the eye, or the nose, the tongue, the ears, or the fingertips. Such images can register with us through any of the senses, evoking a complexity of emotions. It’s why we might feel those images in every part of our body, mind and heart. It takes sitting down with the image and then just writing into the mystery of the image that might uncover and open up that complexity of emotions.
I was talking about the abiding image to a student who had asked me after a presentation if I knew the origin of the word abide. I was taken aback, because I love word origins and I had never looked that one up, even though I don’t think I’ve used any word more than that one. (Laughter) Well, there might be a few I’ve used more than that, to my Mama’s dismay. But I had never looked up the origin of the word abide. The student told me that when the ancient Hebrews were in exile — out in the desert and away from their temple — they would pitch a tent, their tabernacle, where they would hold their ceremonies. So, abide means to pitch a tent over, to join in community under that tent.
I believe that when we read poems we explore someone else’s abiding image. It’s as if that person has pitched a tent and said “come inside, sit with me for a while.” In this way, we, too, get to experience their image — in mind, body and heart. I love that word origin. This didn’t make it into the book, but it should have. There’ll have to be a sequel.
Having had you as a teacher myself, I’ve seen firsthand how you are able to teach the craft of writing in well-calculated, but seemingly casual ways. It is always memorable, with information couched in stories that stick with you long afterwards. Can you speak to the craft of teaching itself? You’ve already touched on this with creating possibilities for success, but I’d be curious if you could give the rest of us a few tips on your particular alchemy.
I’m certainly not being disingenuous, but I was not a great student. I believe that if I had had better teachers — though I did have some who were really memorable to me —, teachers who knew how to impart information and to do that in a way that made me care, I would have been a better student. Before I teach any class, I ask myself, “Okay, I’m teaching a class tomorrow and here’s the subject. What do I wish a teacher had said to me about this subject, and how do I wish that teacher had said it?” That’s how I teach every class.
I saw one of my students, a graduate of our MFA program, at a reading I gave a few weeks ago. She’s published three books, I think, since she graduated, and when she signed her book for me she commented on my mantra. Instead of telling students to go write a poem, help them call up their own abiding images from their lives, to choose one image that has energy for them, and then to sit down and make a mess. Make a mess. It’s one of the hardest things to get them to do because when was the first time we were told not to make a mess? And now here’s Cathy telling them to make a mess.
Right. And it only comes with practice.
Yes, when I’m working on new poems, I have to slap my own hand, because I find myself wanting to look a word up or figure out the sentence structure. That’s not what making a mess is all about. You have to give time to the unconscious, which is not only messy but brilliant. If you give the unconscious that freedom, you can hope that something unexpected does come up. It’s about releasing control. Our Western way of thinking doesn’t like mess, we want a finished product, we want it to be perfect, and we want it now.
You write how you were drawn to a specific form, the “minute,” as you dealt with intense grief, because you thought the “rigid mechanics” of form might serve as a container for your emotions. At the time you thought it would be a bridge until you got back to free verse, but you found it to be an intriguing dance and stuck with it. Do you still find form intriguing that way? What are your thoughts on current trends in poetry, and the uses of form, old and new?
When I started using the minute form, a poem that has three stanzas with a total of 60 syllables in rhyming couplets, I used it because I was actually scared to be alone with the images themselves. My brother was dying and I needed to explore those abiding images I’d experienced with him, but I was afraid of releasing everything to the unconscious, to my emotions. I was afraid of that, so the tight structure of the minute form gave me a way to balance the messy emotional unconscious with the order and logic of the consciousness. It kept me balanced between the two so I could actually spend time with and write about those images.
A lot of times when we are working in form, we use the form as an excuse for a certain syntactical structure, or for a word that provides a rhyme simply because a rhyme is needed. What I do instead is to see the process as a dance — sometimes I’m leading, sometimes the form is leading, whichever serves the poem.
I think things are very exciting as far as poetry goes today. Thank goodness we’ve gotten away from the white Anglo-Saxon male poets. We’ll still let them write poems, of course, but Walt Whitman intimated this thing about the democracy of poetry, and well, it’s a lot more democratic out there these days.
I always assign a book that’s very recent, that perhaps has gotten a lot of attention, maybe won an award, often a book I haven’t yet read. I wouldn’t have done that years ago, wouldn’t have made myself that vulnerable. Now I’m giving myself the same experience I’m offering my students.
As for the newer poets — I love Layla Long Soldier’s Whereas. I love Scary, No Scary by Zachary Schomburg. I love Terrance Hayes, another South Carolina poet who invented a form called the “golden shovel.”
What is next for you?
I’m writing individual poems, and just loving what I’m doing. The poems are based on the photographs of Diane Arbus. Some of her photographs are shocking, though you can’t always say why they are shocking. She took photos of real human beings, circus stars, people in nursing homes, people walking the streets of New York. I have always been intrigued with something she once said, that everybody experiences trauma, that “people go through life worried about when they’re going to experience their trauma. Freaks come into the world with their traumas. They are the aristocrats.” The overall subject of my book in progress — Welcome to the Aristocracy — is freaks. Another Arbus quote will be the epigraph to the last part of my book is, “If we are all freaks, then our job is to be the best freaks we can be.” The epigraph of the middle section is a quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Northern writers are always asking me why Southern writers have such a penchant for writing about freaks, and I tell them it’s because we can still recognize one when we see it.”
The Abiding Image
By Cathy Smith Bowers
Published September 1, 2020