Writers and storytellers are central to Appalachian culture. The influence of the city has only enriched the creativity of the writers who follow in the traditions coming out of the Appalachian regions, including many members of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. Among the ways UACC has worked to further and celebrate Appalachian culture is by fostering the creative voices in our community both young and old. And so, I was pretty excited to be assigned the task of talking to the Poet Laureate of Ohio, Kari Gunter-Seymour, who also happens to be a native Appalachian from Athens County. I was fortunate enough to talk with an astounding poet about Appalachia, her work as Poet Laureate, the Appalachian Women Writers Project, and, of course, poetry.
Kari Gunter-Seymour is from Athens County, Ohio—an Appalachian woman to her core. She talked to me about her childhood, running free on her grandparents’ farm in Amesville, “My time was spent on my grandparents’ farm,” she told me. “I’d leave the house in the morning and come home in the evening, and in between, someone would feed us.” Gunter-Seymour speaks of her childhood with great affection: “The time on my grandparents’ farm was so impactful—just being in the barn—it smelled of ‘real things,’ I could fall asleep in there.” These early experiences helped shape a life-long attachment to Appalachia, and this attachment remains a defining force for all her work.
Kari Gunter-Seymour is not a poet by training. In fact, her background is in photography. Her website explains, “She holds a B.F.A. in graphic design and an M.A. in commercial photography and is a retired instructor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.” Gunter-Seymour told me her voice as poet was developed through workshops and mentoring. She has worked with several distinguished poets, including core member Pauletta Hansel. A poem Kari Gunter-Seymour wrote in support of families living in poverty in Athens, Ohio that went viral is what sent on her on her current path.
From “taking a stab at poetry” to Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio is quite an accomplishment. It is her poetry that explains this achievement, but I will get to that. As Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour has so much going on it is hard to imagine how she gets it done. She told me “a big part of my passion is working with addiction and recovery issues; reaching out to people on recovery. My number one goal is to work with folks in sober living houses and help them lift their voices. I would like to offer writing and poetry as a recovery tool for these people.” She has already begun to reach out to sober living houses and is working with seven or eight houses in Athens County. Some of this work is as simple and practical as providing notebooks for people in these recovery facilities.
The work of Poet Laureate also involves carrying the poetry flag around the state. Kari Gunter-Seymour has offered numerous readings and workshops. Things need to be done virtually in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Kari Gunter-Seymour is making it happen. Gunter-Seymour told me she has projects and readings coming up in Toledo, Marietta, Cleveland, and, as she said to me, “hopefully partnering with Cincinnati folk for some poetry readings and workshops.” Gunter-Seymour explained that her overall goal has not diverged from what she said when she interviewed for Poet Laureate: “to lift voices and spread the gospel of poetry.” I know quite a few of us around Cincinnati who can get behind these ideals.
Kari Gunter-Seymour is also a driving force behind the Women of Appalachia Project, and she edits the annual anthology chapbook for this project. Gunter-Seymour told me that early in her career as a poet she was met with resistance for being an Appalachian woman. She soon heard from other Appalachian women who had similar experiences. As she explained, “we were getting rejection letters for our poetry that indicated our work was not valid because it reflected our Appalachian lives and experiences; ‘too much local flavor,’ seemed to be a common objection.” These experiences led her to get together with five artists and four poets at the Multicultural Center at Ohio University and the Women of Appalachia Project was born. “Last year,” Gunter-Seymour told me, “we hosted 59 spoken word artists.” After 12 years, the Women of Appalachia Project is a force not just in Appalachia, but in arts and poetry more generally. The deadline for writers, performers and visual artist to submit to this year’s project is August 1, 2020; more information can be found here: https://www.womenofappalachia.com/.
What strikes me about Gunter-Seymour’s poetry is the way images of everyday life spark up to signal things that are so much more than they appear. From the opening lines of “Weeds in this Garden” which “shoot up like false rhubarb,/ every wisp, stem and sodden pith/ a testament,” the poem proceeds to enact the vast complexity of identity as it is formed from that irresolvable collection of the family, the outside world, and individual action. We are forced to reckon with “…the question of what it means to be here,/ taunted by a scourge of tangled roots?” I had a professor in college who once described a powerful poem as one that “don’t play.” Kari Gunter-Seymour’s poetry don’t play.
Her poetry is quite serious, and she takes her work quite seriously, yet I can tell you talking to Kari Gunter-Seymour is a pleasure. Her passion and enthusiasm are evident in her genuinely easy manner that I’d venture comes from finding her ground in Appalachian Ohio. She clearly brings her heart to her poetry and the ways she works to lift other voices through poetry. This is a poet who embodies Appalachian culture from her own experience and through her voice as a poet and advocate, and the kind of voice the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is proud to recognize. I cannot wait for her to make over to Cincinnati; her first reading will be as part of the Poetry Night at Sitwell’s (virtual) Reading Series on September 1, 2020, at 7 pm.
You can find more information, links to events, and read selections of Kari Gunter-Seymour’s poetry on her website: https://www.karigunterseymourpoet.com/. For an online reading and interview, check out Rattle Poetry’s Rattlecast #48 at https://youtu.be/yHJrsAc57MI.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.