Poet laureate of Ohio and founder of the Women of Appalachia Project
By Lacy Snapp
If you would like to read the featured poetry from Kari Gunter-Seymour selected for this update of 'Appalachian Places' before reading this interview, click here.
I first met Kari Gunter-Seymour in 2020 the same way that you’d expect during that time: in little rectangular Zoom boxes on a computer screen. We both attended the virtual Appalachian Writers’ Workshop through Hindman Settlement School and were in the same workshop group with the poet Nickole Brown as our leader. I was drawn to Kari’s enthusiasm for poetry, the Southern twang in her voice, and her kindness and encouragement in that virtual space. She made a plug for the Women of Appalachia Project’s Women Speak Volume Six anthology that was accepting submissions, so I took a shot at sending some poems in. This nonprofit introduced me to a strong community of Appalachian women, Kari being at the heart of them. It has been in the years since that I’ve learned how much of a force this poet is both on and off the computer screen.
A bit about Kari from her website: Kari Gunter-Seymour is the Poet Laureate of Ohio. Her poetry collections include Child of the Large-Beaked Bird (EastOver Press, 2024) Alone in the House of My Heart (Ohio University Swallow Press, 2022) and A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen (Sheila Na Gig Editions, 2020), winner of the 2020 Ohio Poet of the Year Award. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Verse Daily, World Literature Today, and on Poem-a-Day. Read the full bio at her website.
We returned to those zoom boxes to have a conversation on Feb. 20, 2023, to discuss her latest poems published in this issue of Appalachian Places, her Appalachian lineage and upbringing, and her nonprofit, the Women of Appalachia Project.
I want to start off by saying congratulations on the acceptance of these five poems into Appalachian Places. … I was hoping we could start by talking a bit about this group of poems, especially since this will be the first time the public gets to see them. So why did you decide to put these works together in your submission?
I’m really glad you asked that. I can’t even tell you how nervous I was about submitting to Appalachian Places because I know the history of the magazine. You know that it is a derivative of, or an offshoot of Now and Then. … I just kept thinking I need to wait for the poems that I know are right, because this is Appalachia. This is not somewhere else. This magazine and these wonderful good folks who have the passion, you know, to continue it and work so hard to get it out. Each issue is Appalachian, and that’s such an opportunity, because a lot of the places that I submit are not Appalachian.
I think, too, the other thing is these are poems that mean a great deal to me. … There are poems that you write that are not full of the passion and the agony and the angst, and the anxiety and the joy and love of the land, and you try to write the honor in there, and the ancestors. When you get a group of poems like that, you really want them to be where they belong, so I finally felt like, okay, I think I have a set of poems here that I can be proud of.
I like to hear how jazzed you are about them, so I wondered, is there anything else you want to include or say about them, such as do you have a favorite? Or, one with a backstory that’s not completely revealed in the content? Or, just give a little bit of an inside scoop to the poems that we may not get at first glance.
Well, it’s probably very obvious what “Under Canopy of Oak and Wood Thrush” is about. But, that actually happened. I mean my granddaughter, we’re walking around in the woods, and she only gets to come periodically. She’s in Colorado Springs. So when she’s here the time is very, very precious. And for her to whisper to me her fears about being shot and killed at school was, oh, I can hardly. Well, I tried to express it in the poem very subtly, you know, I was so quiet in that poem, but that’s how it was: just this little whisper about “we practice building barricades in our classroom, Grandma,” and I found myself not being able — I'm gonna get teary-eyed —having trouble responding to her because you can’t tell her, “Oh, no, no, don’t worry. You're safe.”
So what I had to do is talk about how much we love her and love having her here, and that she’s always safe here, and that there’s always friends here in nature, and that when she feels scared to try to think about this place where we are so happy and so safe, and, no matter what happens, try to go there in her mind. You know, because that’s all I could give her. I can’t give her any, any satisfactory answer concerning her safety, because it would be a lie. … It’s a very short little poem, but I put so much in there of me, and I think that speaks to my writing. People talk about it quietly sneaking up on them, and I think it does because it sneaks up on me.
And the poem “Sometimes I Picture You Walking Too Far Ahead” is written about a friend of mine when I was a very young woman. It took me all these years to be able to write it and share it without absolutely tearing myself apart. You have the same experience as folks who survive a car wreck or something else like that where someone passes away and you do not, and that awful guilt you have afterwards of thinking, “Oh, my God! How did this happen? How can I still be here and she’s not here?” Carrying that burden for, well, you know I’m up there in age, and I’m talking 40 some years that I’ve carried that with me, and only just in this last year I’ve been able to finally write that poem.
It brings a weird relief. I mean, I still feel the guilt. I will always have that, wishing that I had been there the night it happened, and could have done something about it. And why wasn’t I there? And the things that everyone goes through because we were pretty inseparable. But, I feel like maybe it’s a tribute and a prayer all wrapped in one for her, and sort of one of those “gone but not forgotten” situations that I always want her to know — see, I’m going to tear up — that I will always remember her, and I always think of her, and she’ll always be one of my very best friends forever and ever. So, that gives you a little insight to how I write. You know it’s just so personal.
I was hoping you’d speak about your regional Appalachian identity. Some may find it surprising to know that Appalachia spreads as far as it does, including 420 counties, which is a fact I got off The Women of Appalachia Project website. What is your experience of being Appalachian in Ohio?
That is such a great question. I’m so glad you asked it, because most people don’t know that Ohio is in Appalachia. I mean a quarter of the State of Ohio rests in Appalachia proper. There are pockets all throughout Ohio of Appalachian families who still practice (Appalachian traditions), and these are folks who out-migrated during the Great Depression and during the war to work in the factories or along the rivers to keep their families fed. They had to, and again in the 1950s when Big Coal collapsed and just left everybody to starve. A lot of them had family that had moved north, so they came as well in order to survive.
I’ve struggled with that because the South doesn’t recognize Ohio Appalachians, and neither does Northern Appalachia up until recently. Northern Appalachia has gone as far as New York State, but then they kind of skipped over Ohio and went down into West Virginia. It’s only been lately, and I don’t mean to get braggarty again, because a lot of it has to do with the fact of this book (I Thought I Heard a Cardinal Sing). I got this $50,000 grant to do this book, and there are 134 Appalachian Ohio poets included in this this beautiful anthology. I had almost 700 submissions, and people were psyched by the idea of finally being able to be recognized for who we are.
I’m a third-generation Ohio Appalachian: my grandparents, my mom and dad, and myself. My son’s here, and my grandson. We are Ohio Appalachians. We practice our Appalachian ways.
My people came from Gloucester, England, nine generations ago and they settled in Virginia near Richmond. It was in Henrico County and there were lots of jobs in iron and coal extraction at that time. I can take my people clear back to the 1100s in Switzerland, but we didn’t get here till the turn of the Century, 1700s. As far as I can tell, we were miners for a while, but by the time I got to my great-great-great-great-grandmother, they were tobacco farmers, and they had gone from Virginia to North Carolina to South Carolina. ... They went from South Carolina to Tennessee, and then Tennessee to Ohio. ... My grandparents farmed and they were self-sustaining, so I got to learn many of the old ways. But I can tell you that I lost as many as I kept because I was a young person. What I learned was the good stuff, you know, honor, love the land, value all creatures, even snakes.
We are excited that the Women of Appalachia Project event is going to be at ETSU on May 13th. It will include women from the anthology reading their works. We've talked about it some already, but, for me, the Women of Appalachia Project is a space for Appalachian women to find community and share their voices and experiences. For other readers who may not know about this: What should they know? What did you have in mind when founding it? And what has it accomplished thus far?
Well, when I thought about founding it, it was because I was sending my work out and didn’t realize at that time, really, that I was Appalachian. I didn’t figure that out until I went to Hindman (Settlement School). I was sending my work out, and I would get sometimes very nice comments about, “great visuals, (or), I love the music of the language, but it just doesn't really fit in with our journal,” and I couldn’t understand what the heck that meant.
Now I know it’s because they were academic journals, and I was writing Appalachian work, and it didn’t fit in with their journals. It absolutely didn’t. I was sending it to the wrong places. … But, it fired me up. I was also sending out my photography and getting similar responses like, they just didn't quite understand what my slant was. “Well, well-shot photography, but I don’t quite get the slant here.” “Don’t quite understand what the beauty you find in this woman standing in the mud hole,” and to me it said so much. How could you not get this? …
And I thought to myself, I was a graphic designer. I was employed in a communications marketing position. I can do an art show. I can do a poetry reading. I know how to do this, I can market this. So I approached the multicultural center at Ohio University, and Dr. Winsome Chunnu was the Assistant Director at that time, and I said, “Dr. Chunnu, Appalachian women are a minoritized culture, and I think you should give us some space in your gallery.” And she said, “I agree.” So, in 2009, I chose five local artists from here in Athens County, Appalachia, and four poets, and in the month of March, which is Women’s History Month, we put on a visual art show and a poetry reading. And, that was going to be that. I just wanted to say, you know, I did it, and it’s done.
Well, I got so many emails, and so did Dr. Chunnu, and everybody loved it. So I made a website, and I invited people outside of Athens County the next year, and I keep redesigning the website and keep inviting people to come. And they do. We’ve had women from practically every Appalachian state, and we have a person in New Mexico; we have folks out in California and Colorado, and just all over that submit, and some of the same voices every year. But mostly people come and go.
It’s just a really wonderful lovely thing, and it all started from rejection. Because it gets back to, what do I want to tell young writers or writers who start later in their life? Don't accept rejection as rejection, accept it as a challenge to find another way to get there: that’s the Appalachian way. We know if one way doesn’t work, that we have everything we need here, we just got to figure out how to make what we do have work for the situation. We’re good at that. That’s what we’re known for. We can patch anything. We know how to do that, so that’s what that was all about is just kind of plugging that hole for a minute and saying, “Hey, wait a minute, wait! Our voices count,” and as it turns out, they sure enough do.
Lacy Snapp is an instructor in the Department of Literature and Language at ETSU, where she serves as assistant director of the Bert C. Bach Written Word Initiative. She serves the Poetry Society of Tennessee as chair of programs. Her work has appeared in many publications including her recent chapbook of poetry, Shadows on Wood.