Note: This introduction is a guest post by Kathryn Stripling Byer, a writer who has also been featured as a Gwarlingo Sunday Poet. Kathryn’s essay appears in Nancy Simpson’s Living Above the Frost Line: New and Selected Poems from Carolina Wren Press (2010).
Nancy Simpson has enriched the literary community of North Carolina for over thirty years. Her work was first heralded by the late Richard Hugo when he read and celebrated her poems at the Callanwolde Literary Festival in Atlanta, shortly after she began to show her poetry around to friends and readers in the far reaches of western North Carolina. He praised her rich inner life and her ability to give expression to it as it manifested itself in her everyday life. Whether driving over the Nantahala Gorge in “Night Student,” expressing the complexity of self in “Driven into the interior,” or documenting the carnage of the first Gulf War in “Voices from the Fringe,” she brings the inner and outer worlds of her experience into a harmony that resonates like the current giving voice and shape to the mountain creeks she loves.
Living Above the Frost Line: Selected and New Poems traces the growth of a poet determined to survive despite the obstacles raised by age, mortality, and the inevitable losses that come from being alive in this world. Through her poetry she greets that half-drowned woman, harking from her Florida girlhood, who appears as her muse in “Bridge On the River Kwai, “ bearing gifts of memory and sustaining images. In return the poet gives her “a mountain, the safest place to be.” Rarely has the relationship between poet and muse been so beautifully expressed.
I met Nancy in the summer of 1978, when she invited me to read at the Clay County Library. My daughter was only a few months old, and I recall my husband walking her around the town square while I read, so that she would not disturb anyone should she begin to cry. Afterward Nancy and I stayed in close touch, sharing our poems and those of other poets we admired, as well as our desire to help generate a community of writers and readers in our mountain region. Some of her first poems were published in The Arts Journal, a monthly publication out of Asheville, for which I was Poetry Editor. Those years were time of transition for her as both poet and woman finding her way beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother. Her love for the western North Carolina landscape began to take metaphorical shape in her poetry, giving voice to the interplay between the human voice and that of the physical world around her.
After receiving her MFA degree from Warren Wilson’s low residency program, where she worked with Heather McHugh, her chapbook and full-length collection were published by State Street Press, edited by Judith Kitchen. A recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship, Simpson has published widely in magazines ranging from The Georgia Review to Prairie Schooner, but her own work soon became secondary to promoting a literary community in the far western area of the state.
As a teacher in the Clay County Schools, she came to this calling instinctively, sensing the need for expression in her students’ lives. She has devoted numerous hours to mentoring both young and older writers, and finally helping to create what has become Netwest, part of the North Carolina Writers Network. Over the years, She has become the nurturer and cheerleader for countless writers in the western counties, teaching workshops, serving as Writer in Residence for the John C. Campbell Folk School, and editing two collections of work by mountain writers.
Her Selected and New Poems richly deserves the honor of being the first collection published in Carolina Wren’s Laureate Series. No one better illustrates the the gifts that poetry can offer than Nancy Simpson. She has never doubted its power to change lives and awaken our sense of wonder in the midst of the world in which we find ourselves. Brilliant writer, teacher, tireless editor, Nancy Simpson exemplifies the best in our state’s literary community.
How to Burn Last Year’s Leaves
If you live in a forest,
don’t burn on a windy day.
Look on the boundary oak
for the surveyor’s orange ribbon.
If it’s not dancing, if it dangles,
you can hope burning is safe.
Best, burn when rain is predicted.
Rake leaves onto the dirt driveway.
Make small leaf mounds.
Burn one or two leaf piles at a time.
Don’t let yourself think of the day
your young sons scorched the mountainside.
Do not look across the drive
where you old home place used to be.
Forget it. The cabin was dismantled,
bulldozed to the ground, buried.
Don’t think of the man who found you
burning leaves one spring and said,
Let me help you. Rake and burn
leaf piles 3 & 4, 5 & 6.
Let sudden wind frighten. Rake faster
when you hear thunder. Rake hot coals
into the gravel.
Stop only when rain
drives you back to the tool shed.
Tomorrow you will see bright green foliage
of five thousand day lilies lining your drive,
promising to bloom.
At 12:17 this Sunday
he is uninhibited
in front of God and
I-75 South, a man
lounging in the bed
of his red pickup truck.
He is getting his tan
the fast way, 80 mph
on his chaise lounge,
his black bikini
drawing the sun down.
He is holding a blue
tumbler in his hand.
I can only guess
what he is drinking.
I want to make a pass,
I mean, get past him
in this god-awful traffic.
I want to see
the face of the woman
at the steering wheel
who is taking him for a ride.
The green ghost in me is the land
I sold to developers.
They wanted money. I wanted time
that money can buy, but got
a kind of poverty. They cut trees,
dug deep septic tanks, and paved
a road across the highest ridge.
I sold my spring branch,
gave up my bloodroot.
Barking dogs frighten fox kits,
the old bear is gone,
and squirrel are settling down-ridge.
Twenty houses line the mountain top
where trees stood. Men who live
in the houses take out their trash,
bring in wood for their fires.
In summer women sunbathe on wide decks
extending out over the mountainsides.
They feel transcendent, viewing
the blue lake that glistens in the distance.
They are exalted looking down on
the slow mob that moves through the valley.
I have some money now
but live with a green ghost in me.
For the Set Man: Clyde Simpson
Mosquito Hell you named the place,
marshland on Biscayne Bay. We found
a boathouse nearly overgrown,
a marble pool on the rooftop,
sunken bath of the very rich. You said
it was the perfect place to find Gatsby.
a day so clear. I remember Vizcaya,
where movie stars came for parties.
You thought we had light, one hour maybe
to find our way along the shore.
Sundown caught us, Brother. Half way around
ten million bloodsuckers came after us.
We slapped out own faces.
Our feet sinking in mud,
we ran the best we could to your old Buick,
me squalling like Margaret O’Brien
and you saying I should be on the stage;
I knew how to bring on the tears.
That made me uncertain. I have forgotten
how to act.
When Father died
I phoned the sheriff, nonchalant,
but what do I do now–with you
in that Mosquito Hell Hospital–cry, not cry,
stand by the telephone, my face painted?
It hangs around the wardrobe
for days, dull,
or reclines in the hamper
like a flattened flamingo.
I wash it in soft water.
I give it new life, and what thanks?
It walks out the door with my legs,
through the gate,
headed straight for the racetrack.
We ought to be thankful it grows wild
on road banks, sometimes blond and curled.
It holds earth together and still,
we hear Earth is falling.
Sink holes in the south swallow cars.
We do not doubt, but can we help wonder
what happens when the bottom drops?
Maybe clumps fall with the Jeep
and the Porsche, forming the shoreline
of a lake in some posh suburb.
Grass has a right to be cherished,
Crowning Glory, clipped to perfection.
No matter where we sleep we live
with threat hanging over our lawns.
Who says we need more weapons?
We want to know what will happen to grass,
grass everywhere, amber savannahs,
sacred as the hair on our heads.
It-se-yi: fresh, green place
stretches from Brasstown Bald Mountain
to Brasstown village in North Carolina,
the old home of Chief Settawiga,
From Brasstown Bald Mountain in Georgia,
Cherokee people walked
to the home of Settawiga,
led by federal troops.
Cherokee People walked
through cold rain and snow,
led by federal troops
on The Trail of Tears.
Through cold rain and snow,
they cried for It-se-yi, not Unt-se-yi
on their Trail of Tears.
Truth was lost in translation.
They cried for It-se-yi, not Unt-se-yi.
The scholar was mistaken,
truth lost in his translation.
It is not the place where there is brass.
The scholar was mistaken
Settawiga taught his people, saying:
It is not the place where there is brass
that we carry in us as we go.
Settawiga led his people to Oklahoma
teaching them, saying:
We carry in us
It-se-yi, Green Place.
About Nancy Simpson
Nancy Simpson, born in Miami, Florida, lived the first five years of her life in Atlanta. Both her parents were Georgians, her grandparents on both sides, and all her aunts, uncles and cousins. In 1943, at age five, her family moved back to the tropical paradise that was Miami then, to a new house on a sand road, in a time when there were no expressways. She attended school there grades 1-12 but spent every summer in Atlanta where she planned to return someday, even married a Georgia man. She lived as a young married woman in Macon, Georgia and Dalton, Georgia but overshot her Atlanta goal and ended up living on a mountain in North Carolina five miles from the Georgia State line.
In the North Carolina mountains since the 1960s, Nancy Simpson earned a BS in Education at Western Carolina University and an MFA in Writing at Warren Wilson College. She taught in the valley town of Hayesville for 28 years and taught writing at Tri County Community College, at Young Harris College Continuing Education and served 15 years as Resident Writer at John C. Campbell Folk School. She co-founded and served NC Writers Network West for over 21 years, a professional writing organization for writers living in the remote mountains west of Asheville.
Nancy Simpson is the author of three poetry collections: Across Water, Night Student, (both published by State Street Press) and most recently Living Above the Frost Line: New and Selected Poems, the first in the new Laureate Series, published (2010) at Carolina Wren Press.
In the same year, Simpson edited Echoes Across the Blue Ridge an anthology of stories, essays and poems by southern Appalachian writers with an introduction by Robert Morgan.
Simpson’s poems have been published widely in Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, Journal of Kentucky Studies, New Virginia Review, Solo Nova, Seneca, Florida Review, Georgia Review, and other literary magazines. Her poems have been reprinted in Word and Wisdom – 100 Years of NC Poetry, in the 50th anniversary issue of Southern Poetry Review titled Don’t Leave Hungry and in anthologies including The Poet’s Guide to the Birds, Collecting Life, American Society – What Poet’s See, and Literary Trails of NC. Seven of her poems were included in Southern Appalachian Poetry, a textbook published by McFarland Press. Her most recently published poem is in the current, Georgia issue of Southern Poetry Review.
Nancy Simpson continues to write and publish, continues to advise and consult with poets and writers, while maintaining her full sun perennial garden in the middle of a deciduous forest on the north side of Cherry Mountain in Hayesville, North Carolina.
You can learn more about Nancy Simpson and her work by visiting her website.
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All poems © Nancy Simpson. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Living Above the Frost Line: New and Selected Poems (Carolina Wren Press , 2010) and were reprinted with express permission from the author.