Recently, I had the opportunity to interview poet, Nancy Simpson, former Program Coordinator for the North Carolina Writers' Network West. Although I’ve known Nancy for thirteen years and always admired her, I had some questions about her writing and NCWN West. As you will see, her answers are most informative as well as candid.
GB: Nancy, you have been a practicing poet for thirty years. What inspired you to be a poet?
NS: As it happened, the N.C. Arts Council in Raleigh sent some poets to read at the Moss Memorial Library in Hayesville. I remember there was also a local poet on the program, Janice Townley Moore. Before that night I had only written rhyming poems. When I heard those poets read free verse poems, it changed my life forever. Something clicked. I remember thinking, Oh. That is what I have heard in my head all these years. I came to believe that poetry is a slanted way of seeing the world. When those quirky thoughts came, I started writing them down. That is how it began. I started studying free verse poetry immediately. I took classes with Dr. Steve Harvey, and I consider him my beloved teacher and mentor. I traveled far and wide to every writing workshop I could find. I went to hear every poet I could. I bought and listened to the great poets on tape. I could not get enough. Now, after all these years, I still can't get enough. Practicing, studying, and teaching poetry is my life.
GB: You earned your MFA at Warren Wilson College. Was that before you became Program Coordinator for NCWN West?
NS: I earned my M.F.A. in Writing in 1983. I began working with Marsha Warren, then Executive Director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, to establish N.C.W.N. West in 1991.
GB: Early in your writing career you published with the best journals such as the Georgia Review and Prairie Schooner. How often has the Georgia Review chosen your poems, and what other fine journals published your work?
NS: I had three poems in The Georgia Review when Stan Lindberg was editor. I had five Poems in Prairie Schooner. Other poems were published in four editions of Southern Poetry Review, and recently SPR chose to reprint "Grass" in their upcoming 50th Anniversary Issue. Some of my poems have been in Indiana Review, Florida Review, Seneca Review and New Virginia Review. I've also been pleased to have poems in Appalachian Journal, Appalachian Heritage and Journal of Kentucky Studies.
GB: I know several of your poems have been chosen for anthologies and reprinted in books.
NS: I had poems reprinted in four editions of Anthology of Magazine Verse, Writers Choice, and Word and Wisdom - 100 Years of N.C. Poetry. My poem "Night Student" has been published and reprinted, upon request, nine times. It was recently included in Literary Trails of N.C. Seven poems were reprinted in the new anthology of Appalachian Poetry from McFarland Press.A new poem, "Carolina Blue Birds" is included in the anthology, The Poet's Guide to the Birds, forthcoming in 2008 from Anhinga Press.
GB: You published Across Water, a poetry chapbook and a full length collection, Night Student. Tell how that came about.
NS: The editor and publisher of State Street Press, Judith Kitchen, asked me if she could choose some of my poems for a chapbook manuscript. I had just met her in the M.F.A. Program at Warren Wilson College. I didn't know she owned a press. She chose and arranged the poems and published Across Water.
Two years later Judith Kitchen asked to see my manuscript again. After reading it, she called and said she had the title -- Night Student--and that although State Street Press published only chapbooks, she intended to publish my full-length collection. I was fortunate. I was very happy. To me, it is amazing. As years passed, Judith Kitchen became a dear friend. The biggest honor is that she asked me to be her best woman at her marriage ceremony.
GB: You dedicated many years to the NCWN West and, as Program Coordinator, mentored writers here in the mountains. Many have gone on to publish their work. However you continued publishing your own poems in literary journals, and you edited Lights in the Mountains, the NCWN West anthology published in 2005. How did you find the time when you also held a full-time job as a public school teacher?
NS: True. I taught in Clay County public schools for 26 years. After I earned my MFA, I taught 11th grade English and I taught English Composition part time at Tri County College. Later I switched to Continuing Ed so I could teach creative writing. At the same time, I co- founded N.C. Writers Network West and took on the job of Program Coordinator. I then was asked to serve as Resident Writer at John C. Campbell Folk School. At one time I was teaching full time and had three paying part-time writing related jobs. At the same time, I kept writing poems. I kept submitting them and getting them published. I do not know how I did it. It was not hard. Writing consumed my life.
GB: In recent years you lost a sister and a son. How has your writing helped you deal with your grief?
NS: I believe practicing poetry is a way to learn how to live. Yes, writing helped me deal with death and grief. Losing my sister was hard because we were close and most of my life she lived near enough that we could talk every day. She prodded me to write a specific historical novel and, before her death, she handed over all of her research. Every day I look across the driveway at her empty house. At night, it seems darker on the mountain without lights in her house. I honor her best by writing the novel. Sometimes when I get stuck, I imagine her telling me where to find the answer on which page of her research. Sometimes I imagine her saying, “Only 127 pages! Get to work!”
The death of my son from cancer last summer was the hardest thing I've ever had to face. I was with him through surgery which took place during Christmas week at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. I thought he soon would be coming home, but his progress stalled and he stayed in the hospital. His brothers, who live in Atlanta, promised to take good care of him. One was employed as a nurse at Emory and checked on him often. I talked with my son two or three times a day, but grief set in. I became depressed. I had two completed poetry manuscripts that were circulating among the poetry presses, but I did not think about that very much. One day I found myself shuffling the manuscript pages, shifting poems from one manuscript to another, changing page numbers, even changing the title of one of the manuscripts. When I told a good friend what I was doing she said, “Oh No. Don't do that.”
I know she was concerned that in my depressed state, I might ruin the manuscripts. I stopped and thought about it. I knew I was doing the right thing. Other than the life of my son, there was nothing that could keep my mind focused. There was nothing else that made me want to get out of bed in the morning. Your question is how has my writing helped me deal with grief? Practicing poetry at the most dreadful time sustained me. When my son came home to Hospice, I put my poems away. I did not need them because I had my son, and I had an important new job to learn - how to be his nurse.
GB: As Writer in Residence at the John C. Campbell Folk School, you are in contact with writers and teachers all over the United States. What do you look for in choosing faculty for the Writing Program at JCCFS?
NS: In the John C. Campbell Folk School Writing Program, I look for a writer who has book publications or is widely published in good magazines. Second, I want someone who has teaching credentials, who has taught writing before or has teacher training somewhere in their background. Third, and most important, the instructors who come to teach at JCCFS must fit into the non competitive environment. We have "no hierarchy and no lowerarchy." The best teachers can sit in a circle with their students and teach them well. Lectures go over like a lead balloon at the folk school. We now have a lovely set up with classes held in the living room of Orchard House and in the new writing studio which is attached to Orchard House. I will not say the teaching style we want is casual. No. A week at the folk school is the most intense kind of learning. But, it is not similar in any way to college classroom and never shall be. We only have 18 writing classes a year now and the schedule is filled through 2009.( now through 2010) Still, I am always on the look out for good writing instructors.
GB: You have two new poetry manuscripts finished. Give us the names of each and tell us the themes of these works. Have any of the poems in these manuscripts already been published?
NS: One is LIVING ABOVE THE FROST LINE. The other is INTO THE HEART OF THE GLACIER.The poems were written over many years. I took a NCWN Advanced Poetry Class with Kathryn Stripling Byer. What she read was one manuscript with 150 poems. Kay said it should be two different manuscripts, and she advised where to break them apart. I will always appreciate her direction. LIVING ABOVE THE FROST LINE, which was first titled Accounting, is written in the voice of a woman who lives alone on a remote mountain in Appalachia. Her concerns focus on specific values: Worth of Persons, Family and Concern for our planet. Nineteen of the poems have been published.INTO THE HEART OF THE GLACIER is also written with the same southern voice of a woman living alone on a mountain. Glacier is a love story, the ancient Eurydice story turned backward and set in our time. Twenty-two of the poems have been published.
GB: On June 7, you will teach your first poetry workshop for NCWN West. You have taught at Tri-County Community College, John C. Campbell Folk School, and the Institute of Continuing Learning at Young Harris College. How did it happen that you never taught a class for NCWN West?
NS: Thanks for inviting me. I can hardly wait to teach this Netwest Saturday Poetry workshop on June 7. To answer the question, I was the Program Coordinator and my main job was to help the representatives in each county get the kind of writing programs they wanted. At that time NCWN sponsored four Saturday workshops a year in the Netwest region. I was eager to teach, but it would not have been ethical to do so at the time I was on the NCWN payroll. I was busy editing and producing an anthology. Each county had character and ideas of its own. I worked hard at setting up critique groups, if that was what they wanted, or Saturday writing workshops. I was busy keeping two Netwest representatives in each county. It would not have been appropriate for me to teach a Netwest workshop.
I am happy to say that over the years, NCWN invited me to be on their Fall Conference program three different times. NC Women Writers invited me twice to be on their program; once when held in Asheville, and later when held in Greensboro. You can see I stayed busy, but now, yes now, I can say I am a happy woman to be invited to teach a Saturday Poetry Workshop for NCWN West.
GB: What do you expect students to take away from this coming class, Advance Your Poetry?
NS: ADVANCE YOUR POETRY is an all day workshop for practicing free verse poets. My goal is to focus on their poetry and their poetry writing process. We will talk about how they started writing poetry, where they are now in their writing careerand what is their next step, and the next, and the next. I expect the students to take away direction and a folder marked in bold letters: MY POETRY CHAPBOOK COLLECTION.
GB: Nancy, I’m delighted you took the time to answer my questions so our visitors on http://www.netwestwriters.blogspot.com/ can know more about you and about NCWN West.
NS: Glenda, thank you for asking.
Posted by Glenda at 5:54 PM May 28, 2008
Labels: Georgia Review, Literary Trails of North Carolina, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review Don’t Go Away Hungry, The Poet's Guide to the Birds, Word and Wisdom 100 Years of NC Poetry, Poet Nancy Simpson Intrerviewed by Glenda Beall
A celebration to honor Nancy Simpson's service to NCWN West was held on July 18, 2008. (Painting was a gift from fellow poet Glenda Barrett of Hiawasse, Georgia.)
Nancy Simpson continues to serve as Resident Writer at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC. She continues to teach writing. Her next class WHAT'S IN YOUR WRITING FOLDER is scheduled for Sept.13-18, 2009 at John C. Campbell.