Poet, educator. Cathy Smith Bowers was born in Lancaster, South Carolina, on November 15, 1949. One of six children born to mill-worker Edward Sorrel Smith and his wife Mary Helen McManus Smith, she was educated in the public schools, graduating from Lancaster High School in 1968. Subsequent to her graduation, she attended Winthrop University (then Winthrop College) in Rock Hill, South Carolina, receiving her B.A. in English in 1972. Beginning in 1973, she worked as a teacher of high school English in South Carolina for ten years, completing a master’s degree in English (also at Winthrop) in 1976. Her years as a high school English teacher ended when she became an English instructor at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she would also serve as director of composition from 1989 to 1995 and Poet-in-Residence from 1996– 2004. Presently she holds faculty positions with the Queens University M.F.A. and Creative Writing Program; Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina; and the Haden Institute in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and Niagara Falls, Canada. Bowers currently lives in Tryon, North Carolina.
Her work reflects a life marked by considerable achievement, both literary and professional, as well as considerable sorrow. Because her parents had separated when she was in her teens, she was estranged from her father for many years, though they were reunited before his death. A deeply loved younger brother Paul was lost to AIDS, and an older brother Gary died as a result of drug and alcohol complications. Her first marriage, to Dennis Carl Bowers, ended in divorce in 1994. Her second husband, Jerry Scott Stockdale, died by suicide in 2005. All of this, along with an acute consciousness of the value and beauty of everyday life, are present in Bowers’s books of poems, which range from compellingly lyrical free verse to adroit formal experimentation.
Bowers’s work has garnered considerable acclaim; in 1990 she won the General Electric Award for Younger Writers and a South Carolina Poetry Fellowship from the South Carolina Arts Commission. Her first book of poems, The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, originally published by Texas Tech in 1992 and reissued by Iris Press in 1998, won first place in that year’s inaugural Walt McDonald First Book Series competition. Other awards include the JB Fuqua Distinguished Educator Award from Queens University and the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society in 2006 and 2007. In February 2010, she was named Poet Laureate of the State of North Carolina.
Bowers’s second book of poems, Traveling in Time of Danger, published by Iris Press in 1999, marked her continued development as a free-verse poet who handles line and image with remarkable dexterity. With A Book of Minutes, published by Iris Press in 2004, the poet broke new ground, writing each poem in the poetic form called “the minute,” which consists of sixty syllables broken into three four-line stanzas with a fixed rhyme scheme, a poetic challenge that Bowers rose to with superb use of image, line, and rhyme pattern. Like her earlier books, The Book of Minutes is strongly rooted in the poet’s life experience as she pursues her work of rendering life—from its grittiest to its most beautiful—as art.
By the time Iris Press published her fourth book of poems in 2009, The Candle I Hold Up to See You, Cathy Smith Bowers’s reputation in poetry was well established. Her poems appear regularly in publications such as the Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, the Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, the Southern Review, and the Georgia Review. Her most recent collection of selected and previously unpublished poems, Like Shining from Shook Foil, was published by Press 53 in February, 2010, as a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Queen’s MFA program.
Smith Bowers is very clear about the force and value of poetry and acutely conscious of its ability to alter the shape of a life. She once stated, “Poetry saved my life. I could have been the poster child for the one least likely to succeed at anything. And yet my life has been blessed because I dared attempt to say the unsayable, to express, in words I did not know I possessed, the inexpressible mysteries of this life.”
Bowers, Cathy Smith. Personal Interview. August 30, 2012.