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.