The Vishnu Bird (Jacar Press, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
The interweaving of language and memory. David Baker, final judge in the Frost Place Chapbook contest, in which The Vishnu Bird was a finalist in 2014, describes it thus in his blurb: “The Vishnu Bird is above all a book of making—fabrics and lyrics, images and memories—whose textures are richly humane. Kathryn Stripling Byer’s elegiac articulations become, like all true poetry, ‘the hoop / in which we cast our stories’ in order to ‘hold [us] fast.’” This says it all, as far as I’m concerned.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
I’ve lately been reading and re-reading Brent Martin’s Staring the Red Earth Down, from Red Bird Press in MN. Brent is director of our regional Wilderness Society here in the Blue Ridge, and his work out in the field has worked its way into his poetry. Many of the poems continue to haunt me in their evocation of place and the people who live their lives upon it. Another recent chapbook is Julie Brooks Barbour’s Earth Lust. Julie’s poetry is needle-sharp, beautifully detailed. Gibbons Ruark’s Feeling Blue is another of my favorites. A chapbook I bought many years ago by the Finnish poet Paavo Havikko, translated by Anselm Hollo, provided epigraphs for The Vishnu Bird. Betty Adcock’s Widow Poems, recently from Jacar Press, contains some of her best work and shows how a woman poet can renew her voice and craft in the face of personal loss.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
My belief in how one can, through poetry, bring a place and its inhabitants to life in vibrant detail, to set the sound of a voice resonating, poem by poem, over the course of a poet’s life.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
I’ve been drawn to chapbooks since I first began writing poetry, and when I look back at my writing and publishing years, I could call them “My Life in Chapbooks.” Each chapbook I’ve published heralded and prepared the way for a full-length collection, helped me focus on the underlying structure and imagery of those collections. Early on, publishing a chapbook was a way to get my work out to an audience while I struggled, and I mean struggled, to find a publisher for my first collection, The Girl in the Mist of the Harvest, an AWP award winner in 1986, republished by Press 53 in Winston-Salem last year.
My first chapbook was titled Search Party, with drawings by New York artist Joyce Sills. It contained my poem sequence by that name, and was later published in my first collection, a sequence that Maxine Kumin awarded the Anne Sexton Prize in 1977.
My second chapbook, Alma, contained the first poems in the voice of my mountain woman’s persona, Alma, and was illuminated with evocative drawings by Sharyn Hyatt Wade. It served to introduce the voice of Alma and was later expanded into the collection Wildwood Flower, the Lamont-now Laughlin- award winner from the Academy of American Poets.
In late 1990s I discovered the photographs of Louanne Watley, her Evelyn series, capturing the last years of a woman named Evelyn, living in her large, cluttered family home outside Chapel Hill. These photographs called forth yet another voice, that of a woman in her 80‘s, living through her old age with wit and spirit. Louanne and I put together one very limited edition of poems and photographs, then a smaller edition, pocket-sized, of the same contents. These poems formed the core of my fourth book of poetry, Catching Light.
Chapbook number four was Wake, written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, published by Spring Street Editions, 2002. A couple of those poems appeared in Coming to Rest (LSU Press, 2006) and others will appear in a manuscript now in progress.
In 2010 I collaborated with a good friend, the poet Penelope Scambly Schott, in creating and publishing Aretha’s Hat, an interplay of poems that began with images from Obama’s inauguration.
In 2010, Jacar Press published a collector’s edition of my sequence Southern Fictions, taking on the subject of the Confederate flag, earlier published in Callaloo. The press used pulped Confederate flags for the handmade cover paper. In my introduction I refer to Shirley Miller Sherrod, who lived a few miles down the road from me during the time to which these poems refer. We were both around the same age then; her father was shot to death by a white man, and protests to which I refer had broken out in her home county, just across the Flint River from my family’s farm. This sequence later appeared in my most recent collection, Descent (LSU Press, 2013).
The Vishnu Bird came together around my desire to enter a manuscript in the Frost Place chapbook contest last spring, and I was pleasantly surprised when it came up a finalist. I usually don’t have much luck in those contests. Richard Krawiec of Jacar Press expressed an interest in publishing this manuscript. His son Daniel did a masterful job with the cover design.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
That would be “The Vishnu Bird,” the title poem. It’s not the oldest piece in the book, but it was the vital imaginative center. This poem began with my hearing a bird singing during my morning walk out to our garden, the song sounding like “vishnu, vishnu.” I’m not a birder, so I’ve no idea what the bird was. And it didn’t matter, because the bird became the Vishnu Bird. This name opened up a trove of interesting allusions for me, as you can see when you read the poem.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook.
Walking along the road beside Cullowhee Creek, playing a poem out in my head. Or waking up in the middle of the night to practice hearing a poem over and over again until it sounded right. And when I’m not doing that, I’m reading, whether poetry or natural history. Right now I’m reading back through one of my favorite books, Scott Weidensaul’s Mountains of the Heart. I keep Barry Lopez’s books at my bedside, too.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
By mulling over the contents, brooding, re-arranging, walking and listening. This chapbook went through several different arrangements and ended up with a slightly different table of contents from the one I submitted to the Frost Place contest.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
My collaboration with the cover artist Elizabeth Ellison was close and built on years of friendship. Elizabeth lives over in Bryson City, on the boundary of the Great Smokies National Park; she has illustrated numerous natural history volumes by her husband George, himself a repository of information about our region, including the life of Horace Kephart, and a fine poet, as well. Most of Elizabeth’s work is in watercolor but this painting, titled “Suffusion,” is in oils and larger than her usual canvases.
What are you working on now?
I’m working a full-length manuscript tentatively titled Winged, with poems in this chapbook comprising the kernel, along with a couple from Wake. I’m also working on a new chapbook, titled for the moment Ghost Crossings, in the voice of a woman narrator living through the horrors of the civil war here in the southern highlands. I’ve set it up as a song sequence, attempting to approximate the aria/ recitative format. It is dedicated to Charles Frazier, the author of Cold Mountain.
Kathryn Stripling Byer lives in the highlands of western North Carolina. Her work has received the Laughlin Award (Wildwood Flower, LSU) from the Academy of American Poets, the Hanes Poetry Award from The Fellowship of Southern Writers (Coming to Rest, LSU) and Book of the Year awards from the NC Literary and Historical Association and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. She served for five years as North Carolina’s first woman Poet Laureate.
The Vishnu Bird
greets me this morning. Vishnu,
vishnu, he calls. No Vedic bird
bearing Lord Vishnu himself on its back,
just a local bird perched in the sarvis tree
unfurling blossoms come Easter time,
calling the faithful to worship.
Barefoot, I’m walking out to the garden
in nightgown and bathrobe,
my coffee cup half full,
my head brimming over with yesternight’s
bird calls. A yellow eyed battle-crow mocking
my sentiments, bespectacled owl warning Soon,
Soon. No kingfisher diving
for bugs in the silt-strangled creek.
In the darkness, no whippoorwills.
Mourning doves mute beneath
crab grass, returning to dust
to await reincarnation as Vishnu birds,
singing the dharma of compost.
The scent of manure lingers over the pasture below,
though the cows have been gone
since our neighbor’s wife auctioned the farm.
If ever the kingfisher finds his way back
to the mud where the creek waits,
maybe our neighbor will be resurrected
as cow herd and gather his cows
on the hill where they used to graze
until he died of the usual cancer.
I’ll watch him toss hay from his pickup.
His wife will no longer look sad
in the check out lane. Maybe I’ll hear his flute
singing me forth every morning.
A jingle of Gopi bells.
Maybe I’ll dance all the way
to the garden like Lakshmi.
Who knows, I might even be soft spoken
when I behold what the rabbits have eaten,
the dogs trampled. Maybe
I’ll murmur in Sanskrit a blessing.
Or simply stand still and say nothing.