Monday, December 15, 2008

Wordplay this week: Kathryn Stripling Byer

Early last spring the Asheville Art Museum featured a reading by Kathryn Stripling Byer (whom I've known as "Kay" since our days, some forty years ago now, in Greensboro). Kay gave a fine reading, of course (she's not North Carolina's Poet Laureate for nothing), and even persuaded her audience to provide some useful questions. This week's show includes both the reading and the dialogue which followed it.

She may have been born in the flatlands of Georgia, but she's been in the mountains since 1968, and has long since delved far enough into the character of the Appalachian highlands as an ecology, and as a culture, to be almost a native - to know that land, in fact, having come to it from the outside, better, or at least more consciously, than most natives ever will.

When she's not on the road as laureate, she somehow finds time to post to not one, but two, blogs, and also works with the NC Arts Council to provide the laureate's features on its site. The state certainly did well for itself when it chose her for the laureateship; I'd wager she's been the most active advocate for poetry that we've ever had in that position. You go, girl.

She's also - or primarily - the author of The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest (1986), Wildwood Flower (1992), Black Shawl (1998), Catching Light (2002), and Coming to Rest (2006). You'll find some of her work here, here, and here. There's a useful article on her work by Sam Pestridge in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

The context for her reading was provided by a small show featuring work by an early Asheville photographer I did not know, one Nace (or Ignatius Watsworth) Brock*, whose life spanned the years 1866 to 1950. He had been active in the city back in the early part of the last century, and had a studio downtown for many years. Kay, whose imagination has collaborated with images created by photographers before, refers to the exhibit several times during her reading.

Musically, the show opens with Asheville's own Braidstream performing the English classic "Greensleeves," from their 2000 release On the Wing. The first break features Al Petteway, another artist translated to these mountains, playing the traditional Scottish tune "The West Wind," from his 1994 release Whispering Stones. Pentangle's 1989 A Maid That's Deep in Love** provided the Child ballad "Cruel Sister" at the second break, and I closed the show with "Winds of the Past," a song by the masterful custodian of those ballads, Betty Smith.

Here's the link to the show. Enjoy.


* There aren't many images by Brock out in the wilds of the internet, so far. He seems to have specialized in landscapes of the mountains, and in the formal portraiture which was often the bread and butter of his calling. The landscapes that have survived use light well, and convey a certain balance and structure in the world.

Even in that period, as anyone who's read Look Homeward, Angel will know, Asheville had a thriving tourist industry, and it provided a considerable market for landscape studies of its surrounding terrain as "scenery." It also supported a thriving postcard business, which paid photographers for their images, and then sold their work locally and regionally.

The Japanese photographer George Masa (1881 – 1933, born Masahara Iizuka in Japan), whose work filmmaker Paul Bonesteel explored in his 2002 The Mystery of George Masa, would have been active at roughly the same time as Brock. Given the size of Asheville in those days, they likely knew one another; perhaps they compared exposure notes, or the results of their inevitable experiments with the evolving chemistry of making images with silver emulsions.

** A Maid That's Deep in Love was a US release on Shanachie; "Cruel Sister" appeared on the British album named for the song in 1970.

31 December update: Fixed a couple of typos and/or misspellings. Duh. I must have been writing after too much holiday cheer.

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Blogger paulbonesteel said...

Jeff, Masa and Brock certainly knew each other. Without referring to my files I remember the mutual connection between them was photographer E. Ball. There are a number of interesting stories about Brock that I heard. I heard he was a hard drinker and a serious artist. He invented a daylight flash bulb (as the story goes) he tried to patent, but it ended up making someone else money. I found a portrait of a young girl done by Brock in a thrift store and its wonderfully made.

Paul Bonesteel

8:41 AM  
Blogger Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Hi Jeff, thank you for such a great post. You are too kind, my deah former MFA colleague. I hope the Christmas juggernaut has not flattened you this time around. I always vow I will immunize myself with each new holiday season. "Hard drinker." (from post above) Hmm. I can identify.....Maybe it won't take another year before we get together again. K.

8:29 PM  

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