For 15 years poet Nancy Simpson was Resident Writer at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina
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.