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Kathryn Stripling Byer, North Carolina’s first female poet laureate, has died

Poet Kathryn Stripling Byer
Poet Kathryn Stripling Byer

Kathryn Stripling Byer, North Carolina’s first female poet laureate and an author of national renown, has died. She passed Monday night from lymphoma at age 72.

“Talking about her, it’s hard not to go off on a litany,” said Jaki Shelton Green, Byer’s fellow North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame member. “She’s so missed by so many.”

A native of Georgia, Byer called North Carolina home for nearly half a century. She served as poet-in-residence and a teacher at UNC-Greensboro, Lenoir-Rhyne University and, most recently, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

Byer published a half-dozen books and hundreds of poems over the years, earning induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2012. Other accolades include an NEA Fellowship, the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and the North Carolina Award in Literature in 2001.

“She really was at the top of the game,” said Durham poet/publisher Richard Krawiec. “I thought she should have been the first U.S. poet laureate from the South. She had incredible language and a gift for imagery, using elements of her life and what she witnessed around her. But it was not narrowly about just her. There was always a larger context on many levels – social, philosophical, political – that came through in her work. It’s what made her such a great poet.”

Byer was a tireless champion of other poets throughout her career, which made her a fitting choice for North Carolina’s first woman poet laureate. Appointed in 2005 by then-Gov. Mike Easley, she spent her four-year term turning what had been a largely ceremonial position into one of advocacy.

“I don’t think she gets enough credit for changing the poet laureate position as much as she did,” Krawiec said. “She became a true people’s poet laureate, with a website blog where she would highlight as many other poets as she could. She really was an activist about sharing the work of other North Carolina writers.”

That left a lasting mark on the state’s literary community. This week, Byer’s Facebook page is filled with tributes from her friends and peers, recalling the many kindnesses she showed her fellow writers.

“She had an essence of quality that helped so many people in so many different ways,” said Green, who lives in Mebane. “Her laureateship was powerful to many of us, especially women and people of color who saw the possibilities of the circle stretching in more inclusive ways. I’m very grateful for her presence, still, which will help us continue shifting the paradigm of making North Carolina even more full of writers.”

Byer is survived by her husband of 47 years, Jim; and a 39-year-old daughter, Corinna. Memorial service plans are in progress.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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